Friday, March 25, 2016

The Other 90%: Barbara Morgan


Born in Kansas in 1900, Barbara Morgan moved with her family to a peach farm in Southern California where she spent her youth.  During this time, Morgan developed an early interest in dance and movement. Her father noted this interest and suggested that the five-year-old “think of everything in the world as dancing atoms.”[1]  Since that young age, Morgan examined the world and her artwork with this scientific perspective.
This mindset was further affirmed during Morgan’s formal training at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1923. Under the direction and principles of Arthur Wesley Dow, Morgan explored the concept of art synthesis, which paired abstract design with figurative drawing and painting.[2] These principles are evident in Morgan’s early work, which consisted mostly of drawings, prints, and watercolors.  She was also influenced by the “Chinese Six Canons of Painting,” which were developed by art historian, Xie He, in sixth-century China.  According to He, there were six points to consider when examining a painting: spirit resonance, bone method, correspondence to the object, suitability to type, division and planning, and transmission by copying.[3] Morgan specifically appreciated the concept of spirit resonance, which refers to the vitality and nervous energy transmitted from the artist into the work. This energy contributes to the overall power of a work of art. He contested that without spirit resonance, there was no need to look further into an artwork. Morgan felt similarly and found that spirit resonance encapsulated her father’s early suggestion on how the world and beauty was composed.
Morgan found that she could incorporate spirit resonance into her work through lighting and balance. While at UCLA, Morgan volunteered to set up stage lighting for a group of visiting French playwrights. The playwrights staged and performed Failures, a play that traced emotional changes over time. Morgan was tasked with constantly changing the mood on stage through the lighting. Since Morgan possessed no training in theatre or lighting, much of her learning occurred on site. Despite this lack of knowledge, Morgan became fascinated by lighting principles and was able to master them in a short time. The experience taught her about the overall power and role lighting plays in bestowing meaning to an artwork.
Morgan experienced a shift in her career after working with her husband, Willard D. Morgan, on a photo project of Dr. Albert Barnes’ art collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. At the time, Morgan did not consider herself a photographer; however, she used the project to explore photographic lighting. As part of the project, Morgan was allowed to photograph Barnes’ entire collection. While photographing a fertility sculpture from Sudan and masks from the Ivory Coast, she discovered how these ritual sculptures became either menacing or benign, through control of lighting.[4] This revelation further confirmed Morgan’s belief in the power of lighting and shifted her interests to photography. In fact, light manipulation became the central theme in her famous photographs of American modern dance and movement.
In Morgan’s photographs of dance and dancers, she attempted to free figures within space, focusing on singular movements and light in order to create a slow-motion effect. Morgan stated, “I love to build a lighting scheme in which light and the moving subject matter is reciprocally alive; now moving in opposition, by-passing, flowing together, modulating into shadow, reappearing in muted areas, until the entire design is rich and mobile.”[5] Morgan’s passion for lighting schemes is prominent in her Sixteen Dances series. For this series, she collaborated with Martha Graham, a modern dancer and choreographer, and her company.

Barbara Morgan, Jose Limon-Mexican Suite-Peon-1944, 1944, printed c. 1980, silver print.  Gift of Gary Granoff, Esq., 1983.

Sixteen Dances is an important series in Morgan’s career because it showcases the purpose and artistry behind her craft. Morgan shot all of the photographs in Sixteen Dances in her studio with specific lighting that she designed for each piece. Thus, the project was challenging from a technical point of view and put insurmountable pressure on Graham and her company. Due to the technicality of Morgan’s process, Graham and her dancers were often asked to pose and re-pose countless times in order to achieve the proper lighting and perspective. Reflecting on the experience, Graham remarked in an interview that, “[Morgan] was a terror.”[6] However, it is important to note that Morgan’s specificity during the project was necessary in order to transfuse spirit resonance into each piece. Morgan remarked on this necessity, stating, “I wanted to show that Martha had her own vision. That what she was conveying was deeper than ego, deeper than baloney. Dance has to go beyond theater....I was trying to connect her spirit with the viewer—to show pictures of spiritual energy.”[7] Ultimately, in the series, Graham’s energy is successfully conveyed as a fluid and significant movement, which the viewer can experience without having knowledge of the entire dance.
Capturing the beauty and effort of dance on film takes not only a trained eye, but, more importantly, an understanding of the science that creates such action. Barbara Morgan mastered both of these abilities. Her legacy of observing life in relation to “dancing atoms” will always be preserved on film and on paper, providing a glimpse into her world of photography, light and modern dance.
Barbara Morgan’s works will be on display as a part of The Other 90%: Works from the GW Permanent Collection, on view until June 3, 2016 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.



[1] Dunning, J. (1992, August 19). Barbara Morgan, Photographer Of Modern Dance, Is Dead at 92. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/19/arts/ barbara-morgan-photographer-of-modern-dance-is-dead-at-92.html
[2] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[3] Cahill, J. F.. (1961). The Six Laws and How to Read Them. Ars Orientalis, 4, 372–381. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4629151
[4] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[5] Morgan, “Kinetic Design in Photography,” 27.
[6] Acocella, J. (2011, June 1). An Unforgettable Photo of Martha Graham. Smithsonian Magazine.
[7] Ibid

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Covering exhibits at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery and giving you a peek into the Permanent Collection of the George Washington University.

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Howard Hodgkin: Paintings - May 16, 2012

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Other 90%: Barbara Morgan


Born in Kansas in 1900, Barbara Morgan moved with her family to a peach farm in Southern California where she spent her youth.  During this time, Morgan developed an early interest in dance and movement. Her father noted this interest and suggested that the five-year-old “think of everything in the world as dancing atoms.”[1]  Since that young age, Morgan examined the world and her artwork with this scientific perspective.
This mindset was further affirmed during Morgan’s formal training at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1923. Under the direction and principles of Arthur Wesley Dow, Morgan explored the concept of art synthesis, which paired abstract design with figurative drawing and painting.[2] These principles are evident in Morgan’s early work, which consisted mostly of drawings, prints, and watercolors.  She was also influenced by the “Chinese Six Canons of Painting,” which were developed by art historian, Xie He, in sixth-century China.  According to He, there were six points to consider when examining a painting: spirit resonance, bone method, correspondence to the object, suitability to type, division and planning, and transmission by copying.[3] Morgan specifically appreciated the concept of spirit resonance, which refers to the vitality and nervous energy transmitted from the artist into the work. This energy contributes to the overall power of a work of art. He contested that without spirit resonance, there was no need to look further into an artwork. Morgan felt similarly and found that spirit resonance encapsulated her father’s early suggestion on how the world and beauty was composed.
Morgan found that she could incorporate spirit resonance into her work through lighting and balance. While at UCLA, Morgan volunteered to set up stage lighting for a group of visiting French playwrights. The playwrights staged and performed Failures, a play that traced emotional changes over time. Morgan was tasked with constantly changing the mood on stage through the lighting. Since Morgan possessed no training in theatre or lighting, much of her learning occurred on site. Despite this lack of knowledge, Morgan became fascinated by lighting principles and was able to master them in a short time. The experience taught her about the overall power and role lighting plays in bestowing meaning to an artwork.
Morgan experienced a shift in her career after working with her husband, Willard D. Morgan, on a photo project of Dr. Albert Barnes’ art collection in Merion, Pennsylvania. At the time, Morgan did not consider herself a photographer; however, she used the project to explore photographic lighting. As part of the project, Morgan was allowed to photograph Barnes’ entire collection. While photographing a fertility sculpture from Sudan and masks from the Ivory Coast, she discovered how these ritual sculptures became either menacing or benign, through control of lighting.[4] This revelation further confirmed Morgan’s belief in the power of lighting and shifted her interests to photography. In fact, light manipulation became the central theme in her famous photographs of American modern dance and movement.
In Morgan’s photographs of dance and dancers, she attempted to free figures within space, focusing on singular movements and light in order to create a slow-motion effect. Morgan stated, “I love to build a lighting scheme in which light and the moving subject matter is reciprocally alive; now moving in opposition, by-passing, flowing together, modulating into shadow, reappearing in muted areas, until the entire design is rich and mobile.”[5] Morgan’s passion for lighting schemes is prominent in her Sixteen Dances series. For this series, she collaborated with Martha Graham, a modern dancer and choreographer, and her company.

Barbara Morgan, Jose Limon-Mexican Suite-Peon-1944, 1944, printed c. 1980, silver print.  Gift of Gary Granoff, Esq., 1983.

Sixteen Dances is an important series in Morgan’s career because it showcases the purpose and artistry behind her craft. Morgan shot all of the photographs in Sixteen Dances in her studio with specific lighting that she designed for each piece. Thus, the project was challenging from a technical point of view and put insurmountable pressure on Graham and her company. Due to the technicality of Morgan’s process, Graham and her dancers were often asked to pose and re-pose countless times in order to achieve the proper lighting and perspective. Reflecting on the experience, Graham remarked in an interview that, “[Morgan] was a terror.”[6] However, it is important to note that Morgan’s specificity during the project was necessary in order to transfuse spirit resonance into each piece. Morgan remarked on this necessity, stating, “I wanted to show that Martha had her own vision. That what she was conveying was deeper than ego, deeper than baloney. Dance has to go beyond theater....I was trying to connect her spirit with the viewer—to show pictures of spiritual energy.”[7] Ultimately, in the series, Graham’s energy is successfully conveyed as a fluid and significant movement, which the viewer can experience without having knowledge of the entire dance.
Capturing the beauty and effort of dance on film takes not only a trained eye, but, more importantly, an understanding of the science that creates such action. Barbara Morgan mastered both of these abilities. Her legacy of observing life in relation to “dancing atoms” will always be preserved on film and on paper, providing a glimpse into her world of photography, light and modern dance.
Barbara Morgan’s works will be on display as a part of The Other 90%: Works from the GW Permanent Collection, on view until June 3, 2016 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery.



[1] Dunning, J. (1992, August 19). Barbara Morgan, Photographer Of Modern Dance, Is Dead at 92. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/19/arts/ barbara-morgan-photographer-of-modern-dance-is-dead-at-92.html
[2] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[3] Cahill, J. F.. (1961). The Six Laws and How to Read Them. Ars Orientalis, 4, 372–381. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4629151
[4] Knappe, B. (2008). Barbara Morgan’s Photographic Interpretation of American Culture, 1935-1980.
[5] Morgan, “Kinetic Design in Photography,” 27.
[6] Acocella, J. (2011, June 1). An Unforgettable Photo of Martha Graham. Smithsonian Magazine.
[7] Ibid

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Washington, District of Columbia, United States
"Found In Collection" or simply "FIC" is the way many museums classify the more mysterious items in their possession that have little or no documentation. Here at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery of the George Washington University, we do keep extensive records of our collection, but some of the items we come across in academic buildings or our own storage can leave us wondering. This blog is an effort to showcase some of the more curious examples and their stories, and to provide a glimpse of the great variety of art pieces within the collection. To learn more about the Brady Gallery's history, recent exhibitions, or the George Washington University, take a look at the links below.

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