From Motion Painting No. 1. Copyright Fischinger Archive.
Motion Painting No. 1
Oskar Fischinger, 1947.
Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) was a German maker of abstract films
whose name almost invariably turns up in animation histories, including
mine, only in connection with his brief, unhappy association with
Walt Disney during work on the Bach section of Fantasia,
in 1938-39. He was an intensely serious, uncompromising filmmaker
who constantly ran afoul not just of predictable enemies, like the
Nazis, but of people who should have been his allies. Much of his
work can be intimidating in its rigor; but that is not true at all
of his greatest film, Motion Painting No. 1, which he completed
saw the restored version of this Fischinger film twice in one afternoon
at the Museum of Modern Art, in June 1997, and again in October
2000 at the National Gallery of Art. The latter showing was part
of a program hosted by William Moritz, who with Fischinger's late
widow, Elfriede, has done more than anyone else to keep Fischinger's
work before the public. My admiration for Motion Painting No.
1 has increased each time I've seen it. A stop-motion film,
painted in oil on plexiglas, it's easily the best of the several
dozen Fischinger films I've seen. It's a great pity he wasn't able
to make more such "motion paintings."
According to Moritz's comprehensive account of Fischinger's career
("The Films of Oskar Fischinger," Film Culture
58-59-60, 1974), Motion Painting No. 1 originated in 1934,
when Fischinger first envisioned "making a grand and glorious
film to be accompanied by Bach music." He returned to this
project a decade later, with the support of a grant from the Guggenheim
Foundation, but after two years of false starts"striking
concepts [that] would have required a great deal of expensive help
in production and probably expensive equipment," according
to Moritz"the grant film was still not really begun."
Baroness Hilla Rebay, then the curator of the Foundation, "became
increasingly insistent since she had nothing to show for the foundation's
investment after two years," Moritz writes. "Finally,
in desperation, ... Fischinger dispensed with close synchronization
to Bach, and resolved on using the one technique which he could
relatively easily produce entirely by himselfhe began painting
as he usually did with a board fixed tight to a specially constructed
easel with even lighting on each side to prevent reflection, and
after each small brush stroke he rocked backward in a swivel chair
and pulled a shoe string attached to the single-frame lever on a
camera set up behind him focused exactly on the painting. ... Fischinger
worked for several months on the first board, and when the paint
grew too thick, he six times placed a plexiglas sheet over and continued,
so that the finished film, eleven minutes long, constitutes one
single [']take,' one single flow of action."
Moritz writes that "Fischinger painted every day for over
five months without being able to see how it was coming out on film,
since he wanted to keep all the conditions, including film stock,
absolutely consistent in order to avoid unexpected variations in
quality of image."
It was only in this film that Fischinger found a wholly satisfactory
answer to the challenges that have defeated so many makers of abstract
animated films. It is all too easy for the animation in such films
to lose its abstract quality, slipping into the suggestion of natural
phenomena or even purposeful movement. As I watched earlier Fischinger
films on Moritz's program, I struggled against the temptation to
interpret the animation as a school of fish, or falling leaves,
or something else of the kind. It's easy to imagine, in watching
such films, how Walt Disney yielded to such temptation when Fischinger
was working for him on Fantasia and then pressed Fischinger
to go further in that direction.
The abstract filmmaker who subdues his animation too thoroughly
runs another risk, though, of reducing it to the numbingly mechanical.
In Fischinger's case, the dangers in that direction were aggravated
by his tendency to resort repeatedly to the same shapesconcentric
circles, lozenges, and so onand by his very seriousness. Wit is
not a distinguishing characteristic of Fischinger's work, even in
his famous Muratti marching-cigarettes commercial film from 1934.
Similar traps lie in wait for easel painters (of which Fischinger
was also one, although he always considered himself a filmmaker
first). What was critical to the triumph of abstract expressionism
in postwar America was that painters completely avoided themand
even, in the case of Jackson Pollock, the greatest of the abstract
expressionists, introduced a strong suggestion of movement, still
without inviting comparisons with the external world. I know of
only a few abstract animated films, notably the best work of Norman
McLaren, that are comparably successful.
There is purposeful movement in Motion Painting No. 1, but
the purposeful movement is clearly the artist's own. As the camera
records, frame by frame, the activity of his brush, Fischinger himself
is a constant presence in this film, as he is in no other that I've
seen. Fischinger has been likened to Vasily Kandinsky, but Piet
Mondrian, his Dutch contemporary, is a more apt comparison. Mondrian's
paintings, as rigorously abstract as Fischinger's films, can seem
in reproduction a bit dry and cool, but the actual canvases havethanks
to their impasto, the accumulated evidence of how carefully Mondrian
worked out the exact positions of his lines and blocks of coloran
intensely human quality. It's such evidence of the artist's unseen
hand that makes Motion Painting No. 1 so moving, too. It
is at once the most abstract and the most personal of films, and
that is why it is so powerful.
As Moritz says, the film "shows a variety of styles from the
soft, muted opening to the bold conclusion through a series of spontaneous
changes prepared without any previous planning. All of the figures
are drawn free-hand without aid of compasses or rulers or under-sketching,
even the incredibly precise triangles of the middle section."
The film actually seems to start rather slowly, with an overdose
of Fischinger's trademark concentric circles (not really spirals,
although he also uses those in other films), but then picks up speed.
As Motion Painting No. 1 moves forward, it becomes much more
inventive, and then astonishingly rich in its shapes and colors.
Motion Painting No. 1 would no doubt be splendid even as
a silent film, but it benefits greatly from its soundtrack, Bach's
third Brandenburg Concerto. Because the music is abstract,
it encourages viewing the film as its visual equivalentnot as
a visualization of the music, but as a creation of the same kind,
even as a creation on the same level of inspiration. Motion Painting
No. 1 is, as Moritz writes, a "formidable tour de force,
astonishingly successful, and a fitting display of achievement for
the last film of an acknowledged master."
The "last film," apart from a few TV commercials and
fragments of unrealized projects, even though Fischinger lived for
another twenty years, until January 31, 1967. As Moritz explains,
the reasons were complex, but certainly Hilla Rebay's hostility
to the finished film was an important factor. As baffling as it
may seem, Rebay was outraged by "Fischinger's awful little
spaghettis," and he received no more financial support from
the Guggenheim Foundation. He could afford to have only a half dozen
16mm prints of Motion Painting No. 1 made, and they brought
him little monetary return.
[Motion Painting No. 1, in its glorious restored version,
is available on videotape from the Fischinger Archive in Long Beach;
contact the Archive through its Web
site. Signed copies of Bill Moritz's newly published biography
of Fischinger are available from the Center
for Visual Music.]
[Posted May 2003; updated January 24, 2004]