Center for Visual Music

"The Importance of Being Fischinger" by Dr. William Moritz

Originally published in Ottawa International Animated Film Festival Program, 1976

The absolute, external facts of Oskar Fischinger's life are simple enough.

Oskar Fischinger was born June 22, 1900 in the small town of Gelnhausen, Germany, the son of a prominent local family which owned a drugstore and a brewery-restaurant. He was educated with a scientific-technical training, but his love of music led him to apprentice to an organ builder. When World War I closed down that business, he became an architectural draftsman, then a machinist draftsman and engineer for a turbine factory. Around 1920, in Frankfurt, Fischinger met Dr. Bernhard Diebold at a literary club; seeing Fischinger's abstract
scroll sketches of the emotional dynamics, he urged Fischinger to take up abstract filmmaking. At the world premiere of Walther Ruttmann's Opus I (April, 1921), Diebold introduced Fischinger to Ruttmann. Although Ruttmann had now moved his film production company to Munich, Fischinger kept in contact with him, and sold him a wax-slicing machine, an animation tool (of Fischinger's invention) which could translate a spatial cross-section into a time-lapse duration/movement. In August, 1922, Fischinger resigned his engineer's job and moved to Munich to become a full-time filmmaker. In addition to his own abstract films prepared with the wax machine and other animation techniques, Fischinger also joined in partnership with Louis Seel to produce half-a-dozen rotoscoped, representational cartoons for theatrical run. He also collaborated with composer Alexander Lazlo on Farblicht-musik, a multiple-projection light show which toured theatres and exhibitions throughout Germany. By June, 1927, financial difficulties related to the failure of the Seel Co. and general inflationary troubles forced Fischinger to leave Munich, so he walked to Berlin where he re-established himself with difficulty. In July, 1928, he went to work for UFA doing rockets and other special effects for Fritz Lang's science fiction feature Frau im Mond. A year later he accidentally broke his ankle at the UFA studios and while hospitalised, decided that this must be a sign for him to devote himself full-time to abstract filmmaking which he then did, producing over the next three years the remarkable series of black-and-white studies tightly synchronized to music. These Studies, screened widely in Europe, Japan and America, came to be in such demand that by 1932 Fischinger had engaged his brother Hans, his wife Elfriede, and three other girls to work at Fischinger Studio.

Fischinger Studio, Berlin

This also freed him to pursue experiments with drawn synthetic sound and to collaborate with Bela Gaspar on the development of a three-color subtractive tripack film and camera process, GasparColor, which allowed him, in December, 1933, to complete his first color film Kreise. Fischinger's subsequent color films Muratti Marches On and Composition in Blue gained so much critical and popular acclaim that Paramount offered him a contract, and in February, 1936, he set sail for Hollywood never to return to Germany.

Fischinger's independent temperament and language difficulties made it extremely hard for him to work in studio situations, although he endured episodes at Paramount (1936), MGM (1937), and Disney (1938-9), and later (1941-2) sat out a stint with Orson Welles for an unrealised project. His frustration at not being able to produce independent film as he had in Berlin led him to take up oil painting, and through the success of his canvases he came under the patronage of Hilla Rebay, curator of the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, who extended several grants to him during the difficult war years.

Letter from Oskar Fischinger to Hilla Rebay, 1947

Unfortunately, Fischinger and Rebay quarreled over the artistic merits of his film Motion Painting no. I (1947) and he never again received adequate financial support - from Rebay or other sources - to complete another film. For the last twenty years of his life, Fischinger had to content himself with endless unfulfilled projects, with his paintings (which involved him in dozens of gallery shows), and with a home light-show instrument, the Lumigraph, which he invented in the early 50s but for which he never found commercial distribution. After some years of relative ill-health, he died on January 31, 1967.

The internal facts of Fischinger's life, on the other hand, are perhaps among the most difficult things to establish and comprehend.

He left few formal writings and those are mostly hampered by linguistic limitations, since he tried to match his new American citizenship with a command of the English language which he never quite mastered to a degree commensurate with the obvious subtlety and variety of his visual thoughts. His private writings, notes, and letters not only are elliptical and fragmentary, but also usually deal with his artistic thoughts only on the most superficial level. He was an avid reader both in German and English but his habitual poverty kept him from owning many books or subscribing to many journals; he haunted libraries, public and private, but what exactly did he read? And in cases where we know he did read some certain thing, like Scientific American, how can we know what he thought about it?

He was relatively shy and reserved in personal relationships, but he could also be a brilliant and witty conversationalist among friends. All indications are that he regarded most social situations, even "private" ones, as primarily performances, since he seems to have behaved radically differently to various people and to the same people at different times. He loved chess, and he loved argumentation as another form of mental sports: he would heatedly debate almost any subject from almost any point of view (and alternately from opposite viewpoints) just for the enjoyment of the challenge. Few people, perhaps none, enjoyed anything like his comprehensive confidence. With one friend he might discuss music but not painting, with another astrology but not tantra.

His regimen betrays profound mysticism. He lived constantly by some sort of astrological principles, working and abstaining according to moon cycles and other portents. For certain periods he stayed awake only at nights, sitting on hill tops in meditation contemplating the moon. He locked himself away (which was probably necessary with five children) for hours to practice yoga. He moved his bed around periodically to compensate for magnetic currents in the earth, and to realign his own energy flow in various relationships with it. He may have been somewhat psychic, as he reports several premonitory dreams: in any case, he believed intensely in the validity of his visions and at one point, for example, ate nothing but millet for several months because he sensed that he had been or would be a bird in a separate incarnation and felt that he could tap that spiritual energy of his birdness by feeding it properly. He constructed an electric Tibetan prayer-wheel that whirled aloft his mantras even after his death. I certainly do not mean to describe any of these things in a supercilious or negative light; in fact they all seem quite reasonable and vanguard to me. I only wish I knew exactly how and why he did some of them.

Lack of time and money, and fierce individualism among other reasons prevented him from ever becoming a regular or active member of any group over any period of time. This makes it very hard to judge the extent and nature of his involvement with formalised ideas. We know he studied Ms. Blavatsky's theosophy and Rudolph Steiner's anthroposophy and Yogananda's vedanta but we may never know how deeply or inclusively or lastingly he was impressed by their concepts. It would seem from correspondence that Rebay more or less forced Fischinger to attend Ding Le Mei's Institute of Mental Physics as part of the terms of one of his grants; did he enjoy it or respect it anyway?

The last person to have known such details unfortunately, would have been another artist -- precisely the persons most likely to understand. Because of several tragic experiences with friendly rivals and collaborators in his mid-twenties, Fischinger developed an almost paranoid suspicion of other artists. Though he could be a polite social friend of someone like Moholy-Nagy, he would never speak to him about any important spiritual or technical matter related to his art. He seems to have harbored a silent resentment against filmmakers like Alexeieff and Bute who duplicated his cigarette tricks for later ads. He rarely went to other artists' shows (partly because he wished to preserve the integrity of his own creativity), and he seems to have been relatively blind to the possible merits of work different from his own. He dismissed the Whitney brothers' Exercises as "gadgetry," and though he recognised Jordan Belson's genius after seeing his first film and recommended him to Rebay for a Guggenheim grant, Fischinger never attempted to speak seriously with him on spiritual or aesthetic matters and died without seeing those ripe masterworks of Belson's middle period which are, in so many ways, the fulfillment of all Fischinger's strivings.

I firmly believe, however, that some of Fischinger's spiritual qualities rubbed off on the young Whitneys and Belson, even though at the time they may have regarded much of his work as trivialised by the seeming dominance of the banal music tracks over the visuals. Ah, but those visuals contain formulas and gestures that communicate with us subconsciously, directly, without being appreciated or evaluated.

And what of Harry Smith?

Bashe telephoned
today long distance---Is it
snowing over there?

We know from Calvin Tomkins' Bride and the Bachelors (1) that John Cage sees Fischinger as something of a seminal figure in his own development. Cage's work with Fischinger is somewhat more colorful than Tomkins relates.

Galka Scheyer had introduced Cage (and Edgar Varese) to Fischinger shortly after his arrival in America (1936) in the hope that Cage might provide Fischinger with some original and modernist music more suited to the extraordinary, radical potential of his animations. Fischinger, round and jolly as a Chinese Buddha, explained to Cage that he had tried writing sound himself a few years earlier by drawing ornaments and photographing them into the soundtrack area of film so that their inherent spirit, that gave them visual shape, might also be released to give them equivalent auditory values. This notion that each object contained its intrinsic sound spirit - undoubtedly articulated with bilingual aleatory whimsy - intrigued Cage immensely and led him to embark on his percussion pieces. When Cage proposed doing a soundtrack of percussion music for one of Fischinger's films, Fischinger suggested that Cage should actually work on animating a film to better understand the process and potential of the medium: that incredible freezing of time, and that tedious thawing. Cage dutifully came to observe and help Fischinger on his current work-in-progress, Optical Poem, for which dozens of paper objects were suspended on strings throughout the deep space of a stage area. Cage's lesson involved taking over from Fischinger the long pole topped by a chicken feather with which each circle would have to be moved to a small, even increment, then steadied to motionlessness in preparation for the next exposure. Fischinger merrily sat beside the camera, puffing his smoke, supervising, waiting for the next take. But in the hands of a novice, the set-up took such a long time! Gradually Fischinger dozed, and his cigar, falling to the floor, ignited some rags and papers lying nearby. Cage seized a bucket of water and splashed it over the fire, coincidentally inundating the camera. That was the end of John Cage's apprenticeship in film (though Fischinger wrote him a few years later asking if he had ever done a suitable music track).

What does this all mean in a practical sense? Well, I suppose it means that Fischinger's primary statements are, as he wrote in the Art in Cinema catalogue, in his works themselves. Which raises two more problems: what are Fischinger's works? and how should we interpret them?

I confess that, as I review my biofilmography in Film Culture 58-59-60 (2), 1974, and this program "The Working Process" that Mrs. Fischinger and I prepared for Ottawa, I see with some trepidation that I have created a bit of a "Frankenstein."

During his lifetime, Fischinger remained fanatically scrupulous about which films were shown and how they were shown as a reflection on his name and the purpose of his work.

-- Fischinger was opposed in theory to representational imagery. In the spirit of nonobjective art, he maintained, correctly, that his (major) films were absolute experiences in and of themselves, not representations of some other objects or experiences. Because of this he would never have shown (or even discussed things like Pierrette or the advertising films on any program of his "works"; nor, I believe, would he have shown Spiritual Constructions, Munich to Berlin, or Swiss Rivers and Landscapes, regardless of how good these pieces might now seem in the context of Independent Cinema.

-- Fischinger did commercial work only as a means of gaining much-needed money to support himself and his heartfelt abstract film work. Whenever possible (e.g., Study 11A, Kreise, Muntz) he used abstract imagery as the basis of the ad films and after the contractual rights of the original sponsor had expired, he prepared purely abstract versions which would then be suitable for screening as part of his oeuvres. He seems to have purposefully destroyed prints of films like the Euthymol toothpaste ad, Meluka and Borg cigarette ads, and the Rota titles. Knowledgeable filmmakers who remember seeing them have told me they were masterworks of their genre. Even the celebrated color Muratti film, which (as a single exception) he did keep 35mm and 16mm prints of and occasionally showed "for fun," was never included in a serious or official show of his works (e.g., Art in Cinema, Pasadena and San Francisco museums, or Museum of Modern Art distribution). Thus he would undoubtedly grit his teeth at the rape of seeing the Tolirag ending restored to Kreise, etc. Even the majestic rolling moonscapes and rockets of Frau im Mond, relevant as they are to an understanding of the origins of some of the figures and movements in the contemporaneous black-and-white studies, would be rejected.

Wax Experiments

-- How did Fischinger feel about his early films? We may never know. During his first 25 years in America (his major, mature period), he had no access to these films since he was officially not allowed to take film out of Nazi Germany in 1936 and only sneaked away with single prints of the major sound films. We know he respected Studies 2, 3 and 4 because he once attempted to get grant money to recover them. We know that, despite his ill-health he began to build an optical printer in the 60s in order to transfer some of the silent nitrates to safety film. I fear, however, that his idea may have been only to reconstruct an "experiment reel" like the one he used to keep in Berlin (which Moholy-Nagy used to screen at the Bauhaus) containing merely brief excerpts from several early films chosen to represent various techniques he had employed. There may have been other reasons for this, of course. Some items like Wax and Spirals are definitely not complete, structured films as we now see them; we can not even be sure of the provenance of the elements or fragments that make up the compilation we see today. Now, Fischinger was fastidious about the structures of his films, composing them carefully (even when music dictated to some extent a general flow or climax) to represent visual statements and dialogues with some sort of meaningful conclusion. When he speaks in the Pasadena Museum notes (1956, reprinted in Film Culture, p. 188) of creating "sentence after sentence of moving, developing visual images," we can see an important aspect of his artistic credo, and an important reason why he may not have wanted to preserve or exhibit fragments of early films in which the basic intentions or conclusions of the conceptual dynamics behind the imagery may not be comprehensible. Or indeed, like Jordan Belson, he may not have felt that the early pieces expressed a sufficiently mature ideation.

Radio Dynamics

But there is another group of films which Fischinger also did not show. Radio Dynamics, that most lucid, diverse and successful of his visual communications, may never have been shown publicly. We know from the Rebay correspondence that he worked on a film for Ding Le Mei's Institute in the mid-40's; was Radio Dynamics that film, and did Fischinger feel its message too particular or specialized to be screened outside the Institute? Did he withhold it merely because it had no soundtrack and he considered silent films theatrically risky? (How sad that seems in the context of Independent Cinema!)

Study 11A was not brought to America along with the other sound films in 1936, but even after two good prints did arrive in the early 60s, Fischinger never screened it or had other prints of it made. Probably he considered it basically an artistic failure, since he mentions several times in his writings that the power of the simple purity of his black-and-white studies can hardly be equaled by a color film in which just the rainbow multiplicity is bound to absorb or dissipate or distract a certain amount of energy from the main flow of the argument.

-- Fischinger would never have discussed his working process. He felt, first of all, that production techniques should be invisible and truly unimportant -- that since they were merely the instrument of "writing" the new non-verbal language, then they should never be obtrusive or consequential in their own right. Thus he took great pride in having hand-crafted each of his films without recourse to secondary machinery or artificial coloring methods (again this refers to his "serious works" from which Wax and Study 11A are "exempt"); and thus (naturally if unfairly) he would reject out of hand the Whitney brothers' pendulum sound and optically printed imagery. On the other hand Fischinger also imbibed the film business' competitive spirit, which led him to a justified pride in the ingenious tricks that he used to make the cigarettes walk or his abstract figures flow and metamorphose so fluidly. For both these reasons he would never have submitted to a "working process" show.

Of course, whether Fischinger would approve or not, his "unpublished" film works provide valuable insights and aids to appreciation of his major creations, so I'm not sorry I've done this. A peek at the rejected motions and gestures lets us appreciate the tantric restraint of the perfected Composition in Blue. When I first saw Swiss Rivers and Landscapes, though I knew Motion Painting no. I well and could say hundreds of things about it, I was staggered by the range of new information it invoked, such as the basic rapport between rivers and landscapes; the basic analogy between representational landscape and mental (abstracted) landscape with the corollary suggestion of ideational, psychic and psychobiological "rivers"; the rapport between the "documentary" gesture of the handheld diagonal backing shots along river banks and the formalized layering of Motion Painting no. I's spiral "projections"; the time-lapse (or perhaps not?) of the clouds snuggling against the sides of distant triangular mountains vs. the sense of rhythm and timing inherent in the dash-outlining middle-section of Motion Painting no. I. And all this though I know Fischinger would have considered Rivers and Landscapes an insufficiently balanced work and not shown it. Or maybe I, as a practitioner of our contemporary Independent Cinema, am unduly attracted to the tension between the informal imagery and the heavily structured sound...?
One thing is certain: Birds know how to talk
Through some articulation lost to Music.

Now that we have decided what the corpus of work fairly constitutes, how do we deal with it? I suspect the only answer to that is: "In as many ways as possible!" One of the inherent characteristics of the non-objective image allows (or rather requires) us to digest the information in terms of one or more external systems -- frames of reference, programs, whatever you wish to call them. This doesn't mean just saying, "Oh, that reminds me of a comet!" or "The handling of spirals is certainly radically different between the Spiral film and Motion Painting no. I" (although those are both valid approaches). Rather you have to set up whole attitudes towards the material, saying, "I'm going to treat the color-shape continuum in purely formalist terms" or "I'm going to handle the configuration-movement symbiosis as an analogy to naturalistic gesture" or even "I'm going to get stoned and pretend it's a light show." Some art critics claim one or more of these approaches are simply de trop or pas engage, but after all, each of us is left victim (or beneficiary?) to the shortcomings (or advantages?) of his approaches, or the limitations (?) of his linguistic structures, if you would. But it in no way damages or limits the richness of the original films, for like pieces of exquisite music, they can be experienced again and again, and each time we bring with us our new selves to have a new relationship with the event. The a-concentric circles of Composition in Blue -- are they a virtuoso epitome of Art Deco design principles? or an invocation of the "expansor" sigil of the great Renaissance Magus Giordano Bruno? or Tantric orgasmic rhythms? odor...?

I remember as one of the most moving passages in all Literature the description by Kandinsky in his memoirs (3) of his returning home late one night to find a canvas he had been working on accidentally left upside-down on the easel illuminated by a shaft of moonlight (I have not reviewed this text for some years -- perhaps it was a little less Romantic). What a thrill that discovery was to him, and in his range from dismay to elation, what a tale we can read of academic repression and rebellious revelation, of the prison behind every breakthrough. On an emotional level, that's really quite incomprehensible to me. Abstract art has always been such a natural part of my environment that I could never consider it secondary, artificial, trivial or taboo. And perhaps more important, I could never consider anyone blind to its obvious cogency as being more than an unfortunate Ignorant.

Fischinger straddles a bridge between Kandinsky and me. Though Kandinsky must have known in his heart (that same heart which first remembered colors from his nursery) that he had perfect right to paint his patterned canvases, still he felt it necessary to rationalize and defend himself against charges ranging from insanity to unprofessionalism to wall-papermaking. Fischinger was just enough younger than Kandinsky that I think he shared my utter confidence in non-objective consciousness, and though he was frequently subjected to the same inane accusations and pedantic challenges that Kandinsky was (and indeed I still am), Fischinger never felt obliged to reply with more than polite condescension.

Fischinger was not a pioneer in Kandinsky's sense of forging a new format in the face of respected opposition, truly experimenting with new possibilities to find out how far you could go and what would happen if you did. Fischinger didn't experiment; he knew exactly what he had to say and exactly how to say it, and exactly what the reaction would be, then and now. He was a pioneer in that absolute (perhaps American?) sense of a settler in a new land. The non-objective world had always existed. Fischinger was not surprised to find himself living there, nor was he unsure about how to handle the flora and fauna, nor was he afraid to venture beyond its mountains and rivers for fear of falling off or coming across some impassive desert. For surely Plato and Buddha and the Hopi shaman had lived there before.



1. Tomkins, Calvin. Bride and the Bachelors (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 86-87.
2. Moritz, William. "The Films of Oskar Fischinger," in Film Culture, Nos. 58-59-60, New York, 1974.
3. Kandinsky, Wassily. "Text, Artist, Autobiography," in Memory of Wassily Kandinsky (New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1945).

Images (c) The Fischinger Trust, all rights reserved. Please contact The Fischinger Archive at ofischingerinfo (at) gmail (dot) com for permission to reproduce images.

NOTE: Images added by CVM and were not published with Moritz's original article

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