Marina Warner

photo by Kim Noce

Marina Warner gave a wonderful talk in the Barbican Art Gallery last week, in relation to the Watch me Move Show, specifically she was talking about the history of shadow play in relation to Lotte Reiniger, Kara Walker and William Kentridge.  Just as she does in her brilliant books, Marina Warner managed to both ground the subject of shadow in history and set it free to enjoy quite new associations, it was all in all, a very envigorating experience for the brain.

The Corinthian Maid or The Origin of Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby 1782
(NGA, Washington)

I’m still trying to put the pieces together myself, and this is a very limited account to help my memory and further thoughts.  She started with Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting of Dibutades recording the sleeping silhouette of her lover, just before he departs on a perilous journey, with only a spear and a dog to protect him.
Philip James de Loutherberg was the creator of the Eidophusikon presented in Leicester square in 1781. This was a 6ft by 8ft miniature mechanical theatre in which lamps, pulleys and stained glass slides were used to recreate dramatic scenes from nature.  It must have been very exciting but certainly eclipsed by the “fantasmagorie” of Etienne Gaspard “Robertson” Robert which took place in the Capuchin Convent near the Place Vendome.  The residents and visitors to post-revolutionary Paris were delighted to be frightened out of their wits with his show which depicted ghosts and skeletons emerging from a lightening-filled sky.  He created these effects by using multiple projectors, a magic lantern on wheels, a waxed screen and eerie sound effects.
The shadow moved from mass entertainment to the home in the Victorian era, when there was a need to be seen to contain the fear and control the phantoms but also entertain all those children tumbling around the parlour.   It looked as if Dad got his scissors out and made shadows on the wall with the help of a candle.  This was also the time of Arthur Rackham, who used his scissors to make silhouettes as well as the wonderful drawings, this one below is from Cinderella.

Marina Warner showed a lovely image of Lotte Reiniger’s magical trick table, which she thought of as a magic horse or flying machine in which was able to take flight as an artist and filmmaker.  She told us that through listening to other writers on film (one of whom I remember was Ian Christie) she had been interested in the idea that the characters depicted in Reiniger’s work are not shadows that materialise on the screen, but entities in their own right.

As well as outlining the historical background she also touched upon the concept of shadow and the material of shadow and it’s metaphorical association with shade and darkness.  In this context she showed the works of William Kentridge and Kara Walker, both of whom embrace the political aspects of the material that they work with.  They both deserve more than a few sentences at the end here so I shall endeavour to write about them again.  In brief, Kara Walker revisits sites of ‘darkness’ in the American consciousness by satirising the literature of abolition, slavery and the civil war using enormous silhouettes, which are beautiful and very difficult to look at.  William Kentridge uses a direct animation method (as I often do).  He draws on an enormous piece of paper with charcoal and erases each frame before recording a new one, he refers to his method as ‘stone age’ animation, and Marina Warner suggested that he does this to ‘thicken time and add memory’.  I think I can see what he means.

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