- Hand-Painted AbstractionsExperimental Color in the Creation and Restoration of Ballet mécanique
Given the canonical status in avant-garde media history of Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet mécanique (1924), its preservation history is perhaps surprisingly complex. As a consequence, it has been the object of many debates on the practice and ethics of restoration and reconstruction.1 In 2011, EYE Film Institute Netherlands, in collaboration with the Haghefilm Foundation, carried out the most recent restoration work of the film and employed coloring techniques as used in the 1920s. Although the work conducted did not result in a new projection copy, the project remains a potential next step in the evolving restoration history of Ballet mécanique.
Still, one wonders how to position this restoration work that did not result in an exhibition print. Can we still define this as a restoration, or are we confronted with something different and new? We will describe the history of the film and its colors in the various prints, versions, and restorations to contextualize and historicize the work. Finally, we wish to situate the project within an archival approach called experimental media archaeology that, though being outside of standard restoration practice, will allow a better understanding of the achievements of the restoration.
Ballet mécanique, a seminal work of the 1920s avant-garde, explores the machine age using an experimental approach grounded in montage, camera movement, unorthodox camera angles, and animation. Some of the archival prints of the film also contain colored inserts, mainly of animated circles and triangles in different sizes, but also of other images evoking simple shapes (such as a hat, a line of bottles, or a pair of shoes) in blue, green, red, and yellow.
Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy made the film, in collaboration with Man Ray.2 According to William Moritz, the latter made all [End Page 92] the footage in which his partner Kiki de Montparnasse (Alice Prin) appeared because: “you don’t loan out your mistress, do you?”3
Although many prints of the film survive in various archives around the world, only three archives hold first- or early-generation prints: Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and EYE Film Institute Netherlands. All other prints are black-and-white duplicates of earlier (colored) prints, including the two nitrates at the Cinémathèque Française. The 35mm print kept at Anthology is widely known as the “Kiesler print” because it was donated in 1976 by Lillian Olinsey, the widow of architect and stage designer Frederick Kiesler, who helped organize the premiere of the film in 1924.4 Unfortunately, since this print has deteriorated, nothing can be said with certainty about its color status. However, it is recorded as black and white in the catalog, and all preservation elements that were made from it have been black and white.5
MoMA holds a colored 16mm print that was donated by Fernand Léger in 1939, after he used it to illustrate his lectures at Yale University in 1938.6 It is thought to have been hand colored by one of the last professional film colorists in the United States, Gustav Brock.7 This hypothesis is based on a letter MoMA received in 1942, in which Brock wrote, “I will be flattered to know that you remember the difficult color job we made together on Ballet mécanique,” suggesting that Léger may have worked with Brock and MoMA to prepare the print for his lectures.8
The Dutch copy at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands is the only colored 35mm nitrate print known to survive. It is remarkable not just for its colors, which are both dip dyed and hand applied, but also for the fact that it includes eleven shots of different Léger paintings spliced into the positive on different stock, which indicates that they were probably inserted later. Although these paintings resemble well-known Léger works, the images in the film are never identical to them. It may be that the paintings were photographed at an earlier stage of their creation or that...