Week 5: Ballet Mecanique’s Social Ciritique on Modernity and Capitalism

VIS 159 Week 5:

This week’s lecture began with the short, experimental film, Ballet Mecanique co-directed by avant-garde (or “tubist”) painter Fernand Leger and experimental film-maker Dudley Murphy. I wanted to discuss this film in relation to some of the other themes that we discussed this week including: the nature of time and space (both as physical matter and as social constructions) as explored by the Russian Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists, and other avant-garde artists. While each of these broad genres/eras of art between the late 1800s-1940s exhibited a variety of aesthetic themes and iconographic ideas, the one I would like to focus on is the representation of the human body, space, and form as a whole, as a fragmented, mechanistic, or reduced. These formal elements of the avant-garde art of this era was often parallel to the socialist-based theories and ideals that were prevalent at the time as well as the interwar experience as a whole. Russian Constructivists artists such as El Lissiktsky and Aleksandr Rodchenko expressed socialist ideas through reduction of forms and colors in painting and photography, further commenting on the materiality of art and culture as a whole while Dadaists in France and Zurich rejected the post-war disillusionment and their disgust with the dominance of bourgeoisie and their dominance over the art world.

Because these issues regarding the connection of reduced, mechanized forms as a way of social commentary in avant-garde art can’t be adequately expressed in 400-500 words, I will use Ballet Mecanique to exemplify these connections through examining the iconography and symbolic function.The visual formatting of the film is composed of fragmented imagery and repetition of objects that move, converge, split and plunge into one another at varying speeds with kaleidoscopic effects. This alludes to the fragmented understanding of time and space, referencing the actual space as existent and the social construction and manipulation of space and time. These two realms metaphorically and visually converge and plunge in and out of one another-referencing the rapid pace of modernity and industrialization and its chaotic effects on humanity (i.e. war, materialism, culture of commodity, etc.) This is juxtaposed with the serene and slower-paced imagery at the beginning and end of the film in which a lady gently walks around in what appears to be a space in nature. This critique of the body becoming a machine as a result of industrialization and factories, parallels the ideas that we discussed during weeks 1 and 2 in relation to Fordism or assembly-line labor. Leger and Murphy visualize this in several ways. First, the fragmented close up shots of Kiki de Montrapasse, moving and opening in a robotic manner. She is completely reduced to a machine and as a result dehumanized, symbolizing the ways in which social hierarchy, capitalist economies, and industrialization dehumanize people. Another telling scene, is the repetition of the woman climbing up the stairs carrying what appears to be a heavy load of some kind of material. She is showed endlessly climbing upwards and getting stuck in a loop (the film cycles over and over again). This scene signifies that Marxist ideal that capitalism is based on social inheritance and that the bourgeoisie and the prolatariat are born into these situations socially and economically. The capitalist system doesn’t allow for people to move upwards or downwards within society, leading individuals including factory workers to remain stuck in a cycle of sub ordinance and meaninglessness that reverberates generationally. In other words, because the upper class control the means of production or labor and have acquisition to the wealth, they then have the clout to exploit the proletariat for menial, mechanized labor because the laborers do not have access to social mobility. Towards the end of the film, Leger and Murphy introduce the use of text, which more obviously suggest socialist commentary on modern life in French stating “we have stolen the 5 million dollar necklace,” (Bailiwick). Next bold and vibrating zeroes are displayed against a stark black screen, illuminating the Marxist idea of commodity and material culture and the preoccupation with symbols of status (Bailiwick). The idea of “stealing,” the expensive necklace could also potentially be viewed as a reference to the proletariat revolution that Marx had outlined in The Communist Manifesto. Again, while this film undoubtedly explores a wide variety of themes and social/political/aesthetic concepts, I think that it was a great choice in avant-garde film that really illustrates the inseparability of visual arts and social, physical, and political sciences due to the film’s depiction and manipulation of geometric form and motion and its accompanying semiotic meaning for socialist/Marxist ideals that reflect the cultural ideologies of the time.


-Mia Maguire


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