- The Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900–1923 by Jennifer Wild
Like that of photography before it, cinema’s emergence as a conveyor of meaning represented an epistemological crisis, one in which existing categories such as art, technology, and class seemed inadequate to contain the new thing that was at once a fixed and unfixed image, a code-bearing text, and a manner of exhibition and circulation. Jennifer Wild’s Parisian Avant-Garde in the Age of Cinema, 1900–1923 situates cinema at the heart of artistic inquiry by exploring nodes of contact between emergent cinematic practices and the radically new conceptions of painting, poetry, and theater that constituted the labor of the avant-garde. The work of Wild’s text, however, is notably not in chronicling the emergence of an avant-garde cinema, but rather in the investigation of the diverse cultural practices mediating the reception of film by the public: practices of display, marketing, and framing the medium (both symbolically and architecturally) in ways that paralleled—and were perhaps actively replicated and/or rejected in—the strategies of artists seeking to break with the burdensome histories of the established “fine arts.”
Case studies include Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Francis Picabia’s diagrammatic drawings, Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, and the varied methods of disruption employed by Tristan Tzara as the promoter of Dada in both Zurich and Paris. Though each of these discussions revolves around its own set of key terms, perhaps the most important overarching concept is that of horizontality, which aptly summarizes Wild’s “historiographic method,” while also functioning to describe “a projection style” rooted in the early cinema of attractions’ foregrounding of the technological apparatus (2). In terms of method, Wild’s text cuts across disciplinary categories and the implicitly vertical boundaries defining and separating specialized fields of research in a manner enabling discussion of the richness of intermedial practice, while retaining a focus within a relatively defined geographical context and a particular historical moment. As to the functioning of horizontality as a projection style, the conception of cinema as an actively projected beam rather than a self-contained image on a vertical screen functions to describe the potential effect(s) of self-conscious distraction in the early cinema of attractions.
With these and other conceptions of horizontality always looming, the discussion of Picasso’s Demoiselles (1907) also explores the potential of transparency as a thematic vehicle. As with many of Wild’s structuring terms, transparency is employed in both a literal and a symbolic manner. In this instance, the literal use of the term refers to the exhibition technique of transparent projection, in which cinematic audiences would be seated on both sides of the screen. The effect of this practice was an experience in which it was possible to look alternately (if not simultaneously) at and through the screen. This, then, becomes the metaphor for cubist painting in which one might see an image while also seeing through the image to the flatness of the canvas as a surface bearing paint, revealing, in Wild’s words, the image’s “semiological arbitrariness and the nonsubstantial character of the sign” (52).
In the following chapter, Wild frames the work of Picabia in relation to the concept of diagrammicity. Again, the term has a literal applicability in that many of Picabia’s drawings of the early teens are visually analogous to diagrams. (They are, however, also confounding in a way [End Page 434] that seems to mock the explanatory economy of a sincerely rendered infographic). Of particular interest here is Picabia’s Mechanical Expression Seen Through Our Own Mechanical Expression (1913), which appears to include a misspelled reference to the film actress Stacia Napierkowska (spelled Npierkowska in the image). Picabia met Napierkowska on the transatlantic voyage that brought him to New York, and Wild builds a convincing case for her role as a source of inspiration in this and other works by the artist. For Wild, the diagram as a marker of...