Phillips Offers Artful Ode to Early Films’ Influence

Posted February 14, 2007 at 4:44pm

If the slanted angle of the boat in John Sloan’s 1907 painting “The Wake of the Ferry II” strikes you as downright cinematic, you’re probably on to something.

Ash Can artists such as Sloan “were watching films from the very beginning,” said Susan Behrends Frank, coordinating curator of a new exhibit, “Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film,” opening Saturday at the Phillips Collection. That said, they couldn’t help but absorb lessons from these early movies when it came to translating their vision onto canvas.

The exhibit offers a rare chance to see dozens of artworks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries displayed alongside 44 flat-screen monitors playing 53 grainy, black-and-white films related to the subjects of the paintings. (For instance, Sloan’s work is sandwiched between two films from inventor Thomas Edison’s eponymous Edison Manufacturing Company — one of the early pioneers in projected film — depicting the experience of a storm-tossed ferry at sea and also close-ups of undulating waves.)

Beginning with the first commercial motion picture, Edison’s 1893 peephole view film “Blacksmithing Scene,” the exhibit takes the viewer on a tour of the relationship between film and art — from filmmakers’ early reliance on scenic nature views that had been popular for years with painters, such as shots of various waterfalls, to the artists’ incorporations of cinematic approaches in their paintings, Frank said. Case in point: George Bellows’ marvelous 1911 canvas depicting a traffic-jammed square in New York City replete with skyscrapers, pedestrians and ghostly gray trees. The scene doesn’t represent any particular place, Frank said, but is “spliced together” from different aspects of the Big Apple, many of which can be seen in the film “Lower Broadway” that debuted nearly a decade before Bellows painted the picture.

The exhibit also features plenty of curiosities, including films showing the male body in motion. Edison’s 1894 take on a muscle-bound man, the body builder Eugen Sandow sporting nothing more than a pair of briefs with a revealing view of his bare tush, is certainly one of the more humorous inclusions. (It’s shown not far from John Singer Sargent’s charcoal sketches of male nudes.) Watch this Victorian-era hunk as he preens for the camera and flexes his glutes. Now that’s a show.

“Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film” is on view from Feb. 17 to May 20 at the Phillips Collection, located at 1600 21st St. NW. For more information, go to www.phillipscollection.org.