Art Term Tuesday: Movement

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

An abstract sculpture of 24 stainless steel lines that, when moved, brush against each other.
George Rickey, American, 1907-2002. Twenty-Four Lines. Stainless steel, 1968. Gift of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Alliance, Weatherhead Foundation, and Mrs. Edward Auer, 1986.02. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

When I think of our next principle of art, movement, I think back to the experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, who famously invented methods for capturing in photographs phenomena that happen too quickly for our eyes to observe. Beginning with a galloping horse in 1878, Muybridge conducted motion studies on a variety of animals and people doing different activities that went on to be hugely influential to the development of the motion picture, as well as the artistic movements that followed (which is not the kind of movement we’re discussing today). Eventually, artists like Alexander Calder and George Rickey (left) took the idea of movement further, creating mobiles and other kinetic sculptures that actually move, sometimes thanks to a motor but more often from atmospheric conditions. In Twenty Four Lines, each sliver of metal balances just so on a small hook, tilting slowly with the airflow in the space and prompting viewers to slow down likewise, watching. Unlike Twenty Four Lines, most artwork does not physically move, but artists can imply a sense of motion, either by leading our eyes to move around their work or by depicting an object or figure in motion. Movement can be fast or slow, flowing or choppy. It can lend a sense of excitement, move a narrative forward, or draw our attention to a focal point (see last month’s post on emphasis).

A print of a woman and man dancing rumba with a band playing behind them. The woman's hand is raised and she lifts her skirts while the man bows to her.
Miguel Covarrubias, Mexican, 1904-1957. Rumba. Lithograph on paper, 1945. Museum purchase with funds provided by the McMurray Family Endowment, 2013.66. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Miguel Covarrubias’ Rumba depicts a dancing couple in the foreground, while musicians play behind them. Rumba is essentially a snapshot: the dancers are frozen mid-move in positions that we know would be difficult (or impossible) to hold. Both figures are shown with their weight on one foot, and the man holds a scarf that forms a gravity-defying “S” curve. Their bodies and limbs are all diagonal lines, while the musicians are comparatively upright, adding to the distinction between motion and stillness. In a representational work like this one, we can rely on our general knowledge and experience to tell us that these figures are moving, but the visual elements employed by the artist further the effect.

An abstract painting of large washes of color against a stark, white background. The purple, blues, reds, and pinks overlap to create zigzagging motion.
Claudia Walde, German, b. 1980. 19:34-20102021. Acrylic, watercolor, and spray paint on canvas, 2021. Loan from the Artist. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

We see more diagonal lines in Claudia Walde’s abstract painting above, currently on view in Next Wave–the only vertical lines are made by dripping paint! Each element in the work is a record of the artist’s (or the paint’s) motions. Imagine how Walde was moving as she painted this. Due to the thinned, translucent paint, each stroke is visible, so her motions needed to be deliberate and sure. Most marks start solid, then feather to the white background, so we can infer that she picked up speed as she dragged her brush across the canvas. Here, movement allows us to step into the artist’s shoes, connecting the finished work with the act of making it.

A painting of ribbons in Byzantine style with purples, reds, yellows, and greens.
Liz Quisgard, American, b. 1929. Ribbons #2. Acrylic on canvas, 1989. Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 2019.122. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

In the Liz Quisgard painting above, the titular ribbons glide around the canvas like conveyor belts and, as they do, they lead our eyes to do the same. It is abstract like the work by Walde, but also creates an imaginary space that is less about the paint and more about the illusion of depth and actual motion. Up close, there is more movement as Quisgard’s signature dots lend a shimmery, vibrating effect.

A realistic rendering of a woman walking in red heels, swinging a yellow bag, around the canvas. She appears three times, in the foreground, background, and middle ground. She appears to walk around a downtown pool with a shopping center in the top left corner.
Ellie Siskind, American, 1934-2019. Going Nowhere. Acrylic on canvas, 1979. Gift of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art Alliance, 1979.03. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Repetition can also lend a sense of implied movement. In Ellie Siskind’s Going Nowhere, not only are the figures depicted physically in motion, the repetition of the same striding woman implies the passage of time as she continues her loop around a pool. The strong diagonal lines of her arms, legs, and swinging purse convey a dynamic sense of purpose–she may be Going Nowhere, but she’s going fast.

A sculpture, made of 46 pieces, that stands in the atrium of the museum. Made up of abstract, sculpted pieces of glass in orange, red, and pink.
Martin Blank, American, b. 1962. Repose in Amber. Hot-sculpted glass and steel, 2004. Gift of Joel and Nancy Barnett, 2019.198.1-46. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

For sculptors working in three dimensions, movement can help activate both the surrounding space and the viewer. Any sculpture-in-the round should be viewed from all sides, but the successful use of movement, particularly in large-scale or installation-based work, can keep viewers engaged. Martin Blank’s Repose in Amber winds down our hallway, its individual components curving and swooping around each other. Its construction as separate islands of glass allows us to walk around and between it, investigating each facet of the work. In order for our eyes to wander the sculpture like they would a painting, our bodies must do the same!

A photograph of a blurry child running through the doors of an abandoned monastery.
Michelle Andonian, American, b. 1958. 4th-13th c. Geghard Monastery, Armenia. Archival pigment print, 2020-21. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Let’s do an experiment: hold your hand in front of your face and wave it back and forth as fast as you can. What do you see? It’s probably blurry! Just like our eyes, cameras are sometimes unable to focus on an object in motion, especially if the scene is dark. If we’re hoping to document an event or snap a group photo, most of us probably try again if the image is blurry, but photographers sometimes embrace the blur for expressive purposes. Far from Muybridge’s work that allowed for scientific study of motion, the child in Michelle Andonian’s photo, above, appears almost translucent as they streak across the image, lending a playful liveliness to an otherwise still scene (or is it a ghost?).

It can be difficult to explain just how a work of art conveys movement, especially when the answer seems obvious. Next time you visit a museum, see if you can identify different techniques for creating movement in the works. What impact does this sense of motion have on you, the viewer?

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