Music for the eyes

Oskar Fischinger (1900 – 1967) was one of the most visionary and innovative figures to emerge in the filmmaking world during the first half of the 20th century. Acclaimed for his abstract animation films, his work anticipated in many ways modern-day music videos and motion graphics.

Fischinger is also recognized as the father of “visual music” (Raumlichtmusik), a new art form developed in the 1920s in which he envisioned the merging of all the arts – a new kind of figurative, non-objective Gesamstkunstwerk. As he described it: “Of this art everything is new and yet ancient in its laws and forms. Plastic – Dance – Painting – Music become one.  The Master of the new Art forms poetical work in four dimensions… Cinema was its beginning… Raumlichtmusik will be its completion.”

After Hitler’s denigration of abstract art, Fishinger moved to Los Angeles in 1936, where he worked on animated films for Paramount, MGM and Walt Disney Studios (he designed the J.S. Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor sequence for Disney’s Fantasia, but quit without credit because his designs were rejected as too abstract). Although he faced several difficulties with his filmmaking efforts in America, he managed to create significant compositions such as An Optical Poem (1937) (set to Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2).

An avid painter (he produced a total of around 800 canvases), Fishinger tried to relate painting to his work on film, thus creating layers of grids and geometric forms in pulsating color, and generating a third dimension of cosmic depth in light, space and rhythm.

Oskar Fischinger, ‘Optical Ballet’ (Oil on paper, 1941)

Fischinger’s magnificent Motion Painting No. 1 (1947), set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, can also be seen as a study on the act of painting; he created it by taking a single frame for each brushstroke over the course of 9 months, its multi-layered style mirroring  the elaborate structure of Bach’s music (although not strictly synchronized with it).

Fischinger’s vision and highly innovative approach to film-making influenced profoundly subsequent creative artists; one of those who followed in his footsteps was American abstract filmmaker Jordan Belson (1926 – 2011), whose own cosmic visions would be realized through projects like the legendary Vortex concerts that took place in the late 1950s at the California Academy of Science’s Morrison Planetarium in San Fransisco (featuring music by Henry Jacobs and avant-garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen).

Stills from ‘Allures’ (1961), ‘Samadhi’ (1967), ‘Epilogue’ (2005) (c) Jordan Belson

Belson saw Fischinger as the man who “could turn even the simplest things into a luxurious, magical illusion of cosmic elegance.”

No small achievement indeed.

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One thought on “Music for the eyes

  1. CVM

    Visual Music and Raumlichtmusik are two different concepts. The text above, with Fischinger’s quote about a new art form (under the Studie nr 8 clip) refers only to Raumlichtmusik, not visual music. Also note, Fischinger did not design the segment for Fantasia, only some initial concept drawings, sketches etc. that are not in the final film. See Fischinger site for more information on his work, http://www.centerforvisualmusic.org/Fischinger

    Please attribute source of quotes.The Raumlichtmusik quote is from several texts by Cindy Keefer of CVM, including a Leonardo essay. The quote from Belson about Fischinger is from William Moritz’s book Optical Poetry (full Belson quote is reprinted in a new Fischinger monograph, Thames & Hudson, 2013)

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