The Language of Motion

Eadweard Muybridge photographic locomotion study of horse galloping

It all started with a bet. Leland Stanford, who went on to found Stanford University, bet that when a horse gallops there is a moment when all four hooves leave the ground. At the time this was nearly impossible to prove so he hired the photographer Eadweard Muybridge to help him. Muybridge devised a series of cameras connected to trip wires, each of which captured a single motion as a horse ran by. And yes, all four hooves do leave the ground at once. Muybridge continued these locomotion studies, influencing filmmakers and painters alike.

Today, I thought I’d look at a selection of artists who’ve come after Muybridge. For some, the design principle of motion is an important concern in their work, for others just a tool to use to achieve a larger goal.

I was overwhelmed when I began to list work to include in this post and so I’ve fallen back on my favorite resource – our Pinterest boards, specifically the board for Motion and Time, which corresponds to the last chapter in our book Design: A Beginner’s Handbook.

Painting by Giacomo Balla of a dog in motion

At the beginning of the 20th century the conventions of painting were being disrupted. The machine age emerging out of the 19th century had become an age of speed, of collapsing geography, of unlimited possibilities. In the painting shown above Giacomo Balla, part of the Italian Futurist Movement, played off of the stop-motion sensibility of Muybridge’s work. Rather than separate the frames of action Balla superimposed them. As viewers we know that the little dog doesn’t have 20 legs, instead reading the painting as a depiction of frantic activity.

Abstract painting by Marcel Duchamp of Nude Descending a Staircase

Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2,” by Marcel Duchamp was considered shocking in 1912 when it was painted. Duchamp fractured the form of the “nude” into individual abstract shapes. Like Balla, Duchamp separated and then superimposed a series of still positions on top of each other to imply movement.

In addition to overlapping forms there are other devices used to depict motion in a two-dimensional space.

Collage painting by Margaret Kilgallen

Sometimes implying motion is as simple as showing the viewer what they already know. Margaret Kilgallen paints a plane in the sky and a person riding a bike. From experience we know that both the plane and the bike must be in motion to maintain stability.

Drawing of a man drinking by Bill Traylor

In Bill Traylor’s drawing of a man drinking we recognize a non-stable body position. Is he dancing? Leaping? The one thing we do know is that by the laws of physics he can’t be standing still.

Mixed media painting by Jasper Johns "Fools House"

Fool’s House, by Jasper Johns incorporates a three-dimensional object in the form of a broom. It’s impossible to look at the painting without seeing the action of the broom sweeping the paint surface. The painting records the activity of this moving brush.

Sculptural art installation with hand tools, saws, cutting devices by Damian Ortega

The same type of implied action, or it’s aftermath, is evident in the sculptural installation, “Controller of the Universe,” by Damian Ortega. Ortega has suspended small hand tools, saws, and other cutting instruments in a radiating pattern. I can almost hear the sound of the explosion and see the items hurtling away from the center.

Drawing machine with red lipstick drawing by Angela Bulloch

Some artists mimic action while others construct kinetic works that actually move. Angela Bulloch has built a machine for drawing. Adding a bit of humor (and perhaps a social statement) the pen holds red lipstick. If the painting is exhibited without the machine is it still kinetic?

Kinetic sculpture with performer by Rebecca Horn

The German artist Rebecca Horn is famous for her films and installations of performers and kinetic objects. The “Feathered Prison Fan” was featured in her film “Der Eintanzer.” The fan opens and closes, masking and revealing the person standing within.

Whirlpool sculptural art installation by Anish Kapoor

Imagine walking into a gallery and hearing the sound of roaring water. Even before you see the work you know that there is activity. In the installation shown above Anish Kapoor built a dark black whirlpool in the gallery floor. Powered by motors the water churned and roiled.

Next week I’ll present several artists who extend the possibilities of the design principle of Motion.

One last thing, earlier I mentioned our Pinterest board, Motion and Time. I suggest you also view the boards Line and Rhythm. When you look at the images think about the idea of motion. You’ll be surprised how many of the pieces, even the purely abstract ones, convey a sense of movement. Ask yourself why.

This entry was posted in Artists and Designers, Elements and Principles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *