Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lumière! Le cinéma inventé @ Grand Palais

Auguste et Louis Lumière en 1895
when the cinema was invented
I am always wary of exhibitions that feature  light sensitive films in a museum space. Films made to be projected in a darkened movie theatre, seen by a seated, stationary audience just don’t translate to projections on white walls or monitors in fully lit galleries. That said, after teaching silent and experimental film on DVD with poor projection facilities for a whole semester I could have sat for hours in the reconstructed theatre of the Grand Café watching the 15 minute program from that auspicious December night in 1895. I didn’t care about the gaudy décor, I was entranced by the experience of watching the real deal, 35mm film being projected. The grain of the worn image, the clarity of the light, the sound the projector in the background, none of it can be replaced by video, digital or computer generated images. I am lucky to have access to many places in Paris where I can see silent film projected, but I wonder how many of the visitors to this exhibition will have seen such wonders on screen? Unexpectedly, this is one of the great treats of the Lumières exhibition now on display at the Grand Palais.
The first film, workers leaving the factory, 1895
This comprehensive exhibition of the Lumières inventions is all but the transplant of the Lyon museum to the Grand Palais in Paris. The rooms are filled with treasures – images, inventions, apparatuses, documents and historical information on their technological developments of which the cinema is just the beginning. In the factory, they made the cameras for still images, the glass plates, the processing dyes, and all manner of cameras, apparatuses and other technologies. In addition to the display of their inventions, all of the extant Lumières films are exhibited in some way throughout the exhibition, whether on interactive touch screens, in video installations or in the Grand Café replica. The invented technologies themselves are very beautiful objects. Made of wood and brass and glass, with handles and lenses that can be seen and many times touc
hed, they are fascinating to see in motion.
Repas familial Lumière en 1910 à la Ciotat (avec Louis Lumière
Plaque Autochrome Lumière
My favourite part of the exhibition were the colour photographs. I had no idea that the Lumières extended their skills to colour photographs. Of course I didn’t because this was thirty years before the techniques were developed by others. And the resultant photographs are absolutely gorgeous. The light in an image such as La neige à Chamonix, a winter landscape at day’s end is varied and crystal clear, with the shadows of the wintry trees cast long and atmospherically across the pink coloured snow. The image captures a sensitivity that is marveled at in photographs made 30 years later. Other examples, such as Ciel d’orage are extremely painterly, with the swelling clouds given three dimensionality by the clarity of the blue sky, and Repas familial Lumière, en 1910 with its dappled sunlight and bourgeoise lunching party is all but a repetition of Renoir’s most famous painting, Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876). Equally as surprising was that the colours were fast and had not degraded as did so many images from these early periods. Like so many of the Lumières inventions, these exquisite images were way ahead of their time.

The Lumières kept inventing way beyond the capacity of the world to keep up with them. Even when there was no audience for their images, they were inventing them, even when the technology had not or could not yet be developped, the Lumières were there with a solution. It was astounding to see their inventions of panorama, real 360 degree moving images. And then they also invented 3D well before the capacity of technology to produce the ideas. As inventors, the Lumière brothers did so much more than invent the moving images, and anyone who thinks they know all there is to know about the Lumières will still enjoy seeing the cinema in the context of this vast body of work.

All images courtesy Institut Lumière

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