Still & Moving Beauty
Are images incomplete unless they are moving ones? The power of a single image, freezing a moment in time, has arguably become less important with the widespread use of film and video. While the static image continues to wield power for most of us, it is the image in motion that completely captures our attention. Or at least that is what the latest short video, Beauty, from Italian director Rino Stefano Tagliafierro seems to imply.
Released earlier this month the film, through the use of some clever digital animation, brings masterpieces by artists such as Caravaggio, Vermeer and Rubens ‘to life’, appropriating the tradition of pictorial beauty from the Renaissance to the Symbolism of the late 1800s, through Mannerism, Pastoralism, Romanticism and Neo-classicism. According to Giuliano Corti, who wrote the piece’s manifesto, “It’s as though these images which the history of art has consigned to us as frozen movement can today come back to life thanks to the fire of digital invention…They are, from the inception of a romantic sunrise in which big black birds fly to the final sunset beyond gothic ruins that complete the piece, a work of fleeting time”.
Tagliafierro’s digital moving canvases may aim to render oil paintings more relatable, more immediate, to the present-day viewer, but both national and art press coverage of the film has been decidedly mixed. It has been variously described as “quite clever”, “evocative”, “a memento mori of our times”, “a soothing bit of CGI”, “disturbing”, and “unsettling kitsch”. The Guardian’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, clearly doesn’t approve, outlining how bringing the world’s most sensual paintings to life kills them: “In the end the stillness of paintings is not a lack or a failure – it is not something we have to digitally put right. The power of Caravaggio lies in his creation of moments of intense drama that are suspended forever – the dynamism and danger is all the greater for being arrested in a fraction of time.”
But what if, as the eminent art historian Ernst Gombrich argued in his brilliant essay Moment and Movement in Art, there is no instant in perception? What if the entire premise of the static point in time (the punctum temporis) is false? It may seem as if visual art is all seen at once, in an instant, but it takes time to see a painting. Time does not stand still when we look at a picture. We build the picture up in time, Gombrich writes, and hold “the bits and pieces we scan in readiness till they fall into places as an imaginable object or event”; we scan “backward and forward in time and space”. As he says, even an instantaneous photograph “records the traces of movement, a sequence of events, however brief”.
Movement is a great temptation in painting. When we see objects that are partly invisible, they can sometimes look as if they are moving (this is known as the Poggendorff illusion). From Donatello to the Italian Futurists, artists and sculptors have sought to change our experience of time, playing with static images to arouse in us the memories and anticipations of movement – giving us the chance to use the power of our imagination.
Perhaps, when we immerse ourselves in a painting or a photograph, the image in motion and the image frozen in time are not so far apart after all. Are Tagliafierro and his critics both right? Perhaps the changeless can represent change. May be we can make pictures move….but what do you think?