The following document is an abstract of a paper accepted for presentation at the Visual Delights III — Magic and Illusion conference at the University of Sheffield, July 15-17th 2005.

This paper will look at the trope of the haunted gallery, of the picture that comes to life, in relation to still and moving images produced in the years around 1900. The haunted gallery was a space of cultural fantasy in art criticism of the period and in the optical illusions and spectacular visual effects created in the magic theatre and through early film.

For writers about art such as Walter Pater and Vernon Lee, all great art was a kind of haunting; a spiritual and sensory presence that had been caught in the image but which was nevertheless a thing in time and subject to the flow of past, present and future. Through their powerful descriptions of works of art, the picture was brought to life. This animation was a consequence of the long, lingering and penetrating gaze into the image. Looking, for these writers, became an aesthetic and erotic reverie, a kind of enchanted rapture that created life from the still image.

At the same time, a striking number of early transformation, or trick films turned to the subject of the animated painting; to the image or statue that is magically endowed with a mischievous life. The theme was a metaphor for the new medium and its representational powers. It surpassed the illusionistic capacities of the traditional arts. Trick effects were used to flaunt the ease with which film could simulate the making and unmaking of art and impart life to the lifeless image. In films by Edison and Méliès the art image and the film image can be said to be in an aesthetic dialogue; jockeying for position and influence.


3 May 2005