The Private World of Oskar Fischinger

by William Moritz

Oskar Fischinger was born in 1900; thus, each year of the 20th century marks his actual age at that time. With each year came dramatic events that might have hampered his career but challenged him instead to produce a large and high-quality body of art-works.

He had originally hoped for a career in music but World War I interrupted his studies of violin and organ and forced the fourteen-year-old to learn precision drafting and mechanics - skills that gave him the technical expertise to pursue animation and special effects. Fischinger would have been of age to be a student when the Bauhaus opened in 1919. War's hardships, however, had left him undernourished and obliged to help support his family by working as an engineer during those turbulent years when the infant Weimar Republic was also struggling to survive.

What he might have missed in terms of a more traditional Gymnasium education or the special aesthetic regimen of the Bauhaus curriculum, he again turned to his own advantage. Conscious of his "handicap," he read avidly, studying (more carefully and widely than he would have as a student) not just the Bauhaus theories of utilitarian moderne design but also a broad range of musical, scientific and philosophic theories. From all this, he synthesized his own original and personal ideals, ideas and style.

Rudolph Laban, Jacques Dalcroze and Mary Wigman were flourishing in Germany at this time; the touring companies of Diaghilev and Pavlova, among others, visited there frequently. The young Fischinger consequently became aware of the delicate nuances of classical ballet along with the tough vigor and conceptual mime of the contemporary dance. Here, he could also savor the lush, romantic music of Erich Korngold, the conscious modernism of Hindemith, the satiric jazz of the cabarets and even the attempts of one Dr. Trautwein to create a new electronic music with his "Trautonium."

This dynamic mix of adversity and diversity would make an extraordinarily resourceful man out of Fischinger. When, in 1923, the disastrous inflation struck Germany, he was bankrupt and his hopes of commercial success with conventional cartoon films were dashed. Nevertheless, he responded by turning more intensely to his own personal experiments, perfecting the astonishing fluid metamorphoses of Spiritual Constructions and dazzling multiple-projector performances, such as R-1, A Play of Forms. When financial problems forced him to leave Munich, he transformed his cross-country hike into a scintillating diary and photodocument of a vanishing rural Germany. He used his hospital stay after breaking his leg at the UFA Studios to perfect the simple charcoal drawing technique that allowed him, against the crushing odds of Depression, to make single-handed and cheaply, the Study films.

When the Nazis outlawed abstract art, Fischinger bravely defied the edicts and continued to design what he believed to be his best, producing the fabulous Composition in Blue. Later, when it became clear that the Hollywood studios would never allow him a free creative hand, he spilled the irrepressible fertility of his imagination into oil painting - an artistic medium he had purposefully eschewed earlier, believing that the temporal/kinetic "living painting" possible through film was bound to replace the flat illusionism on canvas. On mastering this older form of expression, he took the non-objective language pioneered by Kandinsky and Klee, Mondrian and Malevich and stretched it into new areas.

The indomitable man who did these things was unquestionably a "genius" - one of those unique, vital creative forces that we all long to decipher, in order to discover and tap some secret source of energy and fecundity. But Fischinger's inner life may always remain largely mysterious, since much of his activity went unrecorded (he made films for 10 years before he was married), and in some crucial ways he was private and secretive. In his early years he wrote no manifestos or artistic statements, and during the later years in America, he never really mastered the English language well enough to match the subtlety of his ideas.

In the many pages of manuscript writings that survive from the early Munich and Berlin years, we seem to be eavesdropping on elliptical, almost surrealist memos jotted as reminders to himself, recording dreams and plans, rehearsing confrontations with business associates and sketching out scientific speculations and inventions. These offer no consistent picture of his philosophy, although his later syncretistic spirituality is already evident in the casual side-by-side references to Vedanta and Buddhism, astronomy and atomic physics.

We know Fischinger read compulsively, but his habitual poverty kept him from buying very many books, and we will never know all that he perused in libraries. An inventory of his modest Berlin book collection, however, reveals that he subscribed to a Buddhist magazine and bought copies of Buddhist scriptures like BO YIN RA. At that same time, he was making contact with Germany's top rocket scientists, who advised him on the technical intricacies of simulating the special effects for the rocket launching and space travel in Fritz Lang's science-fiction feature Woman in the Moon. This made him knowledgeable in the technology of the approaching nuclear/space age.

Similarly, in Hollywood, Fischinger would go to hear Krishnamurti speak as well as visit with Linus Pauling. He followed profoundly mystical principles in his daily life, practicing yoga, and working or abstaining by astrological cycles. Yet at the same time he prepared designs for a space platform that might serve as an astronaut's resting place, and like Leonardo da Vinci, he concealed his invention for feat that it might be misused for war-like, destructive purposes. Nowhere are these spiritual and scientific trends better blended than in the TIbetan prayer-wheel, which had so fascinated Fischinger in Berlin that he adopted it as his artistic logo (the stylized symbol SYMBOL). Later, he built an electrically operated model that hurled aloft his mantras even after his death.

Fischinger was a great conversationalist, and such a wit that he could keep people laughing for hours. He loved to play chess, and he loved to argue, just for the sport. He rarely confided his deepest thoughts, especially to other artists, and purposely avoided visiting other artists in their studios or attending exhibitions in galleries because he did not want to be influenced. However, he influenced a great many people himself, including such world-famous animators as Len Lye, Norman McLaren, and Alexander Alexeieff.

Although he apparently did not visit the Bauhaus personally, he loaned programs of his films to Walter Ruttmann, Moholy-Nagy, and the art dealer Karl Nierendorff, who showed them to the Bauhaus students and to Kandinsky. In Hollywood, as a survivor of the European avantgarde film movement of the 1920s, Fischinger attracted a whole range of aspiring young artists. In 1937, the art dealer Galka Scheyer sent the young composer John Cage to him, hoping that he might write a score for one of Oskar's films. Fischinger put him to work on the animation of his current project, An Optical Poem. More importantly, he told Cage of his Buddhist-inspired idea that all objects contain an inherent sound, which had led him to photograph objects onto a film soundtrack so that the shape could also be released to speak. Cage acknowledges that this helped start him on the path to his main life's work: finding new musical resources in natural sounds, chance noises, and "silence."

California enjoyed a flourishing school of non-objective filmmaking during the 40s and 50s, largely due to FIschinger's influence - on the Whitney brothers who saw his films during 1939-1940 at the Stendhal Gallery in Los Angeles, and on Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, Hy Hirsh and a number of others who could study his films at the Art in Cinema festivals at the San Francisco Museum of Art beginning in 1946. New generations of younger traditional drawn graphics synthesis - continue to fall under the spell of Fischinger's enchanting films. Fischinger knew that the non-objective world had already existed, even though European art was just rediscovering it. He felt comfortable in its absolute landscape of geometric color fields, organic auroras and mathematical trajectories, a wondrous land he had learned about from Plato and the Tibetan painters of yantras, Einstein and the Hopi shaman, as others in turn would learn of it from him.


Dr. William Moritz is internationally known as a writer, lecturer, teacher and all-around expert on "visual music" and other areas of film and art, as well as a poet, dramatist and filmmaker in his own right. He has published definitive biographical and critical articles on Oskar Fischinger and James Whitney, and also prepared the album notes for Pioneer's John Whitney laser disc. Moritz was guest curator for The Spiritual in Art exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Gemeente Museum in The Hague. He has restored Walter Ruttmann's Light Play Opus I with its original hand-tinted colors.

For additional reading, see also:

"Abstract Film and Color Music," by William Moritz, in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Abbeville Press, New York, 1986).

Experimental Animation, by Robert Russett and Cecile Starr (Da Capo, 1988, revised paperback reprint of 1976 edition).

"The Films of Oskar Fischinger," by William Moritz, in Film Culture, No. 58-59-60, 1974.

"My Statements are in My Work," by Oskar Fischinger, in Art in Cinema, edited by Frank Stauffacher (San Francisco Museum of Art, 1947; reprinted by Arno Press, 1969).

-originally published as liner notes for "The World of Oskar Fischinger" laserdisc release, LaserDisc Corporation, Tokyo, 1988. Editorial supervisor: Cecile Starr

(c) Center for Visual Music

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