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“Finally the cinema!” : the Musée d’Orsay exhibits the beginnings of cinematography in art

Until Impressionism, the visual arts tended to represent reality as accurately as possible. However, he escaped representation, movement and time. Until January 16, 2022, the Musée d’Orsay is exhibiting works covering the period 1833 to 1907 which herald this challenge that the cinema has taken up.

With the first Industrial Revolution, accelerated by the rail network in the 1840s, the awareness of time was transformed. The emergence of an unprecedented speed allowing faster travel, productivity and the expansion of bustling cities, are part of a redefined time. It is expressed in the art of the nineteenth century in works heralding cinema.

At the entrance of the exhibition Finally the cinema!, Pygmalion and Galatea (1890) by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1890) recalls that the relationship between art and movement dates back to the myth of Ovid (Metamorphoses), where a statue turns into a living being. Closer to us, after the invention of photography in the 1830s, movement became one of the major concerns of art and science. In painting or photography, framing suggests the emergence of figures from the painting, cut off in their tracks, which seem to escape from the canvas or the cliché. The Bridge of Europe (1876-77) by Caillebotte is remarkable from this point of view, by framing silhouettes in the metallic architecture of the structure near the Saint-Lazare station in Paris.

From 1892 to 94, Claude Monet painted the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of the day. It animates the shadows and translates the “displacement” of the sun in the sky from canvas to canvas. Dioramas (panoramic paintings) are illuminated at the back of the painting by a bulb, changing a landscape from light to semi-darkness. The beauty and cohesion of the works on display respond to each other by evoking a new era, in which the understanding and representation of movement would be the common denominator. At the same time, the films shown nearby highlight the connections between painting, photography and cinema.

Since the 17th century, the projections of magic lanterns have experimented with techniques to animate their still images: this is the precinema. The techniques will become considerably sophisticated until the 19th century. Then from the 1830s, the “phenatiskiscope”, “zoetrope”, and other “praxinoscope”, are as many processes allowing to see animate drawings by rotating a ribbon in a cylinder.


Reduced to children’s toys, they will lead to Luminous pantomimes by Emile Raynaud in 1882, ancestor of the cartoon and major stage of the “precinema”. He invented the use of a flexible transparent film allowing the projection of successive painted vignettes which, by scrolling in front of a projector, give the illusion of animated subjects.

Jules Edouard Marey (1830-1904) invented the same year the chronophotography which makes it possible to visualize on a snapshot the decomposition of the movement (man walking, jumping, or galloping horse…). Physiologist, his scientific approach will have a decisive impact on the invention of the Lumière cinematograph thirteen years later.

Jules-Etienne Marey (1830-1904) "Descent from an inclined plane" 1882 - Negative on gelatin-silver bromide positive glass plate 18.2 x 23.9 cm - France, Paris, Cinémathèque Française.  (Photo © Collection LA CINEMATHEQUE FRANCAISE)

His photographs, for example, have lifted the secret of galloping, the representation of which was previously erroneous in horse painting. The results of his research also constitute works of art in their own right.

The modern city is an inexhaustible subject of painting at the time of its expansion under the impetus of industry. Pissarro and Sysley have given wonderful paintings that visualize the new energy that inhabits the city. Tingling passers-by (The French Theater Square, 1898, Pissarro), birth of the working class (The Las, 1897, Jules Rivière), urban nocturnes (Colone Morris, circa 1900, Gabriel Bessy)… reflect the restless effervescence of a nascent urbanity.

Dance, the art of movement, was turned upside down by the American Loïe Fuller who gave her first Serpentine dance in Brooklyn in 1892, before migrating to Paris. Dressed in a loose silk coat and fitted with two chopsticks which allow it to be extended by the movement of the arms, “the Fuller” hypnotizes the whole world. Her twirling choreographies, which she illuminated with a thousand lights, as a pioneer in the use of electricity on stage, have toured the world. Copied and photographed a thousand times, she always refused to be filmed on the grounds that the cinema did not reflect her performances. Others will pose for her, in images without which one could not visualize one of the most famous shows of the Belle Epoque.

The Lumière brothers were intimate with Monet, Cézanne and Renoir. This is found in the card parts of the early films and garden scenes, where the glitter of the sun in the foliage amazed more than the baby’s meal. The crashing waves on the shores of the Lumière films or the Wave effects (1906) by Alice Guy, are also inspired by Impressionist subjects.

The first shooting operators launched all over the world, used their knowledge of painting to frame their images. The depth of field of Pilgrims going to Mecca (1861, Léon Belly) is found in Camel caravan (Alexandre Promio, Lumière view n ° 407, 1897).

Reconciliations that extend to fiction, especially in historical reconstructions. Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1880, Luc-Olivier Merson) dialogue with The Flight into Egypt (Alexandre Promio, Lumière view n ° 934, 1897), or The latest cartridges (Alphonse de Neuville, 1873) foreshadows the eponymous film by Alexandre Promio (see Lumière n ° 934, 1897).

The first microscopic shots reveal invisible cellular ballets that herald the abstraction of a Kandinsky, and the hand-colorization of the films materializes the symbiosis between painting and moving images. Finally, the representation of the body is at the heart of the correspondence between plastic arts and cinema. The athletes of Greek statuary find themselves in the gymnastic and acrobatic scenes of the cinematograph, exalting physical performances and spectacular movements. The nude, red thread of the plastic arts for centuries, will be exported in more licentious productions, naughty works where maids and pretty neighbors strip their leaves in front of voyeurs who share their vice with the spectator.

Finally the cinema! is the first exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay to take the 7th art as a fundamental subject. It reflects its vocation dedicated to the 19th century, when art, science and society jointly participate in the emergence of cinema. Canvases, photographs, film extracts, posters, works of art and techniques, in a beautiful welcoming museography, give a synthetic vision, exhilarating for the eye and the mind.

“Cinema at last! Arts, images and shows in France (1833-1907)” at Mused Orsay until January 16, 2022.

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