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Discover the history and development of film, a merging of science, technology, business, and art, and one of the most widely experienced mediums.

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Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Advent of Cinema

Scientists and inventors set photographs into motion—and make movies.

Experimentation with Sound

Sound technology breaks the silence of the movies and revolutionizes filmmaking.

Documentary and Propaganda

Filmmakers turn their cameras onto real life to make documentaries, or attempt to mold real life to an ideology through propaganda.

Experimentation in Film / The Avant-Garde

Seeing untapped artistic and, sometimes, revolutionary potential in film, artists and filmmakers take motion pictures into entirely new territory.

By the early 1920s, film production was flourishing in America, Europe, and Australia, and technological advancements coupled with bigger budgets allowed filmmakers to release increasingly ambitious films. But the people involved in producing, writing, directing, and acting were considered entertainers more than artists and creators, and film itself was not thought of as an art form. Arguments began emerging that film should be considered a new and distinctly modern art, reflective of the industrial and entrepreneurial context from which it arose. While these debates were taking place, independently minded filmmakers working outside of the studio system, as well as enterprising visual artists, were approaching motion picture technology with different visions—and making art.

In Paris in the 1920s, artists like Man Ray, Fernand Léger, and Marcel Duchamp brought film into the fold of the avant-garde. They focused on form, making freewheeling, semi-abstract films from assembled images and snippets of text. Around the same time in Germany and the Soviet Union, painters and filmmakers were experimenting with techniques like montage, fracturing and collaging scenes and sequences into hallucinatory visions. Soviet director Dziga Vertov took an especially radical approach, declaring, “We proclaim the old films, based on romance, theatrical films and the like, to be…mortally dangerous! Contagious!”1 In this spirit, he deconstructed the process of filmmaking itself in work that revealed the gamut of camera and editing tricks used to craft convincing filmic worlds and that argued for the superiority of the camera over the human eye.

As the decades progressed, Hollywood increasingly set the standard for how films were made. Some avant-garde artists and filmmakers reacted against Hollywood conventions, using montage and assemblage to develop narratives with a complexly layered and shifting sense of time, location, and action. They also disrupted narratives by intercutting still photographs or scenes shot in a different style or broke the illusion of reality altogether with dialogue, sounds, or images that jar viewers into awareness of film’s artifice. Hollywood has no bearing on the motivations of other artists and filmmakers, whose work takes a great variety of forms, including abstract studies of light and motion meant to play with perception.

To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.

Dziga Vertov, quoted in “Chelovek S Kinoapparatom (The Man with the Movie Camera),” in MoMA Highlights: 350 Works from The Museum of Modern Art (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 92.

An assembly of images that relate to one another in some way to create a single work or part of a work of art. A montage is more formal than a collage, and is usually based on a theme.

An unreal, deceptive, or misleading appearance or image.

A person who directs or produces movies.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

General agreement on or acceptance of certain practices or attitudes; a widely used and accepted device or technique, as in drama, literature, or visual art.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

Deception or trickery.

One who applies paint to canvas, wood, paper, or another support to produce a picture.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.

A distinctive or characteristic manner of expression.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

The shape or structure of an object.

Derived from the French verb coller, meaning “to glue,” collage refers to both the technique and the resulting work of art in which fragments of paper and other materials are arranged and glued or otherwise affixed to a supporting surface.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

A three-dimensional work of art made from combinations of materials including found objects or non-traditional art materials.

A term generally used to describe art that is not representational or based on external reality or nature.