Art Theory – Continuous Action

Where the action represented consists merely in the transient movement of a single figure, this may be considered to be independent in itself, and as having no direct or necessary relation to the motion which has preceded it, or to that which is to follow. In most cases, however, where an important event is to be described, an effort is made to portray that particular period in the progress of the transaction which is not only the most striking and important, but which may be regarded as representative in itself of the entire proceeding, so far as serving to show its general character and tendency. The action present has in such a case direct relation to, and is absolutely dependent on that which has immediately passed, and on that which is immediately to succeed. It is imperfect in itself, and perfect only so far as it serves to perform its part in uniting the chain of the narrative.

Hence, what is here meant by continuous action, consists in the representation through the medium of art, of the actual and real vivid and active progress of a transaction, and that not only as regards the direct portrayal of the scene which is immediately occurring, but also as regards the indirect, though probably hardly less forcible and truthful representation of those stages of the event which have recently passed by, and those which are immediately to follow, and are inseparably connected with that which is now taking place. The aid of the reason, and to a certain extent of the imagination also, is called in here; but they are appealed to by inferences so obvious which are brought immediately before them and offered to their notice, that the process is performed without any difficulty ; and, indeed, the operation of the mind is so impulsive that it appears to be almost spontaneous, if not irresistible.

Continuous action, indeed, is like the current of a river, which has relation to the stream both above and below, and is never stationary for a moment. Even what it possesses of pre-sent existence, is relative to and inseparable from the preceding and the future.

In compositions in painting, and upon the principles already deduced, the efficient representation of continuous action may be fully accomplished; and the examples in works of art of this kind cited in the present chapter, show the extent to which this has been done. Raphael’s cartoon of the ‘ Sacrifice at Lystra,’ affords a fine illustration of the principle before us, in the composition of which is narrated what has lately passed in the transaction, as well as what is about to follow. This is also successfully attained in the ‘Last Judgment,’ by Michael Angelo.

In sculpture, this is only less completely effected than in painting, because the composition is more simple, and consequently affords fewer facilities for the representation of a complicated transaction. Examples are nevertheless not wanting which evince that in sculpture this result is fully attainable ; as for instance, in many of the designs in the Elgin Marbles, in which continuous action is very efficiently described, as also in the group of the Laocoon.

In compositions in architecture, costume, and gardening, no direct representation of continuous action can be effected, al-though much here may be done in the way of suggestion as regards the several parts of the design that are comprehended in the whole composition, ideas respecting which the portion immediately presented to the eye serves to afford correct and adequate notions.

By means which it is unnecessary to detail, poetry and eloquence are capable of accomplishing the representation of continuous action to a very full, and indeed to a perfect extent; although perhaps here they are even exceeded by the art of music.

In descriptions or narrations by each of these arts, continuous action appears, indeed, of all species of action, to be the most appropriate, and as it were the natural province. But music from its nature has peculiar power in the representation of continuous action, being in this respect the exact counterpart to painting, sculpture, and architecture, which are in themselves essentially and utterly motionless, while the very principle of music is continuous motion.

Acting is not only completely adapted for the representation of continuous action, but continuous action is itself actually essential for the sustenance of efforts in this art, and is perhaps the main basis of its operations.