A  film frame from Oskar Fischinger’s masterwork, Motion Painting No.1 (1947), which he painted frame-by-frame on successive plexiglas panels. Oskar in 1947, and his widow Elfriede in 1978, holding the same panel shown above.

On June 22, an elegant, imaginative, interactive Google Doodle celebrated the 117th birthday of Oskar Fischinger (1900 – 1967), the great visual music/abstract animation film pioneer.  Visitors to the Doodle homepage were invited to create both music and accompany it with non-objective imagery — a visceral, tactile homage to Fischinger, “the Kandinsky of cinema.”   You can try it here:

It was very gratifying to me, to see a new generation discovering Fischinger and his enchanting, hand-drawn, pre-digital moving art.  I was a close friend, over the course of three decades, of his widow, Elfriede Fischinger (1910-1999) and her associate, Dr. William Moritz (1941-2004), film historian and Fischinger’s biographer.

William Moritz, Elfriede Fischinger and John Canemaker, at Canemaker’s Manhattan studio in May, 1977. On the wall in the background are story sketches for Canemaker’s short film Confessions of a Stardreamer (1978).

For years, Elfriede and Bill traveled the world screening Oskar’s films and curating exhibitions of his paintings, keeping his name and reputation alive.  I met Elfriede and Bill at the 1976 Ottawa Animation Festival and wrote a candid and affectionate article about them, their adventures and our friendship in the Summer 1978 issue of Funnyworld, Michael Barrier’s brilliant and long-lamented magazine.

In 1977, I was the on-camera host of a CBS Camera Three program, “The Art of Oskar Fischinger,” the first national exploration of his life and work.  On the show, I interviewed Mrs. Fischinger and Dr. Moritz.

Canemaker,  Moritz and Fischinger, on the set at CBS for Camera Three, “The Art of Oskar Fischinger”, May 16, 1977, a half-hour program of Fischinger’s career. Producer Stephan Chodorov stands at left. (Photo by Linda Hood-Gille.)

How thrilled Elfriede and Bill would be to see the Google Doodle; Angie Fischinger, youngest of Oskar and Elfriede’s five children, wrote a touching tribute to her father, noting “It’s impossible to deny true talent, and so it stands the test of time and will continue to do so.”

A Fischinger animation drawing in charcoal, left, from Study No.8 (1931), and the inverse image as it appears on screen. Fischinger’s precise draftsmanship creates an extraordinary illusion of depth and space.

Oskar Fischinger was a fiercely independent, freethinking filmmaker, who began making exquisite film art in the 1920s in Germany.  By the 1930s, his fame had grown due to his series of “studies”:  geometric shapes and patterns synchronized tightly to classical music and jazz, first in black and white, later in glorious color.

Fischinger’ s last German film, Composition in Blue (1935), was a dazzling tour-de-force of color and choreography that incurred the wrath of Nazi leader Josef Goebbels, and hastened Fischinger’s departure for America early the following year. Image © Center for Visual Music.

In America in 1936, he and his family sought refuge from the Nazis, who vilified his prize-winning abstract films as Entartete Kunst,or “degenerate art”.

Fischinger found little support for his non-commercial films in this country, and there was virtually no market for the theatrical advertising films that had sustained him in Europe.  To survive, he sought employment at commercial Hollywood studios, and worked, always briefly and always unhappily, at Paramount, MGM, and Disney, where his films inspired Fantasia’s semi-abstract “Toccata and Fugue” section.

Above and below, Fischinger pastel concept drawings for Fantasia (1940).

Fischinger was frustrated by the American studio system, where his distinctive personal vision was subject to modification and adaptation by production teams.

In this beautiful pastel for Fantasia’s Toccata and Fugue sequence, the motion of Fischinger’s abstract forms subtly suggests violin bows. Apparently wary of the American public’s tolerance for pure abstraction, Disney decided instead to go with literal violin bows and strings, as seen in the animation drawings below, by Disney special effects animator Cy Young.

These extremely rare (and unfortunately black-and-white) images of the preliminary storyboards for Fantasia, above and below, captured by photographer Herman Schultheis for his personal scrapbook, give a tantalizing sense of how Oskar Fischinger’s aesthetic was influencing the production in its early stages.  The Schultheis scrapbook has been preserved by the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, where a digital version is on interactive public display.

This abandoned concept for the soundtrack segment bears an unmistakable visual resemblance to Fischinger’s Allegretto, below, which he created at Paramount in 1936 and released as a personal film in 1941.

With the help of small grants from the Solomon R. Guggenheim foundation, Fischinger continued creating short non-objective films, completing his last in 1947: the mesmerizing Motion Painting No. 1.  His final twenty years were spent painting stunning abstract canvases.

This untitled 1962 oil-on-board abstraction displays painter Oskar Fischinger’s absolute mastery of form, color and technique. Click on image to enlarge.

Fischinger’s artworks, both filmed and painted, have inspired generations of artists, including John Cage, Norman McLaren, Orson Welles, Len Lye, Hy Hirsh, Jules Engel, Sara Petty, Larry Cuba, John and James Whitney, Steven Woloshen, Vibeke Sorensen, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Edgard Varese, Alexander Alexeieff, Jeff Scher, Mary Ellen Bute, among others.

As I wrote in a New York Times article about “A Fischinger Centennial Celebration” at MoMA in 2000, Fischinger’s films and paintings “easily and joyfully communicate with all sorts of audiences around the world.  Far from dry intellectual exercises, his symbols and colors in motion are witty, whimsical, and beautiful as well as profound.”

CVM and EYE Filmmuseum co-published this 2013 Fischinger monograph by Cindy Keefer and Jaap Guldemond.

In addition to the Google Doodle project Fischinger’s film work continues to amaze contemporary audiences around the world, thanks to the diligent efforts of the Center for Visual Music (CVM), under the direction of Cindy Keefer, in Los Angeles.

The non-profit archive is dedicated to visual music, experimental animation, and abstract media.  The CVM online store sells Fischinger DVDs, books, objects and ephemera, and curates Fischinger exhibitions and screenings around the world.

You can view excerpts from Fischinger’s films (and see complete films on demand) here.

Last fall, for instance, CVM loaned its 2012 reconstruction of Raumlichtkunst (1926/2012), Fischinger’s 1920s multiple-projector work, to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s vast exhibition, Dreamlands:  Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905-2016.  The huge triptych was presented as an HD three-channel installation; elsewhere in the exhibition, CVM also showcased five Fantasia concept drawings by Fischinger from the CVM collection.

William Moritz was a co-founder of CVM, and his archives form an important part of the Center’s research collection. Bill died in 2005, at age 63, after a long battle with cancer. His last years were spent completing his long-awaited biography of Oskar Fischinger, Optical Poetry: The Life and Work of Oskar Fiachinger, which was published just weeks before his death.

Until her own peaceful death in May 1999, a few months shy of her 89th birthday, Elfriede Fischinger continued to restore her husband’s films, promote them, and present them at international screenings. She remained a vital link and witness to the European film avant-garde of the 1920s and 30s. It was my pleasure to know her and work with her, and just to be with her on numerous occasions through the years.

Joseph Kennedy, Elfriede Fischinger and John Canemaker, at the Fischinger “compound” in Long Beach, CA, July 1995. In the early 1990s, Elfriede moved from Hollywood and spent her last years living next door to her daughter Barbara.

She never changed, I am pleased to say. Her enthusiasms, passion, sense of fun, vibrant personality, and overwhelming childlike energy remained the same, even as her frizzy hair turned from wren brown to snow white.

The last time we were together was in New York in November 1998, a few months before she died. She and Bill Moritz appeared as the star attractions of Anthology Film Archives’ First Light festival of abstract films. Because of Anthology’s ever-precarious finances, Elfriede and Bill agreed to third-rate hotel accommodations, a second-rate airline, and a tiny honorarium, offering it all up for the greater glory of Oskar.

That final visit left me with a memorable image of Elfriede. I can still see her standing joyfully smiling in Times Square as electric neon lights flashed on and off, whirled, zigzagged, twisted in space, exploded and burned with colors that would embarrass a rainbow; and as rows of blurred human forms crossed streets, dashed dynamically through the concrete corridors, twisted, turned and nearly colliding with each other and Elfriede. She beamed through it all, standing solidly at the center of a real-life three-dimensional Fischinger canvas: a gigantic Kreise, a cosmic Optical Poem, an Allegretto without limits, an eternal Motion Painting.

It was a beautiful and unforgettable sight. As she used to say when referring to the ultimate of any and every thing: “It vas IT!”




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Giotto at the Movies

Interior of the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

Since the year 1305, visitors to the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, are also entering a 14th century movie palace.  On the chapel’s walls and ceiling a favorite Biblical epic, The Story of Mary and Christ, unfolds its narrative in a sequential series of compelling, innovative frescoes, which are among the most important breakthroughs in western art.  They were created by the great Florentine master designer, painter — and, yes, director/animator –Giotto di Bondone (1266/67 – 1337).

Giotto had an intuitive genius for visual storytelling and connecting emotionally with his mostly illiterate audience.  In his hands, the story’s characters look and act like real humans.  They live in familiar-looking Italian hills, houses and meadows; they communicate directly with viewers, make them participant’s in the story.  Viewing the paintings becomes a shared, immersive experience.

This was a profound change from Byzantine symbolism.  Those remote, expressionless, cord-of-wood figures floating on gold backgrounds are beautiful, but cold and distant imagery compared to Giotto’s work.   By contrast, his paintings are mirrors of the human condition.  A farmer’s son, he plowed the field, as it were, of modern representational art for key figures of the High Renaissance, such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci; the latter artist, born over 100 years after Giotto died, once remarked that post-Giotto “art declined.”

Always impressive is Giotto’s staging of scenes containing multiple figures.  Unerringly, with great clarity, he focuses our eyes like a movie director.  His “actors” express a wide palette of emotions, among them love, hate, horror, anger, fear, pity and sorrow.  It’s all there, expressed with subtle economy and understatement in the poses and staging. Giotto’s art is truthful and, therefore, believable.  Or “sincere,” the word older Disney animators used to describe sensitive character animation.

A superb example of Giotto’s gifts is the “Kiss of Judas” fresco depicting the moment just after Christ is betrayed to the arresting soldiers by an identifying kiss from Judas Iscariot, one of Christ’s apostles.  The scene takes place in the midst of a swirling, unruly mob whose spears, halberds and torches serve as directional arrows pointing toward the two men at the center.  The embracing folds of Judas’ yellow cloak — the color a psychological tell for his cowardly act — lead our eyes toward an affecting “close-up” of Jesus and Judas.

Jesus’ expression is calm, compassionate, forgiving, as he gazes directly into Judas’ eyes.  His betrayer, by contrast, shorter or lower in position, appears to be frozen with guilt.  His eyes sink into his furrowed, simian-like brow; his lips are still puckered. He is locked in fear and self-loathing.  Amidst noisy turmoil, the stare between the two men is quiet; a surreal, slo-mo, time-stopping moment of private thoughts.

The Scrovegni fresco “cinema” also offers romance and a full-on, physical expression of love.  When Joachim and Ann (parents of the Blessed Mary) embrace each other after months of absence, their eyes and lips lock as their hands tenderly and passionately pull each other close.

For on-screen horror, few blood-and-guts film scenes can compete with Giotto’s shocking fresco of the Slaughter of the Innocents:  babies torn from their agonized mother’s arms are slaughtered by King Herod’s goons, amid a pile of massacred children.

Giotto also possessed a sense of humor and wasn’t shy of displaying comic relief in otherwise serious contexts.  Observe the scene-stealing, braying camel that startles its handler in the “Adoration of the Magi” fresco.

The artist’s personal humor endeared him to his friends.  He was said to be a homely man, and legend has it that Dante (who apparently had no filter) once asked Giotto how he could create such beautiful paintings and such ugly children.  The artist allegedly replied: “I make my pictures by day and my babies at night!”

Can today’s animators and filmmakers still learn from an artist who lived more than 700 years ago?  Of course!  One can always profit from analyzing Giotto’s visual communication techniques.  I contend that Albert Hurter did precisely that in Walt Disney’s first feature, SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937).

An excellent draftsman, Hurter (1883-1942) arrived at the Disney studio in 1931 at age 48 with an extensive background in fine arts training and study in Europe.  With his encyclopedic knowledge of art history, he often regaled his cartoonist colleagues with descriptions of the art of Vincent Van Gogh, Herman Vogel, Honoré Daumier, Gustave Doré, Franz Stuck, and Heinrich Kley, among others.

Hurter became the Disney studio’s first “inspirational sketch” artist:  he created hundreds of imaginative conceptual drawings, ideas for personality gags and visualizations that would inspire the studio’s directors, writers, storyboard artists and animators.  In SNOW WHITE, his visual influence is all-pervasive.  Of particular interest is a sequence that is a breakthrough in the art of character animation: the seven dwarfs grieving over the inert body of Snow White.

For Walt Disney, it was a daring gamble.  For he hoped audiences would suspend their disbelief to find believable the emotions expressed by cartoon characters mourning the “death” of another toon.  In dozens of sketches, Hurter relentlessly searched for the right body language and facial expressions for the dwarfs as well as suggestions for positioning the characters around the bier within a cottage setting, ideas for lighting, mood and so on.

His creative search, to my mind and animated eye, was similar to Giotto’s process in creating the Lamentation fresco in Scrovegni Chapel.  It is reasonable to assume that Hurter, art history maven, knew of and may have found useful, the composition and gestures of the 14th century master’s painting.  Giotto’s brilliant placement of individualized mourners, each grieving in their own way — quietly mournful to hysterical disbelief — as guideposts, leading our eye to the prostrate Christ embraced in his mother’s arms.  Above, ten angels mirror the scene, and they behave in distinctively individual mourning poses and expressions, too.

Similarly, Hurter’s dwarfs each display sorrow in seven distinct ways: staring in disbelief, weeping openly, some so distraught they avoid looking at the radiant princess’ body, whose glow rivals the light emanating from the candles behind her.

When master animator Frank Thomas (1912 – 2004), with great subtlety, transformed Hurter’s idea sketches into animation drawings (see below), audiences wept at the final result.

As my friend, animation historian John Culhane, once said regarding Snow White’s lamentation sequence: “Moving drawings became . . . moving drawings.”

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