LENOX — In the 1930s, abstract artist George L.K. Morris traveled far and wide — to parts of Asia, Europe and South America — filming the people and landscapes of the places he visited.
With a 16-mm movie camera in hand, he captured images of mosques, Buddhist temples and shrines. He filmed the floating markets of Bangkok, ceremonial dances in Bali and bathing ghats along the Ganges River.
There are snippets of women preparing meals in South America; of geisha being greeted in the streets of Tokyo; of children playing in streets in Netherlands; of his brother, Stephanus, on the steps of a temple clad in khaki shorts and pith helmet; and of his wife, abstract artist Estelle “Suzy” Frelinghuysen, among the palm fronds.
Seven decades later, those silent home movies are being preserved by the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio in film-to-film transfers and digitized copies, with financial support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
“Over the past five years, the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio has preserved the oldest portions of its film collection of 38 16-mm films,” Kinney Frelinghuysen, director of the house museum, said in a release. “Thanks to a number of generous grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation, we have created film-to-film copies of the most at-risk films from this important archive to share with the public both online and in several exhibitions presented at the museum.”
Most recently, Frelinghuysen Morris received a $9,240 grant to preserve three 16-mm films of Morris’ 1934 travels in the Far East: China, Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Hawaii, India, Korea and the Philippines. This is the fourth grant the house museum has received from the NFPF, a nonprofit created by the U.S. Congress to save American films, specifically those unlikely to survive without public support. Funded through the Library of Congress, the foundation seeks to preserve historically and culturally significant films, including silent films, news reels, avant-garde films and culturally-important home movies.
“They are not your average tourist films. George was traveling to areas that most people were not going to in the 1930s,” Linda Frelinghuysen, director of communications, said during a recent interview. “These films [from the Far East] are culturally significant because, almost every place in these films, at that time, is still under colonial rule. We get to see the culture and life of these people pre-World War II.
“George took all of the films on the verge of his career. He’s gaining perspective, and, some of the images in the films, are later explored in his art work.”
Being preserved this year are the final three films that make up Morris’ Far East travel series:
• “Hong Kong, Shanghai, Soochow”: Title cards aid in identifying locations in this film, which includes stops in China. In a section of the film, “the Native Quarters of Shanghai,” traditional Chinese garments, as well as more modernized western clothing are shown.
• “Mount Abu”: This film is an example of how Morris captures the traditional history of an area, as well as glimpses of modernization. The film includes footage of a ceremonial dance, images of the Bibi Ka Maqbara, as well as images of a national monument in Mumbai, India, (then Bombay) flanked by 1930s Ford automobiles.
• “Udaipur”: Morris’ fascination with architecture is documented in this film through his studies of buildings. In some footage, Morris is rowed through the lakes by members of the local community, while in others, Morris plays with more artistic framing. The cultural celebrations are not overshadowed by the architecture. In Jaipur, India, a wedding procession featuring an elephant is a main attraction for the artist.
Preservation of the films has been an ongoing project since 2010, when early efforts digitized a portion of the museum’s archive. But the most delicate ones, suffering from vinegar syndrome — the chemical decomposition of cellulose triacetate film — were unable to be digitized without the assistance of the NFPF.
“First, there has to be a film-to-film copy made, which, it turns out is the best way to preserve film,” Linda Frelinghuysen said. She explained that once the film transfer is complete, digitized copies are made and the film version is placed in cold storage.
Morris spent summers in Lenox, at Brookhurst, his family’s Gilded Age cottage and estate, where he built a studio in 1929, and later, an adjoining house with his wife, Suzy. The couple, known as the “Park Avenue Cubists,” split their time between New York City and the Berkshires. Upon her death in 1998, Suzy Frelinghuysen established a non-profit foundation to preserve the house and studio as a museum.
“We’ve been archiving everything — their paintings, paintings on paper, loose photographs, letters of importance. We knew we had the films, and in 2010, we discovered some of the film was beginning to fall apart,” Linda Frelinghuysen said.
But the digital copies were not what they had hoped for and a few years later, an employee found the National Film Preservation Foundation was seeking films, like those in their archive, to restore and preserve, in exchange for making the films available to the public.
In 2016, a grant from the NFPF preserved three films, including films from the Far East travel series and a color film, “Netherlands, France and Belgium, 1938.” A grant received in 2018 preserved three additional Far East travel films. In 2019, a $10,020 matching grant preserved three films of trips to China, Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia and Hawaii from 1934, which were deteriorating from vinegar syndrome and too fragile to digitize years earlier.
“It’s amazing to see these places, pre-World War II. The war changed so many things. Most of the places they go to in the [Far East] videos are UNESCO World Heritage Sites,” she said.
The videos, some of which can be seen playing on a loop in the Lenox studio when the museum is open, also can be viewed on the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio Vimeo page, vimeo.com/frelinghuysen, which includes footage of their trips to South and Central America, as well as other travel films from the archive.
For more information, visit frelinghuysen.org/