Lady in the Dark: Iris Barry and the Art of Film
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Iris Barry (1895–1969) was a pivotal modern figure and one of the first intellectuals to treat film as an art form, appreciating its far-reaching, transformative power. Although she had the bearing of an aristocrat, she was the self-educated daughter of a brass founder and a palm-reader from the Isle of Man. An aspiring poet, Barry attracted the attention of Ezra Pound and joined a demimonde of Bloomsbury figures, including Ford Maddox Ford, T. S. Eliot, Arthur Waley, Edith Sitwell, and William Butler Yeats. She fell in love with Pound's eccentric fellow Vorticist, Wyndham Lewis, and had two children by him.
In London, Barry pursued a career as a novelist, biographer, and critic of motion pictures. In America, she joined the modernist Askew Salon, where she met Alfred Barr, director of the new Museum of Modern Art. There she founded the museum's film department and became its first curator, assuring film's critical legitimacy. She convinced powerful Hollywood figures to submit their work for exhibition, creating a new respect for film and prompting the founding of the International Federation of Film Archives.
Barry continued to augment MoMA's film library until World War II, when she joined the Office of Strategic Services to develop pro-American films with Orson Welles, Walt Disney, John Huston, and Frank Capra. Yet despite her patriotic efforts, Barry's "foreignness" and association with such filmmakers as Luis Buñuel made her the target of an anticommunist witch hunt. She eventually left for France and died in obscurity. Drawing on letters, memorabilia, and other documentary sources, Robert Sitton reconstructs Barry's phenomenal life and work while recasting the political involvement of artistic institutions in the twentieth century.
so popular in the Jeu-de-Paume exhibition in 1938 to the many programs of American films the library had exhibited and circulated, she declared, “the Film Library [has] affirmed its un-wavering faith in the film as the liveliest as well as the most popular of the contemporary arts and one in which the United States is supreme.” Lest her audience doubt the continuance of this dedication, Iris revealed that the next undertaking of the Film Library would be to house “a project under the Office of
him, Pound replied, “Chere Iris: I believe in everyone’s having their heart’s desire at the earliest possible opportunity. … Still, you might have told me his name was Reginald.”19 The portrait of Ezra Pound from his book of poems, Lustra (1916). (Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn, 1913) Iris converted Pound’s allusion to the junior typist into a poem, “At the Ministry” which she published under Pound’s auspices in The Little Review in August 1917. Pound was by then a fixture at the
gradually gave way to a multiplicity of funding sources. The government began to support the arts in a new way. Peer panels at the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York State Arts Commission, initiated on Rockefeller’s watch as governor, joined individual board members as arbiters of museum programming. Grant writing and fund-raising became the hallmarks of arts administration—tasks that would have bored Iris to death. Iris retreated to France. The years there with Kerroux became a
would gradually be displaced. Possibly her fondness for silent films, combined with her ambivalence about promoting the ever-struggling British film industry, contributed to her severance from the Mail just as sound film gained dominance in 1930. 12 VICTORY AND DEFEAT As a matter of survival, their standards shift with the times. —Rudolf Arnheim on critics in Film as Art (1957)1 AFTER HER MARRIAGE to Alan Porter, feeling the pinch of earning the family income, Iris decided to write
dangerous task has been given me,” she began somewhat tentatively, for I have been asked to say something of what we mean by ‘the art of the motion picture.’ How exactly can we arrange for people to study the films seriously? What are these mysterious programs we speak of arranging? What are we, in heaven’s name, going to do with the films you give us? I know that many of you have felt a reluctance about presenting your older films to be seen again, because they represented only stages toward