In the past twenty years or so, many studies have been published discussing cinema’s debts to the other arts and what it has contributed to them in return. This comparison in fact began with the invention of cinema. Historians and critics such as Ricciotto Canudo, in the second decade of the 20th century, were inspired by art history in creating the first histories of this art that was “young, modern, free and without traditions”, as Fernand Léger described it, rejoicing in finding its strength there.
Therefore the obvious stood out early on, that cinematographic depiction owed much to five hundred years of formal inventions by painters, sculptors and architects; five hundred years that separated cinema from the invention of the laws of perspective. Thus, the first films made by the Lumière brothers and their technicians maintained an air of resemblance with motifs favoured by Impressionist painters.
The founder of the Cinémathèque française, Henri Langlois borrowed the model of the “art museum” for his film library. Until the end of his life in 1977, he compared filmmakers with great painters from the history of art: he compared Rossellini to Rembrandt, Dovjenko to Cézanne and von Sternberg to Uccello... He also claimed in an interview with Éric Rohmer that the silent art was essentially a “visual art”.
Today, digital technology makes it possible to reproduce films and allows unexpected comparisons between the art of film and the other arts. At home, on a video recorder or using a computer, we can now analyse films in detail, a common principle in art criticism that uses photographic enlargement to detect the secrets behind the conception of painted and sculpted works. This is the miracle that has allowed the mise en detail of art that André Malraux commented on lyrically, with his concept of the “Imaginary Museum”. We can thus examine fragments of films at home, just as we can stop and look at details of paintings or sculptures by flicking through art books. And then, the same digital technology now allows films to be exhibited by making them rival on exhibition walls with the immobile images of painting, sculpture and photography. This technology has in turn generated amazing works that the photographic substratum, therefore analogical with cinema, could not accomplish, if not imagine. Inconceivable forms, spatial depths created ex nihilo, rhythms that reach human perception more intensely, optically and psychologically, are created by the digital designing of images.
Moreover – an irony of the history of techniques – a high definition digital video camera finds.... the original Lumière Cinématographe: this had already combined shooting, film development and projection in a single machine. But the history of cinema only appears to be that of an eternal return. It is accomplished according to the principles of a prodigious spiral, repetition of which is not a stuttering but an undeniable new power of synthesis and of Renaissance in the way that the 14th century of modern human history imposed its technological and humanist content.
Artists of the 20th century have borrowed enormously images from the history of cinema as much as from the history of the other arts because films are today included in their library - DVD, digital files, streaming, visible on their laptop – among the books that assure the memory of all the arts, their “imaginary museum”.