Art Theory – Motion, How Represented

Of all the different conditions which are the subject of artistical representation, there is none more important, and, at the same time, more difficult efficiently to describe than that of motion, in which state of being a large number of objects in nature are constantly existent, and which is, indeed, the ordinary condition under which a considerable proportion of them are viewed. The representation of objects in motion is, therefore, essential to be attained,if nature is faithfully to be portrayed. Different arts differ, of course, extensively as to their adaptation to effect this end; as while some of them, such as poetry, music, and dramatic acting seem especially qualified for the description of motion, and indeed are but very imperfectly fitted for that of stationary objects; others, such as painting and sculpture, and more especially architecture and gardening, appear from their nature wholly unadapted to represent motion of any kind. I shall, therefore, endeavour to consider each of these arts in their order as regards their particular capacity for the end before us.

The representation of motion in painting or sculpture by figures, which, from the nature of the art, must remain perfectly stationary, will necessarily be an object of some difficulty efficiently to attain, and might, at first sight, appear wholly impractical. It is effected, however, to some extent, and mainly in two ways :-(1.) By a representation of such an attitude of the figure as will necessarily denote its being in action, as a posture of running or flying. (2.) By the representation of the appearance of certain adjuncts, which, from their very nature, are necessarily more or less in motion; such as drapery blowing in the wind, the sea when agitated into waves. Some figures, on the other hand, are, from their kind, quite unfitted for motion, and whenever represented are, without any effort of the artist, at once perceived to be stationary, such as mountains and houses.

It is to be observed, however, that, even in real objects, all motion is not perceivable. Some bodies, as a bullet from a pistol, fly so swiftly that we cannot see them move ; others, as the hands of a clock, move so slowly that their motion is in-visible to us. It is therefore only motion of a moderate or middle kind, which alone we can perceive, that we are called upon to represent.

Real motion itself, indeed, we are wholly unable to depict, but can only describe objects as they appear in motion. Thus, although on the one hand, on viewing them, we know at once by their appearance that they are moving; yet, on the other hand, we view them but for a moment, and only in one position. Painting should therefore both represent them as they are seen when moving, and should fix on some particular attitude in which they actually appear for the moment, and in which they may be fairly represented with perfect truth to nature, as in the case of a flying bird, a ship in a storm, or an army in battle. The image of the object or scene is retained in the eye after a momentary glance at it, as it was visible at that transient instant, and is not obtained from examining and comparing the various movements that occurred. So should it be in pictorial representation, which but follows that which nature effects. Of these different movements, that which is the most striking and affecting should, with judgment, be selected.

Certain objects whose motion is constant, appear, nevertheless, motionless, where that motion is regular and unvarying, and does not change the actual position of the object; as in the case of a waterfall, a shower of rain, a storm, the sea raging when viewed at a distance, a ship sailing, and a carriage travel-ling towards us. These objects may, therefore, be correctly and efficiently represented in painting.

The chief use of drapery is like that of sails, to assist in action, and to point out the motion of the figure, or rather to second the impression, created by its attitude. It aids however, when so applied, as well to denote repose as action. Flying hair or drapery, like agitated water, must necessarily , represent motion, because its position is such that it cannot be permanent, and can only exist in a state of motion.

For the description of motion, poetry is on the whole more adapted than painting, especially as regards the variety of different motions, But poetry is here perhaps, after all, rather suggestive than descriptive. At least it is far more powerful and successful in suggestion than in description. Painting, on the other hand, which is so successful in description, effects but little by suggestion. There is indeed this essential distinction between the narrations effected by painting and sculpture on the one hand, and by poetry, eloquence, and music on the other ; that while the representations of the former are from their nature, whatever be their subject, always necessarily stationary and immovable, those of the latter are always necessarily moving and changing.

An effective description of motion in a confused irregular multitude rapidly hurrying along in disorder, accompanied by discordant noises of different kinds, and which is much heightened by apt comparisons, is contained in the following passage from Chaucer, relating to the pursuit of the fox which had run off with a cock in the widow’s farmyard

” They crieden, out ! harow and wala wa ! A ha the fox ! and after him they ran, And eke with staves many another man ; Ran Colle our dogge, and Talbot, and Gerlond, And Malkin, with hire distaf in hire hond ; Ran cow and calf, and eke the veray hogges So fered were for barking of the dogges, And shouting of the men and women eke, They ronnen so, hem thought hir hertes breke, They yelleden as fendes don in hello ; The dokes crieden as men wold hem quelle : The gees for fere flewen over the trees, Out of the hive came the swarme of bees, So hidous was the noise.”

A fine and striking representation of the action of a huge living body, is afforded by the following passage in Dante,t where Geryon is described as rising into and flying through the air. The account of his stupendous size, of the efforts that he puts forth, and of his motion while flying, together with the suggestions introduced to set off the narration, alike conduce to give vigour to the scene :

” As a small vessel, backening out from land, Her station quits ; so thence the monster loosed, And, when he felt himself at large, turn’d round There, where the breast had been, his forked tail. Thus, like an eel, outstretch’d at length he steer’d, Gathering the air up with retractile claws. … Round me on each part The air I view’d, and other object none Save the fell beast. He, slowly sailing, wheels His downward motion, unobserved of me, But that the wind, arising to my face, Breathes on me from below.”

In dramatic acting, motion is of course one of the main elements, but it is subject to the principles for artistical regulation, and its accordance with nature is ever of the utmost importance. Indeed, the real difficulty here is, not as in the case of the other arts, already alluded to, how actually to represent, but how duly to regulate motion; not merely how to imitate it, but how to cause it in its mode of operation to imitate the manner of nature which it aims to follow.

In compositions in architecture, costume, and gardening, it is impossible directly to describe or represent motion. In each of these arts motion is, however, capable of being suggested by the mode of carrying out the design. In addition to this it may be observed that, although buildings and trees, and other fixed objects, are incapable of motion, and so far may be considered as less effective in an artistical point than animate objects which continually change their situation, and thereby vary their appearance also ; yet, on the other hand, a compensation to some extent is made for this deficiency by the opportunities which occur of seeing them from different positions, so that although they are in reality quite stationary, and never vary their aspect in the least, a new and a different view is afforded us of them at each turn; and as we ourselves shift our position, the very objects themselves seem to move, and to occupy fresh relative stations. Each of these objects changes also according to the various perspective distances at which they are viewed. This is the case with regard to sculptural as well as architectural objects. And it is equally applicable to rocks and mountains, and even to some extent to landscape scenery generally.

Indeed, the constant change of hues and tints, and light and shade, which takes place both in water and in landscape scenery, whether seas, or lakes, or mountains, or even plains, may be considered as closely allied to, and at all events analogous to motion as regards the alteration of the appearance of these objects, and is essentially productive of quite as much variety as motion itself. Consequently, a change, equivalent to motion, is effected in scenery, even in respect to the most solid and stationary bodies which compose it, by the alterations which constantly occur in the atmosphere, particularly as regards the clouds, by which these different objects not only greatly vary in their appearance at different times, as to their hues and dimensions, and according to their distance from us; but from being at certain periods in part obscured, and at other times brought into clear view, their motion, the alteration of their position as regards sight (the most important point in their relation to us), is as extensive as though real trans-migrations of them occasionally occurred. In the case of certain mountains, the shifting of the clouds that hover about their peaks, which are constantly varying the scene, exposing and obscuring alternately different objects and points of view, together with the revolutions of the earth so as to affect their position in regard to the sun, accomplish really all that would be produced by a change of their situation. Occasionally, more-over, an apparent alteration takes place both of form and of colour, as may be witnessed upon the Italian lakes, clouds taking the appearance of mountains, and mountains seeming all at once to be transformed into clouds, while the tints on the surface of the lake itself assume various hues at different periods.

It is more particularly, however, with regard to architectural objects, especially when viewed at a distance, that all the effect is produced of their moving and changing their situation, both individual and relative, by the change of that of the person looking at them, who can thus cause them apparently to assume almost any position that he pleases, whereby they seem to be either near together or far apart, united or joined in one, according as he places himself to view them ; so that drawings from them made from different points, would almost induce the supposition that these objects themselves occasionally changed their situation.