Eadweard Muybridge, Tate Britain

    The pioneering photographer was a showman, an obsessive husband and ultimately a murderer. Yet he was also a profoundly important artist

    Until Tate Britain unveiled this engrossing examination of the career of Eadweard Muybridge, I had naively believed that only two artists of note had been murderers. I am thinking, of course, of the chaotic Caravaggio, who stabbed a fellow ragazzo to death after a tennis match in Rome. And of the aptly named Richard Dadd, the obsessive Victorian fairy painter who dispatched his father. Now it turns out that Muybridge, too, was a killer. Suspecting his young wife of having an affair, he sought out her putative lover, Major Harry Larkyns, and shot him dead on October 17, 1874, with the words:

    “Good evening, major, my name is Muybridge and here is the answer to the letter you sent my wife.” Bang.

    Naturally, I’d heard of Muybridge. Everyone in art has. His pioneering studies in motion photography — the galloping horses, the freeze-framed nudes — are significant milestones on the road to modernity: they showed us how things get from A to B; they cracked movement. So I knew those. But not, it turns out, much else. Most of this Tate show is a revelation.Eadweard Muybridge was not born Eadweard Muybridge. That would have been too unlikely. Instead, he entered the kingdom in 1830 as plain Edward Muggeridge, of Kingston upon Thames, father a coal merchant, mother a barge worker. In 1851, he emigrated to America and recast his persona, which does not surprise me, because, then as now, who wants to be a Muggeridge? From the off, he was a peculiar mix of reality and dreams, fact and fiction, truth and lies. Killing his wife’s lover, forcing naked women to clamber up and down staircases, becoming a scientific photographer when his gifts ought really to have turned him into a snake-oil salesman: here, clearly, is a man who lived in his imagination.

    Full marks to the Tate for guiding us so expertly through the obstacle course of his fantastical achievements. Also, to my shame, I did not even know what Muybridge looked like until I encountered the biblically bearded Abraham who starts this journey. Up on the Sistine ceiling, God himself sports a beard and mane of exactly this snowy magnitude.

    This is how you imagine King Lear to have looked, not a scientific photographer who arranged 24 large-plate cameras before a galloping thoroughbred with such expert calculation that he managed, at last, to capture the perfect sequential secret of movement.

    With Muybridge, the big question has always been: was he a scientist or an artist?

    Both tendencies have claimed him, but that art has gobbled up his influence so noisily tells us, I suggest, where the balance swings naturally. From a few months after the publication of his pioneering The Attitudes of Animals in Motion, in 1881, when Degas bought a copy and began forcing nude prostitutes to adopt ever more awkward poses as they took a bath, until at least 1999, when Muybridge’s cubistic invention of “bullet time” was, I read, a big influence on the filming of The Matrix, fine image-makers have responded to his handiwork with fascination and awe.

    There isn’t a section in this display devoted to Muybridge’s influence on others — which is, perhaps, a lack — but, had there been, it would have had to include Marcel Duchamp’s monumentally important Nude Descending a Staircase. And several rooms full of Bacons, because the typical Baconesque image of a thrashing body pinned pseudo-scientifically against a grid descends directly from here.

    Via Bacon, Damien Hirst, too, inherited a taste for science combined with doominess. Most important of all — and this is something I never even suspected before this show — Muybridge’s work must have had a big bang of an impact on the most influential of all modern art movements: cubism. The notion that an object’s ultimate reality has to be recorded from many angles at once is pure Muybridge.

    So, that’s his legacy. It was galactic. But what of his art? If he really was more artist than scientist, what sort of artist was he? It is here that the Tate scores highest. Muybridge’s most characteristic contribution, his tiny contact prints of running men, descending nudes, charging horses, are an unarguably big achievement, but once you have encountered several walls packed with them, your own pace tends to quicken. One tiny freeze-framed running man is much like another. As their best effect is communal — the little pictures adding up to one sense of movement — the sequential contact prints were never meant to be dwelled on individually.

    Instead, the show dwells on the fascinating earlier Muybridge: the showman, the effects-peddler, the snake-oil salesman. Having had a go at bookselling, this refashioned Englishman learnt early that to make it big in America, a man needs to think big. Hence, I reckon, the dramatic change of name. Nobody is certain where he learnt to take photographs — it was probably back in London, where he fled in the 1860s to avoid the American civil war — but from the moment he envisaged his first American picture, his huge desire to produce unmissable things sticks out from the walls like Jayne Mansfield’s chest.

    n 1872, he acquired the largest plate camera in existence and proceeded to lug it up the highest mountains and down into the deepest valleys of Yosemite National Park, looking for mythic American landscapes. The results are magnificent — eat your heart out, Ansel Adams — but they are also magnificently fraudulent. Apparently, if any of the taller redwoods blocked the path to the vista he wanted, Muybridge would have them chopped down. And if the best view of a faraway lake or a soaring crag could only be had from an unreachable overhang, he would have himself hoisted onto it with ropes. The vision always came first. And, however long it took to get what he had already imagined, that is how long he sat there with his cumbersome, slow-acting, mammoth-plate camera.

    I feared that this display would be crammed with relentless Tom Thumb-sized details, but what actually impresses most is the care taken to sift out a bigger picture of the artist. San Francisco was still a new city when Muybridge began working there in the 1860s, so his views of the architecture have a tangible excitement to them. Most spectacular of all is an enormous panorama of the new urban sprawl, taken in 13 parts over six hours. On and on and on it sweeps, as a ravenous building spree chomps insatiably on the supposedly heroic American landscape. What morality there is in Muybridge seems to have been absorbed from his Wild West surroundings. So there isn’t much. If the Indians he needs for a photo come from the wrong tribe, he borrows different headdresses. The vision always comes first. The ambition comes next. And the truth trails in last.

    So clearly was Muybridge not a scientific thinker, so enthusiastically does he turn to whatever brings in the bucks, the famous culmination of his career in those monumentally patient studies of things in motion actually feels like a non sequitur. What, really, was in it for him? Fame would seem to be the answer. This biblically bearded Abraham was intoxicated by his own image. If you peer into the tiny studies of running nudes, you find Muybridge himself, in his fifties, whipping off his togs and flashing a fine physique at you as he strides.

    It was the kudos of being the first artist to capture movement that turned this fraudulent chancer into an obsessive recorder of facts. The show doesn’t go into much detail on the actual mechanics of taking impossible photographs of flapping cockatoos and galloping elephants. All we really learn is that it was bloody difficult. Which is quite enough information for me.With your imagination uncluttered by science, you are free here to wander among remarkable sights and ponder why Muybridge always ensured that his bending nude females were so comely, why his men were so manly, why his horses were all shaped like Derby winners. This is not the evidence of a recorder. These are the dreams of a fruitcake.