Ballet Mecanique

Ben Howell Davis


from Man Ray multimedia application as referenced in Multimedia Computing, Case Studies from Project Athena, Mathew Hodges and Russell Sassnet, eds, Chapter 9, pg 117.

Copyright, 1988.


There is a single sequence of a few frames in Fernand Leger's Ballet Mecanique that seem to sum up both the intention of the film and its mystery. At exactly two minutes and fifteen seconds into the film a bird appears. It is a parrot (perroquet, a cockatoo) turning to face the camera and then turning away. It disappears in a flash of light and is not repeated.

Why in a film composed of repetitions and enlargements of everyday objects do we find this single bird? Was its lack of repetition intentional?

Leger's structure for Ballet Mecanique seems to be what Roland Barthes has called a "cycle of avatars" (The Metaphor of the Eye, essay included in George Bataille's Story of the Eye, Penguin, 1979.). The avatars are everyday objects enlarged to archetypical status passing one from the other, repeating, transforming, and interupting each other. A good deal has been written about the animated construction of the film from cleverly lit fragments of ordinary objects, faces, and the looping of sequences. The pattern of Leger's visual judgements are apparent.

This film, the first declared "sans scenario" in its text introduction, is a collage. The swinging chrome balls, the gears of machines, the dancing bottles, the rotating disks juxtaposed with femine lips and eyes are all awaiting the female form trudging endlessly up and down the stairs with her burden. The symbols seem obvious to us in an age of technology and sexual advertisement/liberation.

But what about this single bird?

The approach to this image begins with a woman defining the depth of the frame by swinging to the lens and then away. (Actually, the very first image is the animated Chaplin figure which ends the film but it seems only a graphic trick at the onset.) It sets up Leger's basic proposition that motion is erotic, the apparent presence of emotion. (from Old French "esmovoir": to excite, varient of Latin emovere, to move out, stir up. American Heritage Encyclopedia Dictionary, p.553.) Film would then be inherently emotional by definition. And it is this definition that Leger molds into a flashing gesture, a dance - a ballet of luminance.

To continue the flesh-motion we are given the lips, first in comedic and then in tragic pose. Isolated from the face, cropped and de-personalized, the lips are flattened to the screen. Then the procession of spinning , whirling, refective, metal begins. The motion of the machine, the self-reference to the mechanism of creation - the camera - the tool that makes everything move, reveals the eroticism of the artificial moment. We see a man's face appear as if from between shutter blades (is this Leger?). The sequence is repeated and disolves into turning crystal then to prismatic swinging disks.

Then a bird.

Its eye is registered with the preceding images-the eyes of the man, the holes of the crystal, the center of the disks. It is looking at the camera, at the viewer. It is not a machine, it is not a human. Every other image (except the last) in the film is repeated, replicated in whole or in part. Every other image is a machine reproduction metaphor. The bird (if indeed it is a parrot then Leger is making a subtle joke on the mimetic quality of the specie) is only seen this one brief moment. It is seen in profile, turns and looks into the lens, bows, lowers its head, disappears into a flash of light. The next image is the circle.

For an instant we are seeing the moment.

"For an instant, the energy of one's perception becomes inseparable from the energy of creation (John Berger, The Sense of Sight, The White Bird, Pantheon Books, 1985, p.9.). In this singularity, this one image, Leger gives us metaphor and reality. Time is real; the bird appears and is gone. In the context of the collage it is a heart beat in world of artificial drumming. Fragility of the moment, fragility of the body, fleeting beauty, the feather soft touch of the erotic, the wing. Unlike the still photograph that condems an image to eternal scrutiny, the film touches and is gone. Trapped in the ballet, the bird returns to time, to nature. "Art does not imititate nature, it imitates a creation, sometimes to propose an alternative world, sometimes to amplify, to confirm, to make social the brief hope offered by nature. Art is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally."

Of course, Leger may never have intended this. These few frames may be just so much footage left in as another element of "syntagma" Syntagma means the plane of concatenation and combination of signs at the level of actual discourse. (Roland Barthes, Metaphor of the Eye, p.127). But if we examine the film as it has arrived to us through the sixty three years since its creation, then these few unrepeated images give us a platform to view the rest of the piece.

The bird is not a stop-motion, but a moment of arrest. "This is the meaning in art of relativity. An object in motion has difficulty taking into account other motions. Only by achieving rest, arrest, can we percieve what is happening outside ourselves. Simultanism, the third voice of life, signifies an approach to immobilty and this is an extremely sensitive attenument to the infinite universe. Arrest is achieved not by absence of power to move, but by an equilibrium of forces...The paradox is that even arrest has no final peace, for it continues to be relative motion; nothing can attain absolute stillness in our physical and spiritual system. (Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years, The Art of Stillness, Vintage Books, 1968, p. 351.)

The images following the bird comprise the bulk of a circular journey. At two minutes fifteen seconds, nature leaves the film. We are left with, in a sense, memories of the future.

Geometric forms plunge into one another, numbers appear (early evidence of digital tyranny?), rotating steel objects, bottles looking like gun shells, swinging spheres, reflections of the camera itself, spinning/gyrating/undulating surfaces of ordinary objects transformed by the mechanical process of film. "By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the otherhand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action...Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye...Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. (Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Art in the Age of the Mechanical Reproduction, Schoken Books, NY, NY, 1968, p. 236-237.)

Humans return to the images briefly.

Amusement park rides move bodies through thrills, marching soldiers feet tramp across the frame, what appears to be a figure is thrown up diagonally across the frame. But these apparitions disappear into the whirling multiple kitchen tools, pumping pistons, and organisms of gears. The eyes of the lips come and go, cropped into boxes in the corners of the frame, left then right. Finally the woman moving her burden up and down the stairs, the mechanized cinematic robot eternally looped outside of nature.

At this point text appears declaring "We've stolen a pearl necklace of 5 million". Zeros flash. Text is reversed. The word is not exempt from the mechanical dance. A news headline? A declaration of crime? Fact and fiction melting into cinematic reality? Illusion and substance interchangable?

The differences between text and representation would soon become a problem of surrealism. Leger anticipates it very distinctly by including the flipping lines of words, numbers, and characters. "Now this distinction between writing and an old antinomy within Western culture, and one which does not simply hold these things to be opposite forms of experience, but places one higher than the other. Perception is better, truer, because it is immediate to experience, while representation must always remain suspect because it is never anything but a copy, a re-creation in another form, a set of signs for experience. (Roseland E. Krauss, the Orignality of the Avante-Garde and Other Myths, MIT Press, 1985, p.94.) In these few frames Leger has encapsulated a major artistic controversy that continues to the present.

But the film rushes on.

Past the ringmaster now swinging on the swing from the first frames, shaking pots and pans, disembodied legs dancing in animation around a clock, the hat and shoe having filmic intercourse, and finally the entire head whose lips and eyes have gestured to us. But the head is androgenous, the eyes closed, it rotates as a doll's head. Close-ups of the eyes, tilted to the lens, then away, always closed.

There is no emotion, only motion.

A lonely row of bottles dance by and the cut-out animation of the Chaplin icon disintegrates. The first image of the woman returns as a final gesture. She is off her swing and she is exhibiting a new sense. She is smelling the flowers.

It is the only other unrepeated image in the film.


If we think of Fernand Leger's Ballet Mecanique not as a twelve minute film but as a moment, a metaphorical system of memory can be revealed. The images of film form a field of photographic data. The data is at once formal, historical, personal, and social. A slice of tissue from the main body of time.

In 1924, for instance, there was a large exhibition in Paris at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs called The Exposition de l'art indigene des colonies d'Afrique et d'Oceanie. (Krauss, The Originality of the Avante-Garde and Other Myths, p.48.)

Why this interest in primitive objects?

Partly I think because the works represented a pure intention by the makers to imbue objects with spiritual power. Partly because the objects were not metaphorical, they were real. Leger used the style in a sketch for Creation Du Monde published in L'Esprit nouveau, no.18,1924. From this angle we can look at Ballet Mecanique as a kind of ritual ribbon. The fabric is inscribed with the everyday object transformed. More telling is the use of the Chaplin figure done in much the same style as the figures in L'Esprit nouveau. But in a larger context this exhibition, as well as Ballet Mecanique, tell us a good deal about the times.

The early 1900's unleashed technology. The airplane, the automobile, the skyscraper, the light bulb, the radio, the phonograph, the zipper, the fountain pen, the portable typewwriter, the electric elevator, the telephone, the motion picture, and aerial bombing were being embraced as MODERN. Any one of which (perhaps not the zipper or the fountain pen) could have caused serious revolutions in human behavior. It was a period not unlike our own in which an event like the exploding of a space ship takes place and only momentarily jars us from techno-hypnotic trance.

The terrible shock of World War I was still a numbing memory in 1924. (One wonders how many nations at war constitute an official world war?) The first global horror.

It is not difficult to understand the interest in a primitive art exhibition of objects that are "whole" in that they have a sense of timelessness. These are things that have had their edges worn smooth by ritual use.

Technology and a stock market boom created a release from the war memory. An old world had died. The new one needed new ideas, new forms, international identities, manifestos, liberations. A new idea of time was necessary. Everyone from Einstein to Dali was conscious of the need for the dynamic, modern time. Arnold Hauser saw it this way: "The accent is now on the the simultaneity of the contents of consciousness, the immanence of the past in the present, the constant flowing together of the different periods of time, the amorphous fluidity of inner experience, the boundlessness of the stream of time by which the soul is born along, the relativity of space and time, that is to say, the impossibility of differentiating and defining the media in which the mind moves. In this new conception of time almost all the strands of modern art converge: the abandonment of plot, the elimination of the hero, the relinquishing of psychology, the "automatic method of writing" and, above all the montage technique and the intermingling of the temporal and spatial forms of the film. (Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vintage Books, Vol.4, p.239.)

A mechanical dance. Other versions of the mechanical ballet were being created. The post-impressionist visions of cubism, futurism, constructivism, all turn reality sideways in order to look down its edges into a new retinal belief. "Post-impressionist art can no longer be called in any sense a reproduction of nature; its relationship to nature is one of violation. We can speak at most of a kind of magic naturalism, of a production of objects which exist alongside reality, but do not wish to take its place. Confronted with the works of Braque, Chagall, Roualt, Picasso, Henri Rousseau, Salvador Dali, we always feel that, for all their differences, we are in a second world, a super-world which, however many features of ordinary reality it may still display, represents a form of existence surpassing and incompatible with this reality. (Hauser, p.230.)

Leger hurls us headlong into the second world. The innocent image of a woman on a swing in a garden, the impressionist icon, is blasted by geometric forms, flipped upside down. The portrait is cut into lips, eyes are replaced by gleeming spheres and shining planes. We are in an aerial view at one moment, looking up from below an autombile the next, spun, clipped, rotated, fragmented, caressed by light. As a primtive totem of the "body-as-whole",(Krauss, p.48). the images pulse. The musical rythmn on which they ride is the beat of the automaton.

Other works like Maholy Nagy's photograms or Marcel Duchamps' Large Glass of the same period have similar characteristics. Maholy-Nagy (Man Ray as well) used light sensitive paper to create "grams" or hand made machine relics (Figure 4). Duchamp invested some five years in the transparent painting/sculpture/ projection of the Large Glass, working toward his concepts of the "ultra- thin (Paul Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Notes, G.K. Hall, 1986, p.290. as a farewell to painting (figure 5)).

We can, of course, see the film as the personal statement in a world of accelerating mass culture. The strange place of the artist between capitalist individualism and the socialist voice of the people. Using the toy of the technocracy (the film) as a weapon against the dehumanization process of the industrial power structure; the marching feet, the pounding pistons, the maddening repetition of the burdened woman, On a Vole En Collier de Perle!

In this respect Ballet Mecanque fulfills the mission of the ritual object. As a field, a fabric, it is cathartic and rhetorical at the same time. It is a mechanic's ballet, a dance that ordinary people do. The sequence of artificial legs animated near the end have a special quality (Figure 6). As they flip and dance, they kick. They beat on the frame, they lurch for the audience.



Robert C. Allen/Douglas Gomery, Film History, Theory and Practice, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, NY, 1985.

Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye (with essays by Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes), Penquin, NY NY, 1979.

Roland Barthes, Image, Music, and Text, Hill and Wang, NY,NY, 1977.

Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Schoken Books, NY, NY, 1968.

John Berger, About Looking, Pantheon, NY,NY, 1980. Sense of Sight, Pantheon, NY,NY, 1985.

Jack Burnham, Structure of Art, George Braziller, Ny,NY, 1973.

Phil Davis, Photography, Wm. Brown, Dubuque Iowa, 1982.

Fredrick Hart, ART, A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Vol.2, Abrams, NY.NY, 1976.

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, Vol. 4, Vintage, NY,NY.

Rosalind F. Krauss, The Originality of the Avante-Garde and Other Myths, MIT Press, 1986.

Paul Matisse, Marcel Duchamp,Notes, G.K. Hall, Boston, 1986.

James Monaco, How to Read a Film, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years, Vintage Books, NY,NY 1968.