Cinema in the Orsay Collections

Caran d'Ache, Barat (atelier), Lebaillif (Maison)
Tambours montant à l'assaut, entre 1886 et 1896
Musée d'Orsay
Acquisition, 2003
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork

Cinema pulls into the Orsay train station

From the very opening of the Musée d'Orsay in 1986, a room was dedicated to the birth of cinematograph in 1895. It was completed a few years later with objects and documents on the birth, in 1877, of the phonograph (the principle of which was the work of Charles Cros and the realization of which was the work of Thomas Edison). Located at the median level, on the Rue de Lille side, this space concludes the visit, after the arts and decorations of the Third Republic, while announcing the twentieth century. Thaumatrope, phenakistiscope, stereoscopes, a magic lantern and projection lantern, or a praxinoscope-theater are presented in showcases and dialogue with chronophotographs by Jules-Etienne Marey, zinc silhouettes of the Théâtre du Chat Noir and a Lumière column allowing visitors to view the autochromes. These optical toys and other viewing devices, accompanied by engravings from the illustrated press, a poster on Emile Reynaud's Pantomimes Lumineuses series of animated films, as well as statuettes of arabesque dancers by Edgar Degas, evoke the "episodic birth" of cinema. Their ambition is to "bear witness to the first attempts to set the image in motion," and to the progress of photography as well as to experiments with 3D images. 

, Chéret, Jules|Chaix imprimerie
Jules Chéret, Chaix imprimerie
Les Pantomimes lumineuses, en 1892
Musée d'Orsay
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Jean Schormans
See the notice of the artwork

In the following decade, several temporary exhibitions were devoted to the archaeology of the medium, early cinema, and even to "classic" silent film, post-World War I. In 1988, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the International Federation of Film Archives, three exhibitions were held simultaneously in the museum. Cinematograph, Invention of the Century (devoted to locomotion, the tour covers the first ten years of cinema through the reveries and inventions of its pioneers, from the nave to the upper pavilion), Posters of Silent Movies(1895-1929), and Remembrance of Films Past (devoted to the preservation of the cinematographic heritage). A cycle of documentary films on the birth of photography and cinema entitled "La caméra, l'œil, le regard (The camera, the eye, and the gaze)" will be shown in the auditorium, as well as another cycle of silent films accompanied by the piano. 

In 1991, with The Photogrammes of the Lumière Brothers, a small series of contact prints was presented in the room dedicated to the birth of the cinematograph, bringing together photograms of Lumière "views”, as well as photographic enlargements and films shown on luminous screens. In order to experiment his invention, which he shared with his brother Auguste, and to highlight his commercial possibilities, Louis Lumière had shot "reportages" and familiar scenes during 1895, with the participation of his family, his relatives, and factory workers. These contact prints, offered to the museum in 1991 by the Lyon doctor Paul Génard, were intended for the catalog of the Lumière production, allowing a fragment of the film to be quickly visualized and facilitating their sale.

 (entre 1896 et 1897), Lumière, Auguste|Lumière, Louis
Auguste Lumière, Louis Lumière
Déjeuner de Bébé. Mme M. Aug. Lumière Mlle Andrée, entre 1896 et 1897
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Alexis Brandt
See the notice of the artwork

In 1995, four exhibitions celebrated the centenary of the birth of cinema. They evoked the passion for movement that animated photography during the 19th century, and the progressive conquest of the instantaneous, with Before the Cinema: Photography and Movement (Room 19, 4th floor). Magic and Conjuring: around Robert Houdin (Room 8, first floor) retraced the history of conjuring; Magic lanterns, transparent paintings (Room 8, first floor) explored techniques, uses and repertories of the view on glass before the advent of the slide. Music and Silent Pictures (Room 69, median) shows that cinema was never really silent. Two silent film festivals (one on the musical accompaniment of films between 1908 and 1926, the other on the filmmaker Marcel Lherbier) and a series of lectures completed these exhibitions. These events recall the multiplicity of the sources of cinema, at the crossroads of projection techniques, image animation, and photographic recording. Its first repertoire took inspiration as much from the performing arts (féeries, theater, magic, opera, music-hall) as it did from popular imagery (postcards, illustrated press, comic strips).

However, the existence of a room dedicated to the cinema was short-lived. At the dawn of the 2000s and after several revisions to the permanent collections circuit, it had disappeared.

Cinema on display: film and the other arts

From 2003 and the exhibition dedicated to The Origins of Abstraction (1800-1914) where the first attempts at abstract cinema (by Léopold Survage or Morgan Russell were shown, numerous exhibitions have explored the relationship between the arts of the 19th century and film. It was less the archives or the devices, i.e., what remains of the film, its making or reception that are now brought together, but rather the films themselves.

As the historian Madeleine Rebérioux reminded us when the museum was prefigured in 1981, " film introduced a radical modification to the imagination” and the curators are now questioning the conversation between the artistic media (Geneviève Breerette, « Un entretien avec Mme Madeleine Rebérioux. Orsay, les œuvres et l’histoire” , Le Monde of October 2, 1981). Thus in 2007, The Forest of Fontainebleau: A Life-Sized Studio. From Corot to Picasso, showed a selection of films made in this forest whose impact radiated through all the art of the 19th century. This “summary of all possible sites" allowed the nascent cinematographer, whose aesthetics largely drew from history painting, to film both Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ [The Life of Christ] (Alice Guy, 1906) and Quatre-Vingt-Treize [Ninety-Three] (Albert Capellani and André Antoine, 1920). In The Spectacular Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) (2010), we discover how many of the artist's paintings, between illusion of the real and narrative potential, have become iconic motifs of popular culture – both that of French cinema at the very beginning of the 20th century and that of later Hollywood blockbusters.

This would be followed, among other things, by exhibitions featuring dialogues, borrowings, quotations, and interpretations: Misia, Queen of Paris (2012),  The Angel of the Odd. Dark Romanticism from Goya to Max Ernst.(2013), Gustave Doré (1832-1883): Master of Imagination (2014), Van Gogh / Artaud. The Man Suicided by Society (2014), Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 (2015),  Who's Afraid of Women Photographers? 1839-1945(2015), Degas, Danse, Dessin. A Tribute to Degas with Paul Valéry (2017),  Renoir Father and Son. Painting and Cinema.(2018), Tissot. Ambiguously Modern (2019). And coming soon: Bring On the Cinema! (2021).

Pollice Verso, Jean-Léon Gérôme
Jean-Léon Gérôme
Pollice Verso, 1872
Collection of Phoenix Art Museum
© Phoenix Art Museum / DR

Films were also shown during temporary hangings. Alice Guy, already mentioned above, is thus regularly honored: in 2016, during the thirtieth anniversary of the Musée d'Orsay, in a display around the Opera, a looped projection of her Avenue de l'Opéra (1900) was shown; in 2019, it was Les Résultats du féminisme [The Consequences of Feminism] (1906) as part of the "Women, Art and Power" program. 

Cinema, from birth to recognition

Since its opening, the museum's teams have thus oscillated between two options: to approach cinema as a technique, or to consider it as art, a debate that joins that regarding photography. Presenting cinema in a museum is a paradox. At once time an object (a projector, a film, a screen), a projection device, a collective show and an architecture: cinema doesn’t fit any box! And due to a lack of time and space, it is usually not possible to show the entire works like paintings on a wall, but only excerpts of them. Moreover, while it revolutionized the visual world at the end of the 19th century, cinema evolved relatively autonomously in relation to the arts of its time. Cinema was developed at the very end of the 19th century by engineers and industrialists, who combined, to varying degrees, the techniques of photographic recording, animated images and projection: Kinetoscope by Edison, Cinematograph by Louis et Auguste Lumière, Theotrograph by Paul and Bioskop by the Skladanowsky brothers. Aspects of sound, color and even 3D film were very quickly explored! Although the early operators took their inspiration from painting, photography and the theater, they went much further and took advantage of new editing possibilities. The cinema of spectacle and special effects, animations, reconstructed topical events, comic images, chase sequences, westerns, serials, melodramas and art films – within two decades, dozens of genres developed and were codified, winning over a broad audience.

As shows for a popular audience, they were originally confined to the back rooms of cafés, fairground booths or department stores. But cinemas were then set up in dedicated halls, which attracted the social and cultural elite. Artists and critics (such as Abel Gance in 1912) then considered it as “a Sixth Art."

Since 2019, in the southern rooms of the museum, about fifteen films or excerpts are projected on three screens, equipped with “sound showers.” The themes, specific to the internal history of the medium, will be updated, in order to vary the ways of understanding early cinema and to discover the major stages of its invention (1895-1914). The first program aimed to show that from its very beginnings, the cinema has told stories… about the cinema, and has revealed what happens behind the scenes.

Essential for a better understanding of both the world of the 19th century and the advent of modernity, cinema is now an integral part of the collections circuit. 

Current program: Looking at the camera

With the birth of cinema, films were immediately filled with characters looking towards to the camera and staring down the lens. Their gazes were sometimes furtive and involuntary, and
sometimes intentional and insistent. Actors, extras or passers-by who unexpectedly wandered into shot knew that they were being filmed and therefore contemplated the spectator through the intermediary of the camera.
Grimaces and winks, bows and greetings, remarks and direct address established contact with the auditorium, grabbed audiences’ attention, and drew them in as witnesses to the events.

The “look to camera” has its origins in the tradition of acts in music halls, circuses and fairs, where artists on stage would invite the audience to collude with them. In a similar manner, screen actors presented their show and addressed spectators as if they were sharing the same space. Looking at the camera also highlighted the presence of the equipment and film crew by putting the recording mechanism on display.
Sometimes, this was also part of the appeal of the images and provided pure visual entertainment. In the early 1910s, producers instructed actors to ignore equipment and camera operators in order to reinforce the illusion of reality in films and to help spectators identify with the protagonists. The look to camera was gradually banned from the screen.