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Moving art: the magic of animation

From Bernini to Bridget Riley, artists have long brought art to life. But the animator's art is unique – innocent, imaginative and fun

Animation, when you think about it, is a very strange art. The invention of cinema in the late 19th century made it possible to show apparently moving, lifelike photographs of real people. But it was also used from the very beginning, as Watch Me Move – a summer exhibition of animated films and art at London's Barbican – reveals, to make drawings and models come to life.

Bringing a statue to life is an ancient dream, embodied in the myth of Pygmalion. It was said that this Greek sculptor literally "animated" one of his statues: it lived. Less luridly, such artists as Bernini and Rubens infuse their (static) statues and paintings with stupendous effects of dynamism. Bridget Riley's paintings do the same thing inside your head, inducing an illusion of movement.

There are fascinating, profound issues in the way animated movies work, and how they relate to high art both past and present – but the Barbican exhibition does not explore them, at least not in a conventional way. It does not weigh down the visitor with an opening gallery on the psychology of vision. Instead, it plunges you into a vast collection of moving images. Very early films by the Lumière brothers show near art films by William Kentridge and the Brothers Quay. There are forgotten Czech masterpieces, clips from South Park, the Disney classics ... It is great fun for adults and children alike, although one or two exhibits need parental caution (such as South Park).

There are some props and stills, too. My favourite thing here is not a film clip. It is a real treasure: the original model for one of the skeleton warriors in Ray Harryhausen's masterpiece of stop-motion animation, Jason and the Argonauts.

Animation can be all things to all people. Adult TV cartoons have revealed the ironic satirical power of the medium. But perhaps the most beautiful aspect of cartoons and stop-go special effects in the 20th century was the reinvention of the fairytale. In an age of science and reason, animators such as Harryhausen brought the world of magic and fable to life in entirely new ways. Powerful moments from Walt Disney's fairytale features are shown in the exhibition, as well as one of Harryhausen's early fairytale films.

Harryhausen has filmed Greek myths and yet he always gives them a quality of nursery fable and folkloric simplicity – as they surely possessed for children in ancient Greece. There are few films as fun to watch as his fabulous tales. And there are few modern achievements as innocent, imaginative and joyous as the animator's art. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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