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From reel to Realism: movies' influence on art

WILLIAMSTOWN -- We live in a visual climate densely populated by arts fine and otherwise: painting, prints, photography, movies, television, advertising. Inevitably, they interact. ''Desperate Housewives" opens each week with a montage of famous canvases. Mel Gibson wanted ''The Passion of the Christ" to look like a Caravaggio. Painter Ed Ruscha exalts the billboard.

Such interaction is so common we take it for granted, and thus fail to note how relatively recent it is. There didn't used to be so many visual media, for one thing, and artistic hierarchies had a far tighter grip on the imagination. In the 19th century, painting was supreme, prints were a lesser form of painting, and photography was artistic only insofar as it aspired to the condition of painting.

What happened, though, when technology and representation collided at the end of that century to create the motion picture, a whole new way of visualizing reality? Did still pictures change when there emerged a new kind of picture, one that moved? Might Thomas Eakins and Thomas Edison have shared more than just a first name and monogram?

Those questions underlie ''Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910," the highly ambitious and thought-provoking show that runs at the Williams College Museum of Art through Dec. 11. A decade in the assembling, it's one of those rare exhibitions that makes a museumgoer reconsider the past and see it afresh.

''Moving Pictures" consists of some 100 objects in various media -- mostly paintings, but also photographs, prints, posters, comic strips, and flip books. The objects are juxtaposed with short films from the period, which run continually on 46 flat-panel screens. In sheer visual terms, the effect is intoxicating. Imagine a fin de siecle salon that somehow includes video art. Considered simply as an installation, ''Moving Pictures" is bold and memorable.

It's even bolder and more memorable when considered conceptually. What curator Nancy Mowll Mathers wants to do is nothing less than enlarge and reconfigure our understanding of American art at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

The rise to preeminence of Realism, most notably in the work of Eakins and the Ashcan School, wasn't just a function of social change and the emergence of a rudimentary avant-garde. It also reflected the impact of early motion pictures, which should no longer be seen as an unrelated visual phenomenon. An undeniably powerful but effectively artless admixture of technology, commerce, and voyeurism, they affected both the form and content of painting, which in turn affected them (in content especially).

The show comprises four sections. ''Early Film and American Artistic Traditions" examines how much early cameramen drew on preexisting artistic traditions for their subject matter. ''The Body in Motion" and ''The City in Motion" present the clearest impact film had on painting and related arts, through its unprecedented kineticism. (''Film" in this case includes the medium's slightly earlier precursor, the photographic motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey.) Finally, ''Art and Film: Interactions" shows the interest in early movies of specific artists, such as John Sloan, and how poster artists and others addressed the subject of film in their work.

How persuasive a case does ''Moving Pictures" make? It can strain for effect at times. Placing a Mary Cassatt aquatint of a barefoot child in a woman's lap next to a Lumiere Brothers film called ''Feeding the Baby" doesn't do much more than demonstrate the unremarkableness of congruity. Conversely, it's revelatory to see an examination of facial gestures in portraiture of the time as influenced by the close-up. How could something like that not have had an impact? This seems obvious once pointed out, but ''Moving Pictures" had to do the pointing. Just as it makes sense that we see differently once we have new ways of seeing, so does it make sense that old ways of seeing operate differently then, too.

The most striking thing about ''Moving Pictures" as a viewing experience has less to do with scholarship than perception. It turns time upside down. With their colors and verve, the paintings and posters and prints look so much more contemporary than the more recent art form does. Many of the films have deteriorated with time, lending them an appearance of patination. More than that, they have this alien aspect -- the jerky motions, the black and white, the teeming silence -- as from a distant, subaqueous world. It's as if the black edges of all those nifty screens are so many high-tech frames around images that could be from Lascaux.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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