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Early? Moving Pictures? Get New Presentation

LG Electronics' flat screen LCD monitors are showcased at Williams College Museum exhibit.

Which is better, a movie or a painting?

The question is confounding: Each has its unique qualities and characteristics and stands on its own, but an innovative new exhibit at The Williams College Museum of Art boldly places paintings alongside early films to show how artists and audiences of the late 1800s-early 1900s bounced back and forth between the two media, according to Nancy Mowll Mathews, the Eug?nie Prendergast Senior Curator of 19th and 20th Century Art at the Williamstown, MA-based museum (

“Many of the early ‘motion photographers’ were actually artists or photographers who worked at newspapers and were heavily influenced by the painters of that period, including Impressionistic, Realistic, and even the new-style American Ashcan School that focused on urban subject matter and the ways,” she says. “We’ve created an exhibit with paintings and films that were made at roughly the same time. These early films quite naturally echoed established currents in American art. By 1900, the influence was going both ways.”

In the exhibit ? entitled Moving Pictures ? paintings are placed alongside LG Electronics’ high-performance LCD monitors that display early film snippets. Mathews and her team selected 20 high quality (1366 x 768p Resolution) 37- and 42-inch LG Electronics flat screen displays. “We wanted a look for the museum exhibit that downplayed the monitor and highlighted the image it was presenting,” she says. “These [LG Electronics] monitors, which are mounted on the walls next to the paintings, are excellent complements. They have discreet black frames which is in keeping with our emphasis on performance. We want audiences to see what the artists saw.

“At the turn of the century, ‘motion photographers’ considered what they were creating were pictures that just happened to move,” she explains. “They viewed them as [contemporary] art. In fact, many of the screens they were projected on were edged with heavy gold frames, much like how an oil painting would be displayed.” Though Mathews toyed with the idea of encasing the LG Electronics LCD monitors in period frames, in the end she opted for the more restrained look of the standard black casing.

The monitors, which are linked to concealed DVD players, show “moving pictures” drawn primarily from the Edison, Lumi?re, and American Mutoscope and Biograph companies while the accompanying paintings are by such American artists as Thomas Eakins, George Luks, John Sloan, and George Bellows. This exhibition includes over 150 paintings, posters, and photographs and 50 films, representing the development of moving picture technology in the 1890s and the wave of creativity the medium generated among artists.

The selected films represent the earliest celluloid experiments, notes Mathews. “Often Thomas Edison would tell his assistants, ‘Go film this or that,’ and his assistants might come back with a short film of, say, a man posing and flexing his muscles.” That film is matched up with “Studies of Male Nudes,” a charcoal sketch by John Singer Sargent (see above illustrations). “Both paintings and films emphasize movement,” Mathews adds, which was crucial to the illusion of lifelikeness in both media. B]oth art and film explore issues of perception and understanding of reality that were part of the intellectual climate of their day.”

After the show wraps up at Williams College in December, the exhibition travels to three other museums. “The tour continues through the spring of 2007,” she says, “and the monitors will be playing for eight hours a day, six days a week for two years.”

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