A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Watch Me Move

The Animation Show


Zbigniew Rybczynki’s Tango (1980)

Filmoteka Narodowa (Polish National Film Archieve)

Barbican Art Gallery
15 June – 11 September 2011


Today, animation is everywhere, but what are its’ origins? That is an intriguing question this exhibition seeks to answer, along with ones of how this art-form has progressed, what it has morphed into along the way and where it has gone today. As the possibilities inherent to any and all questions about animation are endless, there are a number of directions this exhibition traverses in. Firstly, how did it all begin? What were the reactions? What levels of imagination and expertise were ignited along the way?

Curator Greg Hilty, Curatorial Director of Lisson Gallery, was on hand to offer a brief but concise summary of answers to those questions, while admiring the many directions and reincarnations animation has moved towards, standing before a large screen in the Superheroes section, designed to endlessly loop full colour examples of a myriad of styles and genres of the form. One of the main aims of this exhibition, ‘celebrating the power and wonder of animation’, the largest of its’ kind in the world, is, to quote Hilty, ‘pay tribute to pioneering artist innovators and bring them together,’ thus, ‘exploring the relationship between animation and film.’ In that spirit, the exhibition unites the work of ‘industry pioneers, independent film-makers and contemporary artists’ to explore their common ground within the context of their animated art-forms. The fact that this is a temporary exhibition enabled rare chances to be ‘more innovative and experimental,’ creating ‘distinctive rooms and atmospheres for each section,’ so its visitors are ‘never bored…and can get into the exhibition’s form and content.’ As Hilty enthusiastically noted, animation has ‘a spectacular ability to connect with its viewers…across time and continents…via various themes’ and the exhibitions ‘central, global elements’ emphasize this.  Thanks were rightfully levied to the exhibitions designers, Chezweitz and Roseapple, whom Hilty added, worked ‘24/7’ to render this accommodating exhibition user friendly, accessible and above all, enjoyably imaginative.

The diverse, informative sections of Watch Me Move: The Animation Show: Apparitions, Characters, Superhumans, Fables and Fragments, Structures and Visions, run parallel and continue upstairs in the portions of the exhibition on the gallery’s upper level. Citing Toy Story 3, which will be screening several times in it’s’ entirety during the exhibition’s run, as an excellent example of a big budget animation with content, Hilty dubbed it a ‘profound treatise on childhood.’



John Lasseter, Toy Story 3 (2010)

(c) 2010 Disney/Pixar


The exhibition opens with a paradox – contemporary artist Christian Boltanski’s Shadow Cinema, (2011), reflecting on one of animation’s first inspirations – shadow puppets. Moving into the darkened, screen filled depths of the show, Percy Smith’s unexpectedly moving time-lapse footage of fragile white blossoms silently and swiftly opening and closing against a black background in The Birth of a Flower (1921) are astounding, both for their age, and for their startling beauty. Likewise, Emile Cohl’s decidedly low- key, but hugely inventive Fantasmagorie (1908) in which white chalk lines morph into one shape or character after another on a continually shifting basis has lost none of its power to fascinate and amuse.



Emile Cohl - Fantasmagorie (1908)

(c) Lobster Films Collection


Wandering through one mini world after another of individual screens separated by opaque black cloth, which, I suspect, is somewhat soundproof, we passed through black string curtains dividing small ‘rooms’ featuring various steps along the path of animation’s history. It is a fascinating, all engrossing journey that, as curator Hilty confirmed, would take a full day to completely assimilate, and a half day at least to see and appreciate. In addition, there are several full length screenings of feature film animations within the exhibition’s screening room each day. However, when considering the history of this increasingly permeating art form, which amazingly, began in 1894, one is reminded that what we are really looking at here is the history of film-making, aka proto-cinema. 

Passing through the dream like, yet organized spaces in the opening section of the exhibition, one sometimes happens on familiar terrain, such as that of the Winsor Mc Cay, creator of ‘Little Nemo Moving Comics’, (1911) and often discovers intriguing new animated treasures. A room featuring basic but charming Mc Cay animation ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’, juxtaposed with a prehistoric vintage stop action animation poses amusing aesthetic and technical questions when considered against a clip of Steven Speilburg’s landmark epic Jurrasic Park (1993), in which a ‘life-sized’ physically correct automated T-Rex terrorizes two children sitting in a parked four by four like so many sitting ducks. Visit that space and ponder the question of which of the three animations ignites the imagination more, and why.

If you’ve ever entertained thoughts of meeting your favourite animated characters face to face, seeing them projected in the ample, animation filled space shared by the Characters and Superheroes sections of this exhibition should come close to fitting that bill. With its dual large screens on either side of the room, smaller screens imbedded in walls with headphones handy, and comfy cushions with built in listening apparatus, on which to sit and watch several examples of various types of animation, the looping clips have the power to mesmerize, entertain, enlighten and sometimes trick you into seeing bits of yourself in them. Old friends like Betty Boop and Felix the Cat abound in this space and as a viewer behind us laughed at Homer Simpson across the room, we marveled at the sheer skill and imaginative artistry of the CGI feature film The Hulk, a Popeye cartoon and a Manga classic in turn, as other viewers enjoyed watching them from their comfortable seating. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, (1988) featuring real people in conjunction with animated characters, Bob Hoskins gets to meet not only ‘30’s cartoon siren Betty Boop, but sultry, full colour Jessica Rabbit, up close. The fear of all things nuclear post WWII, lead to the emergence of many animated characters with superhuman powers.


Mamoru Oshii - Ghost in the Shell (1995)

(c) BFI National Archieve (c) 1995 - 2008 Shirow Masamune/ KODANSHA



We so called modern men always think our own eras are the most up on things, but we forget that it was ever thus. Some of the examples of early animation here bear that idea out very well. Take for example, Eodweard Muybridge’s Attitudes of Animals in Motion, (1881) and other Albumen prints meant to be spun round a Bioscope - a form of early animation, or Charle-Emile Reynaud’s Pauvre Pierrot (1892) which artistically furthered that technique.


Charles -Emile Reynaud, Pauvre Pierott (1892)

(c) CNAM/Restauration CNC AFF

Julen Pappe, Magic Film productions

Ladislas Starewitch, whose star in The Tale of the Fox (1929-30), is as humanized as any you’ve ever read about in Aesop’s Fables or would see now, in any big screen animation, in reality, a small fur tufted figure, is on display here in a glass case alongside other examples of figures brought to life by animators, among them, one of the surprisingly small skeletons Ray Harryhausen animated for baby boomer favourite, Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Another case, the contents of which are sure to delight collectors and fans of super-heroes, houses row upon row of action figures - a seemingly endless stream of Hulks, Wonder-women and more elaborate Samori warriors standing along the back, shields and swords at the ready.  There is also an animation cell and hand-painted storyboard from Halas and Bachelor’s Animal Farm (circa 1951-52) on show here, as well as many other important artefacts relating to the history of animation.

The upper portion of this exhibition is at once, visually dazzling, due to the way in which the design team has utilized every space available to them to display screens, seemingly suspended in space, each showing animation on both sides. The effect is that of a hall of mirrors filled with moving images.

The layout of Watch Me Move is neither linear nor chorological, but rather, tends to group films tracing common threads, as well as citing individually outstanding examples of animation. In relation to the latter, Ladislas Starewitch’s amazingly detailed film, The Tale of the Fox (1929-30) is on show here, with it’s personalization of animals via their ever changing facial expressions indicating intentions and moods, obviously heralding countless cartoons and animated films to come utilizing creatures as characters. The artistic look and amazingly advanced emotional qualities of this film would not be equaled or indeed, challenged in the realms of animation for many years to come.


Ladislas Starewitch - The Tale of the Fox (1929-30)


Tron (1982) the transformative segment of which is shown looping reflectively above a shiny floor in a room of its’ own, still seems futuristic when considered in the context of its time, with its’ impressive ground-breaking grid patterns and fast moving, game like action. However, a room showing three allegedly up to the minute animations, with another small room displaying a fourth game inspired piece, paled when compared with the animations from various eras being shown on the suspended screens and in individual rooms of their own along the other side of the upper level, among them, Harry Smith’s colourfully hypnotic, proto-psychedelic Early Abstractions (1941 – 57) which he painted and scratched onto celluloid, and Oscar Fischinger’s Radio Dynamics (1942), the latter of which, designed to synch with sounds was sadly, lacking accompaniment.


Harry Smith, Early Abstractions 1941-1957

Courtesy of Harry Smith Archieves


Among the most innovative and entertaining offerings on the upper level is Zbigniew Rybczynki’s Tango (1980) with its continually moving, cut out people going through their paces non-stop, i.e. putting food on a table, climbing through a window, getting dressed, making love, etc, with each character seemingly, moving past the other without noticing anything, apart what they’re doing, over and over again.

Jiri Trnka’s film The Hand (1965) is a politically motivated work of art warranting attention, as its small mouse like character represents you and me aka us, battling against the gloved hand of the state.  There are other examples of innovation and imagination far too numerous and varied to mention here. Watch Me Move is an exhibition well worth seeing, both for its’ aesthetic value, and its reclaiming and re-examining of an art form that is all too often relegated simply to the annals of popular culture.


Jin Trnka - The Hand (1965)

Kratyky Film Praha a.s.


As with love, you always remember your first animation. For those old enough to look back that far, it may be one of Disney’s early feature length films, like Pinocchio (1940) for others it may be TV’s Wallace and Gromit or The Simpsons. But as curator Greg Hilty noted, Watch Me Move: The Animation Show offers us rare opportunities to reflect on our subconscious dream-worlds and in the process, ponder our visual culture afresh.


Betty Boop, Dave Fleischer (1934)

(c) BFI National Archieve

Barbican Art Gallery
3rd floor of Barbican Centre
Silk Street London

Daily 11.00am – 8.00pm
Except Wed 11.00am – 6.00pm
Barbican Art Gallery is open late every Thu until 10pm
Tickets: Standard £10 online/£12 on the door
Concessions £7 online/£8 on the door
Secondary school (groups of ten or more) £6
12-17s yrs £6 online/£7 on the door
Under 12s free

Red Members
Unlimited free entry + guest

Orange Members
Unlimited free entry

Yellow Members
30% off + guest

Time: Open daily 11am-8pm (except Wed until 6pm and Sat 10am-8pm)
Thu until 10pm

Special Family Viewing
Early morning family viewing of Watch Me Move, every Saturday from 10am

Please be advised that certain films in this exhibition contain scenes of an adult nature. Parental guidance is advised.

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