Film: A Pure Art Form?

By Tala El Hallak


The definition of film has always been an issue debatable between different cinema theorists. Some might argue that film has its own unique definition, its own attributes, its own “cinematic value”. Others argue that film is a mix of many different mediums. It isn’t a medium by itself. Film in its pure form does not exist because it borrows many things from other art. Moreover, in the past, film was all about translating what you see, what nature presents to us into a sequence of images. There were really rough cuts between series of photographs. Theorists thought that the essence of film is photography of realistic things, which I disagree with because it isn’t all about that. Some other forms of films such as animations do not use photography of nature. Also, film isn’t really a translation of nature because of all the effects introduced before the actual film is produced. Nowadays, the whole field has developed a lot and has turned into a complex system of effects, sounds and more. In this essay, I am going to talk about the fact that film doesn’t exist in a pure form, by itself, with its unique attributes. In fact it does borrow a lot from other mediums.

Cinema theorists were attracted by several issues. One of them is an issue that assesses the relationship between the film art and nature. It supposes that film photographs nature, which makes it contain nature in a way no other art medium contains nature, except for photography. This is the opinion, theorists such as Bazin, Cavell, Kracauer and Metz carried. Also Gerald Mast adds in his text “What isn’t Cinema?” the fact that “since film photographs nature, its proper business is nature itself an issue that assesses the relationship between the film art and nature”. [1] Moreover, Siegfied Kracauer argues that the basic properties of film are identical to those of photography. He says, “Film in other words, is uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality and, hence, gravitates toward it”. Another issue that attracts cinema theorists is the fact that the whole cinematographic process is artificial just like the materials and methods of any other art. Einsenstein and Arnheim say that film reduces what is three-dimensional to a two-dimensional surface, and alters many things such as our real perception of a certain thing. Mast explains that, “[the cinema] removes any number of sensual stimuli from it, and thoroughly alters our perception of it with lenses (which see unlike the eye) and camera angles (which see what the artist allows)”. [2] The cinematographic process actually changes the way we see things. It make us viewers see it the way the producer wants us to see it and in the angles they use. Also, Jean-Luc Godard, a French director, preferred the great works of the past to experimentation. He puts everything together well, and creates good transitions, making viewers aware of the medium. He uses weird, “intrusive and artificial cinema tricks (freeze frames, accelerated and retarded motion, shockingly disruptive editing) that have more to do with the artifices of shooting and editing than with the mere recording of nature”. This explains that film isn’t simply recording what nature presents to us. Moreover, film doesn’t necessarily photograph reality. For instance when it comes to cartoons or animated movies. Mast says, “In fact, you can make a film without photographing anything at all”. Photography is not the essence of cinema. It is in fact an essential trait of some kinds of cinema but isn’t the only thing that can create cinema. When the question “What is cinema?” is asked to a semiologist, he would answer, “It is a sequential system of encoded signs”. These signs can be spatial or temporal; they can be objects or inferences from additional narrative information.

Another issue that also attracted cinema theorists is being able to distinguish between the uniqueness of the film art (the medium itself) from that of any other art (or medium). This gives rise to the term “cinematic”, which means anything unique to the cinema art. A film is considered cinematic if it does something that film does well or best. However, for the purist, “best qualities” are the things, which the cinema, and only the cinema, can do. It is absolutely unique to the cinema. Mast explains that this way of thinking would imply the fact that a novel should not have a dialogue in it (for dramas do that), painting should not imply a narrative (for literature does that) etc… and film should therefore not include plot, character, dialogue, still life, or any other ingredient of any other art. Basically, he is saying that cinema in itself, as a pure form, does not exist because it includes some other things that other forms of art have too. This implies that there is no such thing as “unique to cinema”.

Theorists are still trying to discover the real substance of films. At the beginning, material is examined in order to capture those creative means unique to film. The well-worn tricks, such as superimposition, deformation, dissolves and the like have nothing to do with the essential elemental means of filmic expression. Theo Van Doesburg says in “Film as Pure Form”, “As in photography where photographic defects such as un-sharp focus, veiled lenses, and so forth, have been used to draw the image away from a dully-imitative reproduction, so too in film every possible trick has been tried to produce a super-realistic pictorial expression”. [3] Film already has a culture primarily oriented towards reality. There are already ordinary realistic films powerful in their effects that experiments in film form simply remain ineffectual. They work, however within the frame of the screen, not in space. To overcome this, realistic things have been allowed in abstract films, therefore stronger effects have been produced but this actually proves that pure film form, constructed only with elements of the film is not possible.

Eisenstein argues that cinema communicates not only by recording images but also by the effects of both emotional and intellectual of joining images together. However, Bazin thinks that this just breaks the wholeness of nature into tiny bits both spatially and temporally. The latter thinks “the cinema’s guiding myth is man’s drive to get nature into his power by recreating it whole, not by breaking it up”. [4] Eisenstein on the other side sees time as primary in the cinema and related the cinematic event to the projection process while Bazin thinks space is dominant and relates the cinematic event to the recording process. When the question “What is cinema?” is asked to a semiologist, he would answer, “It is a sequential system of encoded signs”. These signs can be spatial or temporal; they can be objects or inferences from additional narrative information. There is a distinction between a cinema and a movie. The former is a process whereas the latter is a form that shapes the process. Mast says, “The three terms reflect the fact that a motion picture is a material (film), process (cinema) and form (movie)”. [5] He is trying to explain that film is actually the material of cinema and not photography of nature.

Finally, we can see that film does actually borrow a lot from other forms of art (medium). Also pure film form, constructed strictly with elements of the film, does not exist. To produce a film, you need a narrative, a dialogue, sound, music, lights, camera, angles, shadows, clothing and so on. All these are not specifically related to film however they help produce it. I also don’t think that the idea of film being photographs of nature that are put together to create a motion picture stands straight as an argument because there is so much more than just photographing nature.


[1] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 4.

[2] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 5.

[3] Theo Van Doesburg, Film as Pure Form, (England, 1929), 5.

[4] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 11.

[5] Gerald Mast, Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience, (USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 15.



Mast, Gerald. Film, Cinema, Movie: A Theory of Experience. USA: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Van Doesburg, TheoFilm as Pure Form. England, 1929.

From Avant-Garde Disruptive images to Commercial

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The historical context in which works of art are produced sure affects their meaning. Not all posters have commercial intentions yet “the majority of commercial artists from the turn of the century until fairly recently […] were engaged in the service of advertising of one kind or another”.[1] Some artists designed posters in favor of the government while others tried to sell a product or show that design could simply be a way of comforting the audience through specific visuals and technologies. Some of the latter used in the Avant-Garde works were later employed as tools to attract people in advertising posters. Commercial design uses radical style but not for radical ends, destroying the meaning of the visuals yet keeping their form.

Starting in the 1920s, right after the end of the First World War, a variety of graphic designers in Britain, France and the US were getting inspired from modern painting movements such as cubism, futurism and purism. What is quite noticeable is the use of a sort of reductive geometric abstraction, especially in purism, that designers such as A.M Cassandre employed in their works. The latter decided however to integrate commercial design with these painting styles of the pre-war years. “A.M Cassandre took the ideas of Modernist pioneers into powerful commercial works, which have become among the most treasured commercial graphics of all time”.[2]

Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, known as A.M Cassandre, is a very well known Ukrainian-French Art Deco graphic designer in Paris. He designed the famous poster Restaurez-vous au Wagon-Bar in 1932. This poster was most certainly considered as part of Art Deco because of its geometric abstraction. Art Deco is actually a gradual process by which modern art styles such as cubism, futurism and purism were used to address a broad public. These modern art styles had one philosophy in common: a new utopian age of harmony. The war was a great disaster; therefore most artistic movements were looking forward to a more harmonious future for Europe.

Purists had in mind that their “new spirit” would serve as a template for a new society. They were inspired by Cubists and are in favor of universal harmony. They think that after the war, the society should be exposed to comforting work. “It seems natural that a traumatized continent would be ripe for the Purists’ Neoplatonist message”.[3] The poster Restaurez-vous au Wagon-Bar is a colored lithograph, which is a method of printing invented in 1976, using a stone or a metal plate with a completely smooth surface.

Cassandre’s objective here is to commercially advertise a café on the French railways. It is obvious that Cassandre uses abstract geometrical forms. The architectonic structures and delineated forms clearly indicate the influence of the Purist movement. They are also clear in the way the flat and polished forms stand out like the skyline of a city. The smooth and pure surfaces of the bottles and glass of wine in the poster are comparable with Amedee Ozenfant’s painting, Guitar and Bottles. Cassandre portrays contemporary machine idealism, visible in the abstract geometric shapes and smooth surfaces. The bottles and glasses used here to make reference to the café are covering the bulky image of the train’s undercarriage. There is a bulky and bold feel to the poster but at the same time, the smooth surfaces gives it a touch of finesse. Some objects are overlaying other objects, which could evoke the collages used in Cubists’ works. Cassandre’s use of type possibly refers to the black rail. The bold words “Wagon-Bar” as well as the whole mass of the train’s undercarriage give us a feel to machinery, metal objects, train railways and other heavy objects. There is a contrast in the typographic style itself because Cassandre combines a bold, heavy typeface with a light, tilted, handwriting-like typeface that says “consommations – petits repas” which indicates the bigger contrast between the glasses (or bottles), and the train’s carriage. Cassandre uses a very light, sans-serif typeface at the top and right corner of the poster as a contour, that says something about the French railways. This poster clearly shows inspiration form previous movements that did not really have promotional or commercial intentions. It destroys the original meaning of the use of such visuals however keeps their form. Another famous Suprematist artist, El Lissitzky, transforms one of his previous works into a commercial poster practically using the same visuals.

In the period after the First World War, there were two major developments that were introduced, one of them being the Dutch De Stijl and the other the Russian Constructivism. The name “Suprematism” was born after Kasimir Malevich, a Russian painter and a pioneer of geometric abstract art, who named his work in reference to “the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art” [4] indicating that abstract forms could convey powerful emotions. A number of artists assembled in Russia hoping that they could play a role in building the new communist state. Avant-Garde artists often speculated a new, more enlightened age and the fact that social change was necessary. Moreover, they believed that they had a chance to construct a new utopian society that would improve the economy and social equality in the world.

El Lissitzky was part of the Suprematist artists dedicated to the Bolshevik cause however had his own way of expressing abstraction based on Suprematist principles adding three-dimensional elements, rotation and even some realistic rendering. He believed in the use of geometrical abstract forms because he thought that both intellectuals as well as illiterate people could understand the main focus of the poster. An article written by El Lissitzky and Mart Stam mentions “Everything that is unimportant or beside the point, should be omitted. Nothing should be there for aesthetic reasons as it will do nothing but harm. It is of prime importance that the product itself should be shown, not merely its name”.[5] Little by little, El Lissitzky collaborated with the constructivists who rejected self-expressionism and committed their work to industrial materials, which met the goals of the new government. He designed a poster to advertise the Pelican Ink Company. We can notice the use of a solid color, yellow, for the background and a simple white circle in the middle in which we have the type “Drawing Ink” and a hand carrying the bottle of ink as well as a compass. The word Pelican starts in the circle and continues on the yellow background. The fact that El Lissitzky actually borrows a motif from Russian Constructivism, which is the hand, and erases the political and revolutionary ideology of it, stands out the most. El Lissitzky had a photograph of a hand in his previous constructivist work The Constructor, which shows “the artist being an engineer”.[6] In this poster however he uses this same element to present the product. The hand is transformed from a hand of a revolutionary artist to that of a consumer. This poster is a colored lithograph and is a hand-drawn illustration as opposed to having a photogram that uses sophisticated photographic techniques. The original had featured the artist’s commanding eye, which has here been replaced by a bottle of ink. The eye also featured in Alexander Rodchenko’s Kino Glaz (Cine Eye), which referred to the lens of a camera, was often used in constructivists’ works. Moreover, “the cuff on the arm in the advertisement has also been changed from something plain into the French cuffs, complete with cufflinks, of a well-manicured member of the bourgeoisie”.[7]

This poster has commercial intentions whereas The Constructor poster adopts the Constructivist theme, which included the desire to make works that served a practical purpose within the context of the communist cause. The central role of art formulated by the constructivists was a complement to the new workers’ state. El Lissitzky uses the constructivists’ style but not for the same objectives. He drains the visual elements from their real meaning, yet keeps the same style.

During the post-war period, emerged a new style in graphic design called the Swiss Style, which led to the appearance of the International Typographic Style (International Style). The latter also parallels with the development of corporate identity, where graphic designers create logos and give a specific identity to each company. During that period, more and more works from the politically engaged movements such as Russian Contructivism, De Stijl, Bauhaus and more were transformed into commercial works. The visuals stayed the same however the works of art were cleared out from their original meanings and contexts. The International Style developed the idea of graphic design serving as a functional solution to a problem such as creating a company’s own identity. The visual elements of Constructivist design were used for different purposes. A famous example of that would be the poster designed by Hans Neuburg, Liebig Super Bouillon. This poster designed in 1935, is an advertisement for bouillon cubes. It is a typophoto, which is the combination of type and photography to produce a work. It resembles the photomontages that were done previously during the Constructivism movement such as Alexander Rodchenko’s poster Kino Glaz. During this period however, Swiss Style poster designers used a lot of hand-drawn elements.

In this poster the image is angled and distorted: the woman appears as a cheerful figure seen from the eye level of a child. The black and white photograph of the woman covers three quarters of the poster then fades in with the background. The signature that was the basis of the logotype can be seen in the advertisement where the square is the layout’s stabilizing element. Also there is a sort of dynamism because of the tilted image taken from a low angle as well as the tilted sans serif letters. The type is laid out using different sans-serif typefaces. Neuburg was “firmly convinced that a product bought by housewives, could be presented in clean typography”.[8] The name of the brand itself looks like it was hand written with a marker and is tilted, which gives it a playful feel somehow. Also, it is partly covered by the catchphrase “Super Bouillon”, which in its turn overlaps the image of the yellow box that contains the cubes. The smiling image of the woman could be linked to one of El Lissitzky’s works, Russian Exhibition, for the exhibition of Russian applied arts. In this poster we can see the same visual, which is black and white photography that covers the background of the poster. Moreover, the photograph shows two young adults, male and female, smiling and looking away into a hopeful future. There are also different typefaces used scattered all over the poster. The black and white photographic element that was formerly used in order to promise a new utopia and a hopeful future is used in Neuburg’s poster to promote a certain product (the bouillon cubes). Neuburg’s poster is “a great example of an icon of utopian communist workers being transformed into smiling consumers in a capitalist society”.[9]

In conclusion, all three images discussed earlier try to advertise or promote something to the audience yet different technologies and mediums were used to produce them: two of them being colored lithographs and the third one a photomontage. What they have in common is their dynamism and the fact that their visuals were inspired by earlier works.  Moving from Avant-Garde disruptive images to commercial, these posters use the same visuals however stripped out of their original historical meanings. Social changes affect the meaning of certain images or graphics and they certainly shape visual innovations.


[1] Lees-Maffei Grace and Houze Rebecca, The Design History Reader, (London: Berg Publishers, 2010), chap. 59.

[2] Blackwell Lewis, 20th Century Type, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2004), 62. 

[3] Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, (North America: Yale University Press, 2007), 162.

[4] Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, (North America: Yale University Press, 2007), 192.

[5] Hollis Richard, Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006), 56.

[6] Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, (North America: Yale University Press, 2007), 204.

[7] Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, (North America: Yale University Press, 2007), 205.

[8] Hollis Richard, Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965, (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006), 102.

[9] Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History, (North America: Yale University Press, 2007), 293.




Eskilson, Stephen J. Graphic Design: A New History. North America: Yale University Press, 2007.

Grace, Lees-Maffei, and Houze Rebecca. The Design History Reader. London: Berg Publishers, 2010.

Lewis, Blackwell. 20th Century Type. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2004.

 Richard, Hollis. Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2006.