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Student animation in the vein of Oskar Fischinger. This animated short is visually synchronized to the music of Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 which was provided by the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and performed by Cecile Licad.

Animated by Eric Lindell.

About Oskar Fischinger 

Fischinger was born in Germany in 1900. An engineer and draftsman by trade, he co-owned an animation company in Munich by age 22, producing a variety of experimental films. His early artistic goal was to combine two of his great passions, music and the graphic arts. To this end, he experimented with photographing multiple forms — melting wax, cardboard cutouts, swirling liquids. According to Fischinger historian William Moritz, he devised “a machine that would slice very thin layers from a prepared block of wax, with a camera synchronized to take one frame of the remaining surface of the block. Any kind of image could be built into the wax block — a circle getting smaller would be a simple cone, for example.” Later he would create a Technicolor-style camera for Bela Gaspar that he would utilize in his early color films. Fischinger’s technical and creative efforts were applied, along with scores from Bach and Beethoven, to a hitherto unseen abstract art form known as “visual music.” A long-overdue reassessment of his achievement in this area is now possible, thanks to this thrilling seven-film compilation (the first of a projected series) that samples his work from 1927 through 1947.

Series of works:

Seelische Konstruktionen (Spiritual Constructions), from 1927, opens with two silhouetted male figures drinking together at a table. Over the course of the next few minutes, they change rapidly into all manner of shapes, objects, and creatures — miscellaneous blobs, snakes, lines, even a house that spits them out. This early take on psychedelia is a wonderfully witty exploration of a vast interior landscape.
Studie Nr. 7 (Study No. 7) was one of a dozen “studies” spanning the 1920s and ’30s. This one is a gorgeous visual tone poem with a few small, dynamic white shapes popping decoratively out of a sea of blackness. The mood here is reminiscent of the minimalist work of underground filmmakers like Gregory Markopoulos.
Filmstudie Nr. 8 (Film Study No. 8) takes the trancelike properties of the previous film to greater extremes, with dazzling shapes blinking on and off the screen to the rhythm of Paul Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” Critic Christopher Knight has compared this to the Fantasia sequence that uses the same music, with Disney coming up second. He calls Fischinger’s film “a giddy, liberating experience of space in four dimensions.”
The next film here is in color (Gasparcolor). It shows Fischinger’s surprising modernism, this time using a vertigo-inducing Op art/Pop art canvas that predicts the work of later, lesser talents like Peter Max. It’s puzzling indeed that works like this weren’t revived for mass consumption during the 1960s
The 1936 color short Allegretto was originally made as an insert for a Paramount feature, The Big Broadcast of 1937, but the studio wanted to print it in black-and-white to fit the film and Fischinger refused. Eventually he bought back the rights to it. Again it’s hard to believe this film — with its dizzying concentric circles moving in and out of each other, its bold, beautiful colors, and wild angles — was made more than six decades ago.

About Len Lye

The New Zealand-born filmmaker, painter, kinetic sculptor, writer and genetic and experimental theorist Len Lye became a leading avant-garde artist in London and New York, bridging pre- and post-World War II movements and trends. Associated with many groundbreaking art groups, beginning with London’s modernist Seven and Five Society in the 1920s, the International Surrealist Movement in the 1930s, and the Kinetic Art Movement in the 1960s, Lye is best remembered for his contributions to the development of hand-crafted abstract cinema. In the early 1930s he experimented with new colour processes such as Dufaycolor and Gasparcolor while pioneering “direct animation”, a method of painting, scratching and stencilling directly onto motion picture celluloid. Aided by commissions from the British General Post Office (GPO), the Imperial Tobacco Company, Shell Motor Oil and Imperial Airways, his whimsical animated films of the mid- to late-1930s included original camera-less techniques, advertising slogans and dynamic musical rhythms. A fierce individualist and anarchistic thinker, Lye claimed that, “There has never been a great film unless it was created in the spirit of the experimental filmmaker.” When applied to his seldom seen but formally inventive war effort films, this statement illuminates Lye’s under-recognised contribution to the British documentary movement.

It was also in London where Lye began doodling with the possibility of film. As Horrocks points out, “The idea that the revolution in modern art had still scarcely influenced the medium of film-making was very much in Lye’s thoughts when he arrived in London in 1926.” Tusalava was completed a few years thereafter with the aid of a London Film Society grant. Shot with a 35mm animation camera, Tusalava was inspired by the indigenous art of Australian, Polynesian and Maori cultures.

The film, extremely cryptic, about “the beginnings of organic life,” develops slowly over 9 minutes. Throughout its duration, over 4000 drawings of cellular forms continuously generate new shapes that grow and interact with one another across two distinct vertically formatted panels (one black, one white), evoking themes of birth, death, sex, and transformation. Tusalava (a Samoan word meaning “just the same”) concludes with a pulsating spirographic pattern that, upon penetration by the tongue of an animal-like figure, elicits bolts of electricity before advancing upwards (towards the viewer) and consuming both halves of the frame.

The film’s fascination with biological, genetic and symbolic imagery presages Lye’s 1968 lecture “The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid”. According to Arthur Cantrill, this “complex three-hour presentation was in two parts: ‘Art and the Body’ and ‘Art and the Genes.’ It used films, slides and audio tapes, and needed the aid of three assistants. It was a performance as much as a talk.”

The main focus of the lecture-screening was Lye’s idiosyncratic theory of DNA, which he saw as the wellspring and pattern of artistic creation. In his formulation, quoting the art critic Clive Bell, “art lies in the genes”. Aesthetic ideas are generated by our genetic make-up, which Lye illustrated by comparing images of Le Corbusier and Henry Moore’s work with their respective facial structures. This indexical relationship between the essence of “selfness” and our corporeal reality accounts for Lye’s creation of imagery and forms that represent bodily feelings and motion, as well as his keen interests in music (especially jazz) and dance. Lye’s sense of movement was rooted in the physical, “the kinetic of the body’s rhythms”, not purely a matter of visual patterns. 

Akin to Oskar Fischinger’s fine art advertising films, Lye’s cinematic “figures of motion” sublimated their commercial purpose by emphasising geometric and all-over abstraction and direct authorial inscription. As Tess Takahashi notes, filmmakers like Lye, McLaren and Harry Smith saw direct animation as “a way for the artist to imbue film with the imprint of the filmmaker’s essential self… [This] self, represented for Lye by the then-new discovery of DNA, was transmitted in the process of direct animation.” Characterised by an obsessive fascination with colour, pattern, texture and movement these films elude textual analysis and descriptive language, preferring the non-verbal register of synaesthesic perception. Like Stan Brakhage’s hand-paintedoeuvre, Lye’s films strive toward a condition of pure cinema. This focus on medium-specificity and formal concerns limits the range of possible (literal) interpretations, and has been described as “cold rationalism” by the avant-garde film diarist, Jonas Mekas.

Abstract painting and light art

Perhaps art is just taking out what you don’t like and putting in what you do. There is no such thing as Abstraction. It is extraction, gravitation toward a certain direction.It is nearer to music, not the music of the ears, just the music of the eyes. – Arthur Dove, 1929

For many artists in the early twentieth century, music epitomized a new ideal of what visual art could become. No longer content simply to reproduce the visible world, painters instead sought to endow their canvases with the emotional intensity, structural integrity, and aesthetic purity that they attributed to music. The Russian painted Wassily Kandinsky voiced the belief of many vanguard artists when he claimed in his 1972 treatise. On the Spirtual in Art:” Musical sound has direct access to the soul. It finds there an echo, for man ‘hath music in himself’. For the American painter Arthur Dove, no less than for Kandinsky and many of their contemporaries, it followed that visual art, and painting in particular, should aspire to what British critic Walter Pater once termed “the condition of music”.

Roger Fry, writing in defense of Post-Impressionism in 1912, was among the first to coin the term “visual music” to describe works of art that “give up all resemblance to natural form, and create a purely abstract language of form – a visual music”.

This musical analogy – the premise that painting should emulate music – inspired some of the most adventurous visual arts of the twentieth century.Not only did music serve as a model and catalyst for abstract painting, but the musical ideal also sparked a parallel movement to create visual media incorporating the dimension of time. Among the most problematic and elusive of these “color music”, as it was termed by its early-twentieth century proponents, emerged as the first art of pure light. By devising an array of projection mechanisms, these artist-inventors sought to liberate color from its depictive function in conventional painting. In 1900, French engineer louis favre called for an “art of colors in motion”. The American educator and color theorist Maud Miles described in 1914 this new form of visual music composed from spectral light.

“The truest parallel that I can conceive between direct light rays of color and music would be to lay aside all attempts to represent objects either in a natural or conventional way, in using color. To simply use color as music, might prove a genuinely new art.”

Musical analogy in painting and the advent of light art in the guise of color music evolved simultaneously in the opening decades of the 20th century. Creative interactions between abstract painters and pioneers of light art contributed to the flowering of both genres. Transcending national boundaries and stylistic movements, abstraction in painting and in the novel medium of projected light shared a common generative ideal in the new musical paradigm.

In pursuing these various modes of musical analogy, visual artists tapped rich veins of intellectual ferment and scientific research at the dawn of the twentieth century. Among the ideas animating poets, physiologists, and psychologists was the phenomenon of synaethesia, the subjective interaction of multiple sensory perceptions. The notion that stimulation of one sensory faculty – sight, for example – might elicit a sensory response in another – hearing or touch – captured the imagination of artists, writers, and scientists. In 1893, the psychologists Alfred Binet observed:

A question of much interest in these days is that of color hearing. It has been repeatedly discussed in the daily press and literary and scientific reviews; it has been the subject of medical theses.. it has figured in poetry, in romance and even in the theaters.

Many intellectuals and artists considered synaesthesia to be a mystical vehicle to attain a higher reality or state of consciousness. At the same time, pioneers in the budding field of experimental psychology such as Binet began to study cases of synaesthesia in an effort to understand human perception. The resulting tension between spiritual idealism and scientific positivism spurred the development of visual music across Europe and in the United States

Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis. Sparks from the cycle of 3 paintings, 1906 Sparks.

After researching on Synaesthesia, I finally decided to work on a kind of experience called “Sensory” Experience. I decided to express this cross sensory “experience”. So I thought of music which according to my research proves to be closely related to the idea of synaesthesia and the development of abstraction. The theory of synaethesia tend to break down sense perception into discrete units. Music that expresses abstract elements are mainly artists such as Norman Mclaren, Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger.. 

My approach would be to create my own tunes and designing the musical notations and elements. Focusing on the design elements and transforming it into a “unique” experience. Example tasting, seeing and feeling music through various forms of media. 

Visual Music traces an alternative history of abstract art of the past century. Rather than follow the progression of movements and styles by which modern and contemporary art have come to be defined, this exhibition and publication present successive explorations of an idea.

The history traced by “Visual Music” includes paintings, photographs, color organs, films, light shows, installations, and digital media. Traditionally, each of these has been studied and exhibited separately, emphasizing their particular and independent history. “Visual Music” presents them instead as manifestations of the successive unfolding of an idea – indeed some of today’s electronic installations may be seen to realize aspirations expressed by paintings made almost one hundred years ago.

Animating such physically, geographically, and chronologically disparate works is the idea of synaesthesia: the unity of the senses and, by extension, the arts.

According to the principle of synaesthesia, sensory perception of one kind may manifest itself as sensory experience of another – one example being the phenomenon of seeing color when one hears certain sounds. Throughout the nineteenth century, synaesthesia proved a staple first of Romantic, then of Symbolist thought. Synaesthesia associations were thought to result from a heightened state of aesthetic awareness in the perceiving subject. Artists, writers, and musicians, in turn, sought to create works that would generate such associations for their audiences.

While synaesthesia might mingle any or all of the five senses, music held a special place as the referent or inspiration for such heightened states. That holds true, for example, in one of the most famous literary evocations of the synaesthetic ideals J.K Huysman’s novel A revours(Against nature). The literary synaesthesia of Huysmans is, in a sense, precisely literal, comprising one to one associations in which a single sensation stands in for another – one taste with the sound of one musical instrument.And yet, a crucial aspect of music’s attraction for partisans of synaesthesia involved claims made for its status as a pure of abstract paintings as Wassily Kandinsky and Frantisek Kupka asserted that the formal abstract structures of musical composition pointed the way towards a new art, while music’s direct and emotional appeal indicated a condition to which art should aspire.