(These notes are largely paraphrased from Picturing Time by Marta Braun – Chapter 7)
Bergson(1859-1941) was the most popular thinker on time and space before WWI. He gave voice to a growing disillusionment with positivism and the view of the world as a sum of discrete objects, observable and measurable, which was the central methodology of Victorian science. He challenged the philosophical framework of science, positing time as the only reality. He was a big celebrity in France and artists lapped up his stuff. He is the chief source of ideas about time, space and motion for artists in the 20th century.
He believed that movement was reality itself – continuous change – undivided fact. Time cannot be measured – each moment prolongs itself into the next. Matter as energy is also constantly moving – so the shapes matter makes are just “snapshots taken by the mind of the continuity of becoming” – they are misleading data provided by innacurate perception. These artificial forms are utilised for a particular purpose but do not constitute knowledge. Objects cannot be known through analysis (positivist science) which fragments them. What is real is a unity and this can only be known through what he coined ‘intuition’ – a form of empathy where we put ourselves within the object and break down the spatialized time barrier. Analysis is the negation of intuition.
Bergson’s ‘intuition’ inspired a generation of artists who were assimulating the demise of empiricism and the exaltation of reality beyond the seen:
“It is the artists who is truthful, it is photography which lies” (Rodin)
Remember this is the time of frighteningly quick new forms of travel and communication, scientific theories of relativity, radio waves, x-rays, radiation, spiritual photography, widespread electricity and other invisible forces.
Bergson’s terms: “duration”, “lived time”, “force-lines”, “simultaneities”, “dynamic” are repeatedly used in artistic and critical statements of the times, especially by the avant garde. Often his ideas are simplified or misconstrued.
Jules-Etienne Marey was a physiologist; a science which had branched off from anatomy in the 19th century. Inspired by the discovery of the Laws of Thermodynamics (1850) physiologists saw the body as a collection of mechanical systems exchanging energies in the course of motion. The French were also concerned with fatigue and the physical fitness of the nation after a punishing experience in the Franco Prussian war. By analysing motion and effort Marey sought to discover ways to improve the fortitude of his people.
Marey and Bergson are contemporaries, even working for some time at the same institutions, but their ideas couldn’t be more polar. The eye (sense) was inadequate for Marey becuase so much of the world lays beyond its reach. A machine (camera) was needed to overcome its frailties. For Bergson the eyes were deficient for being too much like a camera – too discrete, too halting to perceive his indivisible flux – falsifying the real. Indirectly Bergson criticized chronophotography:
“they are not parts of movement, they are so many snapshots of it…the moving body is never really in any of the points; the most we can say is that it passes through them”.
But he couldn’t stop artists enjoying Marey’s works – effectively
“the first images to rupture the perspectival code that had dominated painting since the Renaissance.”
They provided a language for depicting Bergson’s simultaniety. These ruptures were explored in turn by the Cubists (but applied to static objects), the Futurists, the Vorticists, Kinetic Artists and so on…
The Italian Futurists claimed that Bergson’s dynamic sensation of the passage of time was the central subject of the work of art in a rapidly industrializing world. Using his rhetoric, but disgarding its finer points, they used Marey’s chronophotographic stylizations as the basis of a large part of their art.
In the end Bergson was dismissive of art that used his theory and perhaps frustratedly stated “from intuition one can pass on to analysis, but not from analysis to intuition”. Bergson’s writings were gradually forgotten. On the other hand, Marey’s results would dominate the depiction of movement in the 20th century.