Before Technicolor

Early Color on Film

Through Jul 21


Installation view, Before Technicolor: Early Color on Film, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 20–September 4, 2023. Digital image © 2023 The Museum of Modern Art, New York
  • MoMA, Floor T2/T1 The Debra and Leon Black Family Film Center

The earliest color films were made around 1895, when new, synthetically produced dyes transformed the nature of color in mediums such as postcards, magic lantern slides, and fabrics. For moviegoers and critics of the period, color added to films shot in black and white was an attractive “special effect.” In the decades before Technicolor proved capable of reproducing a full spectrum of colors closer to those of the real world, colorists indulged in the imaginative possibilities of the techniques available to them. Far from a foregone conclusion, color in film was an accent, an opportunity for artistry and experimentation. Writing in 1931, the filmmaker and historian Paul Rotha went so far as to claim that color “is unnecessary in the dramatic theatrical film” and “definitely diminishes appeal.” Color, he continued, “must always remain a speculation from a commercial point of view…a white elephant to the cinematic medium.”

Recalling this “forgotten history,” this gallery installation of nine cinema works from MoMA’s collection introduces a number of early systems that were used to reproduce color on celluloid. Focused on films produced in the United States and France from the mid-1890s through the mid-1930s, the exhibition features a suite of hand-colored Butterfly and Serpentine dance films from the 1890s; the stencil-colored L’Antre Infernal (1905) and La voix du rossignol (1923); experimental Technicolor tests (1933–35), including one with actress Katharine Hepburn as Joan of Arc; and Sunshine Gatherers (1921), an advertisement for canned fruit shot in Prizma color. Digitally restored by the Department of Film in 2019, these are among the most engaging works that were acquired by the Museum’s Film Library around the time of its founding in the 1930s.

Organized by Ron Magliozzi, Curator, Department of Film.

  • L’Antre infernal (The Infernal Cave). 1905. France. Directed by Gaston Velle. Cinematography by Segundo de Chomón
  • La voix du rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale). 1923. France. Directed by Władysław Starewicz
  • Joan of Arc [Screen Test. Katharine Hepburn]. 1934

Film at MoMA is made possible by CHANEL.

Additional support is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by Debra and Leon D. Black, with major contributions from the Triad Foundation, Inc., The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art, Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art, and by Karen and Gary Winnick.


Installation images

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In 2018–19, MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos. That project has concluded, and works are now being identified by MoMA staff.

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