Edited for English readers by CVM, from original document at http://prometheus.kai.ru/abs-sin_e.htm


Galeyev, B. M.

Abstract cinema is a specific branch of cinematography, a marginal and experimental art in relation to cinema art itself (which is figurative art in its basis). It is regarded as part of cinema art rather due to their common technical equipment than common art means, language and purposes. But abstract cinema uses this equipment (camera - film strip- projector - screen) in a specific way. Traditional cinematography is based on "reproduction" technology, when photographic images of real objects, recorded on the film, are then reproduced on a screen. On the other hand, in abstract cinema, the "productive" technology is used (the artist creates abstract images first in imagination, then transfers them to the film strip by means of animation and multiplication technique).

From an historical point of view, the experiments with abstract films were inspired by the search for true features of the cinema art, at its beginning. This led to a situation described in an ancient Indian parable about blind men disputing an elephant's nature. Just in the same way, in the absence of reliable knowledge, artists and theorists were giving quite different views on the nature of cinema art. Some of them regarded cinema (especially films with actors) as a sort of mechanical, electric extension of theatre, as a "recorded" theatre play. Others focused attention on the obvious closeness between cinema and literature (cinema as "visual literature"). The next group emphasized even more close links between cinema and figurative art (cinema as "moving pictures"). And, at last, a dynamic action and expressiveness of cinema images, an important role of rhythm, plasticity and light, naturally led to one more extreme definition of cinema as "visual music", reflecting its closeness to music and dance (even in the first silent period).

This formed the basis of such concepts as "photogenie" by L. Delluc, "music of movement" by V. Lindsey, "visual symphony" by P. Wegener, "music of light" by S. Eisenstein, "integral cinema" by G. Dulac, and "cinema-eye" by D. Vertov. Most often the practical embodiment of such concepts of "pure", "absolute" art resulted in a plotless montage of moving photoimages, that sometimes were deformed intentionally, during either the shooting or film developing process. The abstract tendency in these experiments is obvious, though, strictly speaking, most of them were of rather surrealistic character (like "Emak Bakia" by M. Ray, "Ballet Mecanique" by F. Leger, etc.).

It is more natural to assign the term "abstract" to the cinema school that uses multiplication technique for abstract images animation. The leaders of this trend saw the way out of a "borderline" crisis in figurative art at the beginning of the 20th century exactly in assimilation of movement. W. Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art, also dreamed about it. But he saw the possibility for this assimilation only in the stage in "abstract" theatre, and, strangely enough, had overlooked the great chance given by immaterial, ephemeral cinema projection.

As early as 1912, the French artist L. Survage began to work on an abstract film "Colored Rhythms" (which remained unfinished due to the beginning of World War I). The first real result in this area was obtained by Swedish artist V. Eggeling (silent black-and-white film "Diagonal symphony", 1917). Then a series of short multiplication films were made in Germany: "Rhythms" by H. Richter, "Opus" by W. Ruttmann, "Etudes" by O. Fischinger. Even the titles of these works show their music genesis and attitude.

But, for all the refined plasticity and dynamics in the "dance" of abstract images, they were received by the common audience as merely "experiments for their own sake". They did not justify the declared merit of "music for eyes", being rather formal abstract pantomime, somewhat resembling the nonsense verses from L. Carroll's book "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There":

Twas brilling, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe...

No wonder that the estimations of these films were usually negative - such as "asocial" (given by W. Ruttmann himself later on), "tedious" (S. Krackauer), "meaningless" (B.Balacs, E.Toeplitz), "trinkets" (S. Eisenstein), "child's kaleidoscope" (J. Epstein).

The merits and corresponding appreciations of abstract films changed abruptly, when cinema ceased to be "silent". Now the artists began to make films to specific music. (In his later "Etudes" O. Fischinger used music of "Sorcerer's Apprentice" by P. Dukas, and "Hungarian Dances no. 5 and 6" by J. Brahms). Such films appeared to be "visual portraits" of music, being enriched with music intonation, content and meaning. (In a similar way, sound and gesture are united in dance, which becomes "senseless" and "dull", taken separately from music). Actually, in this case the pioneers of abstract cinema solved problems of not only cinema art, but that of new adjacent art - light-music. (As it is known, light-music is "instrumental" development of dance). Just as Columbus, trying to find a new way to India, discovered a new continent instead, the abstract cinema artists in their sometimes inarticulate experiments actually discovered the language of a new arising art, a true "music for eye and ear". They were often unaware of that, resembling well-known personage who did not know that he spoke prose throughout all his life. The first sound abstract films by O. Fischinger draw much attention from light-music experimentators, and were demonstrated at International Congresses "Farbe-Ton-Forschungen" (Germany, 1927-1931).*  O. Fischinger achieved results which were even closer to light-music, when he went to the USA and had the opportunity to make more color films. During this period he created such great works as "An Optical Poem" (1938) [1937] to the music of "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" by F. Liszt, and other films, ending with "Motion Painting No. 1" (1949) [1947] to the music of "Brandenburg Concerto No. 3" by J.S. Bach.

Very far from ordinary cinema and closer to painting and light-music were the films of English-Canadian artist N. McLaren (1914-1987) who deserved the title of "great" cinema multiplicator from his contemporaries. He abandoned the use of a cinema camera completely and developed an original "manual" technique, scratching colored images by hand onto the surface of the film strip. It's worth noting that this technique was a further development (to the extreme possible limit) of previous attempts made by L. Lye (New Zealand) and A. Avraamov. N. McLaren achieved his greatest results in such films as "Begone Dull Care" (1949) to music by O. Peterson, and "Lines: Horizontal" (1962) to music by P. Seeger.

In our country the first experiments with plotless (though object, landscape) visualization of music were made by G. Alexandrov in the film to music of "Sentimental Romance" by A. Archangelsky (1930). Later, in 1931, M. Tzechanovsky made another object film "Pacific" to music by A. Honegger. The first true abstract film, only 50 seconds long, was made by N. Voinov (1931) to the music of "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" by S. Rachmaninov. Although this film was black-and-white, it undoubtedly belongs to light-music genre.

The next attempts of this kind were undertaken in the design office "Prometheus" (Kazan). These experimental films from the very beginning were aimed to light-music applications. Some of them were made "to music" (of Scriabin's "Prometheus", 1964-1965; of Sviridov's "Small triptych", 1975). The rest were made using "reverse method". In this method, silent colored abstract film is prepared first; then either newly-made musical accompaniment or appropriate music play is compiled with the visual part ("Eternal Motion", 1969; "Space Sonata", 1981). In the opinion of the producer of these films B. Galeyev, the "reverse method" allowed one to avoid some shortcomings inherent in trivial visualization of music, and to use in a more fundamental way the "sight-hearing polyphony".

The elements of abstract cinema (including light-music) can be readily inserted in science-fiction films, especially those connected with "outer space" themes ("2001: A Space Odyssey" by S. Kubrick, 1968; "Space-Earth-Space" by B.Travkin, 1970). The active assimilation of video and computer animation technique provides new possibilities for synthesis of abstract images with music. This can be seen from the programs of recent festivals of experimental art ("Imagina", "Siggraph", "Ars Electronica", "Impakt" in Western countries, and "Anigraph", "Third Realm" in Russia).


Light-music in cinema and on TV (theses). - Kazan: KAI Press, 1989.
Schamoni V. Das Lichtspiel: moglichreiten des absoluten Films (Diss). - Munich, 1926.
Cremerius U. Der abstrakte Avantgardefilm. Ein Beitrage zur Filmpoesie (Diss). - Koeln, 1986.
Poetique de la couleur. Une histoire du cinema experimental (Anthology). - Paris: Auditorium du Louvre/Institute de l'image, 1995.

CVM notes

* The final Farbe-Ton-Forschungen Kongress was held in 1933
Eggeling's "Diagonal Symphony" is elsewhere attributed to 1921, 1924, or 1921-1924
Corrected dates for Fischinger's films are shown in brackets (source: Fischinger Archive)