“The Figure in the Carpet”: Bodily Experience and Abstraction in Duncan Grant’s Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914) and Designs for the Omega Workshop

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Duncan Grant’s Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound (1914) is a product of a direct engagement by the artist with the ‘musicalist’ discourses that were circulating in the circle of writers and artists around Apollinaire before World War One. In France and Italy these discourses were leading to the theorisation and practice of ‘intermediality’, and to a fresh imagination of the cinematic – first theorised as an art form within Apollinaire’s circle by the writer Ricciotto Canudo in 1911 – as a medium that might engage an active, embodied spectator within a dynamic milieu, rather than one that produced a static,
disembodied subject granted an illusory transcendence over narrated events through single point perspective.
Grant’s “painting” – it is in fact a scroll more than fourteen feet in length and a foot wide, bearing sets of abstract shapes that develop as they are repeated along its length – was intended to be wound by hand past a viewing window, to the accompaniment of music from a gramophone. The work is a striking juxtaposition of the personal and manual with the mechanical and mass-produced, and one might it attempts to resolve conflicting versions of the modern. In its effort to ‘animate’ abstract forms, the scroll is a significant step
beyond and away from cinema, which at this time could neither produce coloured animation, except through the hand tinting of frames, nor allow for a personal, direct engagement between the spectator and this material; an engagement more akin to that of a painting. 
Instead of cinema, then, Grant is concerned with what we might call the ‘kinematic’ – a relationship between the spectator and a mediated environment that depends on a combination of forms. The work demands that its spectator becomes a participant, responsible for its own engagement with its
milieu, and in a state of awareness of its mediated environment.

This paper addresses the relationship of the scroll to Grant’s contemporaneous designs for the Omega workshop, in particular to the way in which his carpets are designed as dynamic surfaces. If the scroll is a vertical surface, moving past the eye through the agency of the body, in the horizontal surface of the carpet, the body becomes the wholly dynamic figure, traversing space. Both modes of presentation, equally novel as “art”, explore the kinetic relationship between the
body and its milieu, in pursuit of sublimatory effects.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAcross the Great Divide: Modernism's Intermedialities from Futurism to Fluxus
EditorsChristopher Townsend, Alexandra Trott, Rhys Davies
PublisherCambridge Scholars
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2014

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