Image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures
The French New Wave adored film to the point of obsession. The post-war accessibility of motion pictures, hitherto restricted, spawned a generation that devoured the medium in all its forms, and elevated cinephilia to cult status. The Peltz Gallery‘s current exhibition, A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting, wonderfully evokes the obsessive nature cinema can inspire.
Within the unremarkable space are works on loan from the Cinema Museum, a former workhouse in Lambeth where Charlie Chaplin spent some of his impoverished childhood. The site now houses collections covering the full breadth of cinema.
The joy of this exhibition is the insight it offers on collectors, whose labours of love reveal obsessive natures compelled to collect and catalogue. The number of items present here is staggering, and must be in excess of 100,000, including index cards, scrapbooks cuttings and celluloid samples. The time-span begins around the Second World War and continues to the present, but some of the collected items edge close to the first talkies. The effort taken by the curator to assemble this exhibition is testament to the spirit of the collectors themselves.
Envelopes in large metal index cabinets hold fragile celluloid movie frames, and are scattershot and lack the fastidiousness of other files, which are meticulously compiled and alphabetised. Some collections are tiny, such as the 183 cards kept within one small box; others are crammed into tightly-filled rows. A tall chest of drawers built from reclaimed wood stands proudly next to a wall adorned with index cards.
Collecting inspires a love for the subject matter and opens up the possibility to consider each aspect equally, from famous names to the less glamorous characters, scattered across time. One cannot omit as a true collector. To omit is to deny a contributor’s presence within the medium, and thereby undermine the collection itself. It is perhaps this spirit that the unstoppable nature of the hobby exposes. Vic Kinson is one such dedicated collector, who amassed over 36,000 index cards, which provide the centre-piece of the exhibition.
The level of detail etched on these index cards appear limitless. Interesting morsels are sprinkled through otherwise perfunctory information on actors’ careers: Al Pacino’s card states he was once a dancer and a stand up comedian; Fatty Arbuckle was accused of manslaughter; Groucho Marx filed for bankruptcy after the Wall Street Crash; Buster Keaton was an alcoholic; Anthony Quinn’s family escaped the Mexican revolution; Lana Turner married eight times. Descriptions are enlivened by personal reflections; Susan Sarandon was a, “Sexy and sassy American leading lady”; Burt Lancaster a “muscular actor with a flashing smile tinged with menace”.
Clear throughout the exhibition is an urge to collect and collate for oneself, a record to replace a fragile and fading memory. A yellowing scrapbook of Peter Ewing lists the Academy Awards honour-roll of 1939, written with elegant penmanship, citing The Citadel as the best-acted and best-directed picture of the year. The Citadel in fact won its award the previous year, and such mistakes remind the observer that this was a human endeavour, so error was inevitable.
One finds oneself wanting to read each card, to browse each scrapbook, and to hold each strip of celluloid up to the light, but the sheer numbers are overwhelming. To do the exhibition justice would take a lifetime, as surely as the collections it comprises took lifetimes to assemble.
A Museum of Everyday Life: Cinephilia and Collecting will be exhibited until the 27th of January in the Peltz Gallery, Birkbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square