Silent No More: The Fine Art of Early Feature Films

July 16, 2019

In her new book, Professor Katherine Manthorne explores why silent films owe a lot to modern art, and vice versa.


Professor Katherine Manthorne's new book addresses how modern art and cinema intertwined at the turn of the 20th century.  

Art and cinema collided in 1952 when Pablo Picasso met Charlie Chaplin. Their talents overlapped in palpable ways, Picasso noted, because they both understood how to communicate using “no description, no analysis, no words.” Though Picasso saw the parallels connecting both silent mediums, it’s a relationship that has long remained underexplored, but Professor Katherine Manthorne (Art History) hopes to remedy that with her new book, Film and Modern American Art: The Dialogue Between Cinema and Painting.
Film and Modern Art examines the ways in which fine art in the late 19th and early 20th century responded to the revolutionary technology of film. “Given that American modernist art grew up in tandem with this new technological medium, it seems only logical that its history is enriched when read through and against the emergence of film,” she writes.
Manthorne presents the book in two parts: The first examines two Ashcan artists — John Sloan and Everett Shinn — who responded to cinema in distinctive ways. Sloan and Shinn painted urban scenes, so they became particularly fascinated with the way films framed and captured similar moments. The second part explores how both art and film struggled with sociopolitical issues pertaining to gender and race. The result puts two independent visual mediums in conversation with one another for a productive look at their development.
The Graduate Center: You’ve long been interested in dialogues and points of exchange in art, so this project fits in with that trajectory, but what drew you to film and fine art?
Manthorne: One of the things that has really struck me is just the fact that movies evolved in parallel with early 20th century American modernism, and certainly the artists took note of all that. It always seemed strange to me that that connection was so little developed. The more you start looking, the more you find it — a dialogue that enriched both sides.
GC: You focus on the silent film era because you say that the development of the studio system changes things. What exactly?
Manthorne: The studio system really locks a lot of things down. Women had their own studios, women were writing their own movie scripts, and then the studio system comes along and suddenly it’s all white men. When that happens, I think the whole dialogue shifts, so I figured [the end of the silent era] was a logical stopping point for this book.
GC: How did you narrow your focus in Part I to John Sloan and Everett Shinn?
Manthorne: I’ve long been interested in Sloan. He actually keeps a diary when he’s living near Greenwich Village around 1906, writing daily entries like, “Oh I dropped into this movie and then I went to my studio.” His work really grows up with movies. And then Shinn was one of the first art directors. They’re both in this group called Ashcan Artists — they knew each other well — but they go off in different directions: Sloan is looking at the city through the eyes of a movie cameraman, whereas Shinn uses all his talent to help create these early movie sets. That seemed like a logical pairing — the way artists entered this dialogue in different but complementary ways.
GC: In the book, you mention how people’s interpretation of images changed after the movies. What happens specifically?
Manthorne: A movie image stays with you in a different way. I think it helped to shape the way people structured their thinking. To take Sloan as an example, he talked about following people through the streets and capturing certain moments, so it was that same kind of thinking.
GC: And with artists?
Manthorne: The artists would also talk about “How could it be that our exhibitions are free, but movies charge money and people go to the movies?” They saw it as a competing system of visual imagery. Stuart Davis is another one who says, “An artist will never look at things the same way after he’s seen moving pictures.” All of these things change how we perceive things, and movies were part of that.