Specks of white light dance across a black background in the opening scene of “Le Retour A La Raison,” a 1923 film by Man Ray. The scene cuts to a shot of several pins bouncing around, before returning again to the scattered white light. The following scenes show several highly textural objects, including a spring, a rolled-up piece of paper and the flashing lights of a carousel, in a black and white space. The film’s final scene features a nude woman with light filtering through a nearby curtain creating precise shadows crisscrossing her pale skin.
“Le Retour A La Raison” was one of several films shown in “Culture of Light: Early Twentieth-Century Art Film.” This film screening on Sunday was the final installment in Black and White Film Series at the Addison Gallery of American Art. Designed in conjunction with the Addison exhibit “Light/Dark, Black/White,” each screening in Black and White Film Series aimed to further investigate the symbolism of black and white through short and feature-length films. “Culture of Light: Early Twentieth-Century Art Film” focused on light in relation to black and white.
Kelley Tialiou, Charles H. Sawyer Curatorial Assistant at the Addison and coordinator of Black and White Film Series, said, “Light is the common thread between all of these films, but [the filmmakers] are all approaching light from their perspective as a painter or sculptor. The medium of film is just emerging as an artistic medium during the time period of these films, so they are just bringing with them what they know from painting and sculpture and discovering a new way to express light and shadow through film.”
Black and white spirals dominate “Anémic Cinéma,” Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 film that was also shown at the screening. One spiral fills the screen at a time, swirling at a slow pace. Each spiral is followed by another that has slightly thicker lines than the last, creating depth amongst the black and white shapes. Images of rotating disks, each scrawled with French text, appear between shots of the spirals. The repetition of turning circles gives the approximately six-minute-long video a hypnotizing quality.
“[Duchamp’s] imagery seems kind of repetitive, but what’s fascinating is that all of these images are produced manually. So today, if we were to make something similar, there is a digital way in which it would be quite easy to produce those sequences. But by making those glass disks rotate in a dark space, every sequence is made in a painstaking way, and there are a lot of technical considerations that make them look that way,” said Tialiou.
“There’s something mesmerising about [Anémic Cinéma], as you focus on the center of the spiral and it kind of draws you in. It almost has this hypnotising quality that ties into some of the other films that came out of the surrealist movement, which also have this dream like quality. It’s like the imagery of the subconscious. They have this transporting effect,” continued Tialiou.
Also shown was Viking Eggeling’s “Symphonie Diagonale,” which starts with several white lights swiftly flashing onto the black screen before quickly disappearing. This rapid movement continues for several moments before a variety of other white lines, either combined into small and rectangular patterns or large and sweeping arrangements, appear on the screen. No matter what their shape, all the lines appear and vanish quickly, giving the seven minute video a fast and fluid tempo.
“Out of all of the artists represented by these films, [Eggeling] was actually the least involved in the technical aspect of making the film because he made the drawings and then his collaborator actually turned them into films for him. So he was a little more removed and abstracted, in the sense [that] he didn’t actually make the film,” said Tialiou.
Also shown was László Moholy-Nagy’s “Light Play Black-White-Gray,” which depicts the Light Space Modulator, a sculpture comprised of movable metal and glass fixtures that Moholy-Nagy made himself. The camera takes close-ups of the object, with geometric shadows fluttering behind its smooth surface, gleaming mirrors and turning mechanical gears.
Audience member Mae Zhao ’18 said, “I liked how all the silent art films that were shown were very abstract and allowed the viewer to interpret the meaning behind them… I also thought it was very interesting how artists play with light and shade to make art – it’s not something you see everyday.”