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September 21, 2010 / scherstuhl

Thomas Edison and Carrie Nation killed beauty: OR, Popova, Klee and the century of motion at the Norton Simon Museum

At its dawning, American century had the metabolism of a hummingbird, of the stock-ticker, of a cranked-up Ford all a-throb with potential. Here was the century of mechanized motion, a world where nothing – not beliefs nor soldiers nor images themselves – seemed like it would ever stay still again.

Since 1888, the Edison Company had been pumping out movies. In 1900, the first Nickoledeons opened, and a year later Edison produced a remarkable first: The Kansas Saloon Smashers, a spirited send-up of that old battleaxe Carrie Nation.

The Irishman drinks. The cop falls on his ass.  And most essentially a prim and intolerant know-it-all is made to look ridiculous. What appears to me the first-ever true mass-media satire is composed of much the same stuff as today’s. (YouTube, of course, is today’s Nickleodeon.)

Movies were such populist fun that in a 1915 suit the Supreme Court declared their exhibition “a business pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit.”

So movies weren’t art, but art didn’t move, even when a painter like Duchamp, inspired by and probably satirizing film, layered image over image on a canvas in the guise of capturing movement. Of his Nude Descending a Staircase (1913), The New York Times sniffed that it looked like “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Theodore Roosevelt shouted “This isn’t art!”

All this comes together – and then shatters apart – in Liubov Popova’s “The Traveler,” an anxious kaleidoscope of movement certain to leave ol’ TR bullmoosing his way right out of Pasadena’s Norton Simon Museum. Completed in 1915, Popova’s canvas suggests broken mirrors and conflagration. Long jags of image reflect and attack each other, a riot of sharp iscoleses crammed up with detail: a cleft of pale mouth, a curl of manuscript, swatches of bunting striped red and white, and mostly cones and colors neither representational nor abstract.

"The Traveler," 1915, Norton Simon Museum. Photo by the awesome Ian Evenstar.

Banners and Russian text suggest a nation at full boil, probably appropriate for Popova’s Moscow. But look at The Traveler long enough and a face emerges, and what might be a tri-cornered hat and a jeweled necklace. This process takes a while. You could probably watch a half-dozen Edison films before you’ve worked out whether the central figure is a soldier or a woman of aristocratic bearing. (For me, it tilts between George Washington and Bea Arthur.)

A Norton Simon placard assures us it’s a woman seated on a train. In that sense it’s something of a still-life, except life isn’t still anymore, so as she hurtles along she and her world suffer the full Cubist-Futurist crack-up. Face and train, time and distance, background and foreground: it’s all sliced up but overlapping, all separate but one at once.

Her travel is terrifying. No wonder just last year the CDC put it on the cover of a journal called Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Fortunately, we adapt. Seventeen years later, when the movements and manifestoes of the earliest 20th century art had themselves shattered into irreconcilable jags, some artists had worked out what had been obvious to Edison’s public. Moving pictures aren’t alienating.

Just one gallery over at the Norton Simon, a patron shaken by Popova can seek refuge in Paul Klee’s Possibilities at Sea, a playful rebus of a painting whose title alone indicates a welcome reappraisal of what this new century might offer: possibilities.

Paul Klee, "Possibilities at Sea," 1932, Norton Simon Museum. Photo by the still-awesome Ian Evenstar.

Patrons regarding Klee’s canvas most likely won’t have to appeal to the museum’s placard. In fact, Possibilities at Sea quite literally teaches viewers how to look at it, a claim some critics make for all art but that here, for once, works out in real life. Over a flat black polygon shaped with the gentle naïveté of a child’s construction-paper go at a knight’s shield, Klee has arranged simple, striking elements that the eye tracks from left to right like text on a page. First a luminous slice of moon, and then a plump black arrow, pointing down, to a blue line of ocean. Beneath the sea’s surface a thicker black line undulates, calling to mind Charlie Brown’s shirt or the mustache of the Pringle’s guy.

(It’s fitting that Klee, a design-struck faculty member of the Bauhaus school, suggests these later characters, each simple, well designed, as much product as art.)

This tideline tugs the eye along to the right, where, on the surface of the water, traced white rhomboids somehow come together to signify “sailboat.” Above this, a final arrow eases our attention to the right, to the sun, and to the generous edge of the canvas. Klee gives us not just motion and its laws but also its joys. He reminds us, as film does, that motion can bring us together as much as it splits us apart. We are its discontents but also its beneficiaries.

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