Oskar Fischinger, a visionary of abstract expressionism, arguably would have encouraged the Community Gallery’s current, and summerlong, program of exhibits and events inspired by Carl G. Jung’s emphasis on “mining the unconscious.” That activity was what the German-born Fischinger insisted every artist does.
Art is a visual manifestation of the artist’s connection to the collective unconscious, Fischinger argued in an unpublished manuscript he placed with The Center of Visual Music in 1949. “… the time arrives where the artist begins to relax [and] looses himself into something much bigger much greater than he could ever be,” Fischinger wrote. “He begins to listen to an inner voice and the work follows an inner dictation or a higher dictation. Above all moods there is a CREATIVE NECESSITY, an inner law.”
An exhibition of the late artist’s paintings opens today at Peyton/Wright gallery on East Palace Avenue. Oil painting was a mid-life creative pursuit for Fischinger, who had made his name in German filmmaking and special effects before immigrating to Hollywood in 1936. It was in California that he began to paint. “The resulting body of work, spanning the next 30 years and totaling approximately 800 paintings, emerged as a prolific and strikingly diverse compendium of visual gestures,” gallery owner John Wright Schaefer said. “Fischinger’s explorations into the seemingly endless possibilities inherent in abstraction demonstrated his playfulness and evident pleasure in delving into one style after another. In these works, Fischinger ranged from mind-bending juxtapositions of layer lines and grids forming visual puzzles, to collections of finely detailed contours forming larger organically emotive works, followed by starkly graphic compositions functioning as simplistic analyses of shape, to name a few,” Schaefer said.
Born on June 22, 1900, in Gelnhausen, Germany, Oskar Wilhelm Fischinger was the fourth of six children. His father ran a drugstore while his mother’s family owned a combination brewery, tavern, and bowling alley. At an early age he tried painting, encouraged by artists who came to capture Gelnhausen’s scenery. Also interested in music (he took violin lessons), he apprenticed at an organ-building firm until the owners were drafted into World War I. The next year he worked as a draftsman in an architect’s office, until he himself was called to duty. He was rejected as being unhealthy, and the Fischinger family moved west to Frankfurt. There Fischinger attended a trade school and worked as an apprentice at a factory, eventually obtaining an engineer’s diploma. He would use those talents extensively in the fledgling German film industry.
In Frankfurt he met a theater critic, Bernhard Diebold, who introduced Fischinger to Walter Ruttmann, a pioneer in abstract film. Inspired by Ruttmann’s work, Fischinger began experimenting with colored liquids and three-dimensional modeling materials such as wax and clay. He conceptualized a “Wax Slicing Machine” that synchronized a vertical slicer with a movie camera’s shutter, enabling the efficient imaging of progressive cross-sections through a length of molded wax and clay. Moving to Munich, Fischinger licensed the wax slicing machine to Ruttmann and began working on the first production model. Upon delivery, Ruttmann found that hot film lights often melted the wax to a serious degree. Ruttmann gave up, though during this time Fischinger shot many abstract tests of his own using the machine (some of which still are distributed under the assigned title “Wax Experiments”).
Work in film
In 1924 Fischinger was hired by American entrepreneur Louis Seel to produce satirical cartoons aimed at mature audiences. He also tried new and different techniques, including the use of multiple projectors. In 1926-27 Fischinger performed his own multiple-projector film shows with various musical accompaniments. These shows were titled “Fieber” (Fever), “Vakuum Macht” (Power) and later, “R-1 ein Formspiel.”
In an effort to escape financial pressures, Fischinger left Munich for Berlin in June 1927. Taking only his essential equipment, he walked 350 miles across country, shooting single frames that were later released as a film: “Walking from Munich to Berlin.” Arriving in Berlin, Fischinger soon was doing special effects for various films. In 1928 he was hired to work on Fritz Lang’s space epic “Frau im Mond,” which provided him a steady salary for a time. On his own time, he experimented with charcoal-on-paper animation. He produced a series of abstract Studies that were synchronized to popular and classical music. A few of the early studies were synchronized to new record releases by Electrola, and screened at first-run theatres with a tail credit advertising the record, thus making them, in a sense, the first music videos.
The “Studies—Numbers 1 through 12”—were well-received at art theaters and many were distributed to first-run theatres throughout Europe. Some of the “Studies” were distributed to theatres in Japan and the U.S. His “Studie Nr. 5” screened at the 1931 Congress for Colour-Music Research to critical acclaim. In 1931 Universal Pictures purchased distribution rights to “Studie Nr. 5” for the American public, and “Studie Nr.7” was screened as a short with a popular movie in Berlin. In 1932, Oskar married Elfriede Fischinger, a first cousin from his hometown of Gelnhausen.
As the Nazis consolidated power after 1933, the abstract film and art communities and distribution possibilities quickly disappeared as the Nazis instituted policies against what they termed “degenerate art.” Fischinger found work producing commercials and advertisements, among them “Muratti Greift Ein” (translated as Muratti Gets in the Act, Muratti Marches On, Here Comes Muratti, or Muratti Attacks) (1934) for a cigarette company, and “Kreise” (Circles) (1933) for an ad agency. The color Muratti commercial with its stop-motion dancing cigarettes was a sensation, screening all over Europe. Though Fischinger at times ran afoul of the Nazi authorities, he nevertheless managed to complete his abstract work “Komposition in Blau” in 1935. It was well-received critically, and contrary to popular myth, was legally registered.
His biographer, Dr. William Moritz, has written that “Oskar Fischinger is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, embracing the abstraction that became the major art movement of that century, and exploring the new technology of the cinema to open abstract painting into a new Visual Music that performs in liquid time. If he is less well known than some of the other major artists, it is precisely because he was buffeted about by the wars, Nazism, the communist witch-hunt and other phenomena of his century.”
An agent from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had screened “Komposition in Blau” and “Muratti” in a small art theatre in Hollywood, and Ernst Lubitsch was impressed by the films and the audience’s enthusiastic response to the shorts. An agent from Paramount Pictures asked Fischinger if he was willing to work in America, and Fischinger promptly agreed. Upon arriving in Hollywood in February 1936, Fischinger was given an office at Paramount, German-speaking secretaries, an English tutor, and a weekly salary of $250. With no immediate assignment, Fischinger sketched and painted. He and Elfriede socialized with the émigré community, but felt out of place, she later said, among the elites.
Relationship with music
Like many of the German expressionists, Fischinger always was interested in the relationship between music and visual images. As he put it in 1938, “…this art emphasizes the effect of music. It is to music what wings are to birds. Figures and forms have a definite effect on the consciousness.” He prepared the film “Allegretto” tightly synchronized to Ralph Rainger’s tune “Radio Dynamics.” Allegretto was planned for inclusion in the feature film “The Big Broadcast of 1937” (1936). Unfortunately, he found that Paramount had changed the film project from Technicolor to black-and-white. Also, Paramount printed the black-and-white version intercut with various live-action images, so it was no longer totally abstract. Fischinger left Paramount. Several years later, with the help of Hilla von Rebay and a grant from the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, he was able to buy the film back from Paramount. Fischinger then redid and re-painted the cels, and made a color version to his satisfaction. This became one of the most-screened and successful films of visual music’s history, and one of Fischinger’s most popular films.
Most of Fischinger’s filmmaking attempts in America suffered difficulties. He composed “An Optical Poem” (1937) to Franz Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody” for MGM, but received no profits due to studio bookkeeping systems. He designed the J. S. Bach “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sequence for Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” (1940), but quit without credit because the studio artists simplified and altered all his designs to be more representational. According to Moritz, Fischinger contributed to the effects animation of the Blue Fairy’s wand in “Pinocchio” (1940).
The Guggenheim Foundation required him to synchronize a film with a march by John Philip Sousa in order to demonstrate loyalty to America, and then insisted that he make a film to Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 3,” even though he wanted to make a film without sound in order to affirm the integrity of his non-objective imagery. Secretly, Fischinger composed the silent movie “Radio Dynamics” (1942).
In the late 1940s Fischinger invented the Lumigraph (patented in 1955), which others have called a type of color organ. Like other inventors of color organs, Fischinger hoped to make the Lumigraph a commercial product, widely available for anyone, but this did not happen. The instrument produced imagery by pressing against a rubberized screen so it could protrude into a narrow beam of colored light. As a visual instrument, the size of its screen was limited by the reach of the performer. Two people were required to operate the Lumigraph, one to manipulate the screen to create imagery, and a second to change the colors of the lights on cue.
The device itself was silent, but was performed accompanying music. Fischinger did several performances in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco in the early 1950s, performing various classical and popular music pieces, and many were impressed by the machine’s spectacular images. His son Conrad built two more machines in different sizes. After Fischinger’s death, his widow Elfriede and daughter Barbara did performances with the Lumigraph, along with Moritz, in Europe and the U.S.
Today one of the instruments is displayed at Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt, and is still played occasionally. In February 2007 Barbara Fischinger performed on this Lumigraph. Other Lumigraphs are in California.
Frustrated in his filmmaking, Fischinger turned increasingly to oil painting as a creative outlet. Although the Guggenheim Foundation specifically required a cel animation film,
Fischinger made his Bach film “Motion Painting No. 1” (1947) as a documentation of the act of painting, taking a single frame each time he made a brush stroke—the multi-layered style parallels the structure of the Bach music without any tight synchronization. Although he never again received funding for a film, “Motion Painting No. 1” won the Grand Prix at the Brussels International Experimental Film Competition in 1949. Three of Fischinger’s films also made the 1984 Olympiad of Animation’s list of the world’s greatest films.
Fischinger’s paintings, meanwhile, have received considerable acclaim in exhibitions throughout the world, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Long Beach Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His paintings are represented in numerous public and private collections. Fischinger died in Los Angeles on Jan. 31, 1967.