Animation as Modern Art
This week we will see how animation was used in the first half of the 20th century, not just by large studios for popular entertainment, but also by avant-garde artists.
Jump to the different sections with the links below:
Overview of Modern Art | Absolute Film | Lotte Reininger & the First Animated Feature Film | Berthold Bartosch’s “L’Idée” – From Woodcuts to Animation | Alexeieff & Parker’s Pinscreen Animation | Soviet Film Theory | Quiz 1 | Assignment
You could spend an entire semester (or career) studying Modern Art, but here is a very broad overview of that era-of art history:
“Modern art includes artistic work produced during the period extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, and denotes the styles and philosophies of the art produced during that era. The term is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation. Modern artists experimented with new ways of seeing and with fresh ideas about the nature of materials and functions of art. A tendency away from the narrative, which was characteristic for the traditional arts, toward abstraction is characteristic of much modern art. Modern art begins with the heritage of painters like Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec all of whom were essential for the development of modern art.” (from Wikipedia).
“Modernism, in the fine arts, [represented] a break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I. In an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences (e.g., Freudian theory), Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression.” (from Britannica)
While Modern Art’s geographic centers were Western Europe and Russia in the 1920s, many artists moved to the United States during WWII, fleeing Nazism, and Fascism, which considered Modern Art as “degenerate”.
Modern Art encompasses not just painting and sculpture, but all artistic forms, including music, poetry, dance, collage, cinema, architecture… and animation! It can be broken down into sub-movements, some of which overlapped: Impressionism, Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, Abstraction, and Pop-Art.
This series of short videos created by MoMA for Khan Academy (~20 minutes total) explores important themes and works of Modern Art.
Many Modern Artists embraced popular culture, including cinema. The medium provided exciting new grounds for visual and temporal exploration. While experimental live-action shorts were created by artists such as Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel, many artists also used animation. Rather than focusing on linear stories, characters, and gags typical of mainstream studio animation at the time, Modernist animation consisted mostly of independently produced, experimental films that pushed the medium’s aesthetic by exploring novel techniques and visual forms. While these experiments were mostly self-funded, Modernist animators made money by creating films for advertising. The artists discussed on this page were often part of the same social circle, were influenced by and/or collaborated on each other’s work.
Many of the early Modernist animators explored abstraction – or “Absolute film”: “The term “Absolute Film” was coined by analogy with the expression “Absolute Music,” referring to music like Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos which had no reference to a story, poetry, dance, ceremony or any other thing besides the essential elements – harmonies, rhythms, melodies, counterpoints, etc. – of music itself. Cinema even more than music seems dominated by documentary and fiction functions, both of which relied on film recording human activities which had their primary existence and meaning outside the film theatre. Absolute Film, by contrast, would present things which could be expressed uniquely with cinematic means. The most unique thing that cinema could do is present a visual spectacle comparable to auditory music, with fluid, dynamic imagery rhythmically paced by editing, dissolving, superimposition, segmented screen, contrasts of positive and negative, color ambiance and other cinematic devices. Already in the 1910s, the Italian Futurists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra made at least nine films, painting directly on the filmstrip not only non-objective pieces (the gradual takeover of the all-green screen by a red star, playing with afterimage) but also taking a divisionist painting by Segantini (“A girl lying in a field of flowers”) and re-painting it on frame after frame of the film to allow the colored dots to vibrate even more brilliantly than on the canvas. Unfortunately these films are all lost.” (from centerforvisualmusic.org)
Walther Ruttmann (1887-1941) was the first filmmaker to finish an Absolute Film and distribute it in public cinemas. “A painter and musician by training, Ruttmann renounced his abstract oil painting in 1919, declaring film to be the art-medium of the future. He mastered the techniques of filmmaking, and prepared his first film “Opus I” (1921) (12 min) (see video below) with single-framed painting on glass and animated cutouts. The film was colored by three methods – toning, hand-tinting, and tinting of whole strips – so there was no single negative, and each print had to be assembled scene by scene after the complex coloring had been done. An old college buddy Max Butting composed a musical score for the finished film, and Ruttmann himself played the cello in the string quintet that performed live with each screening at several German cities in the Spring of 1921. Ruttmann made three more Opus films, but used simpler tinting and did not prepare special music so that the films could be more easily and widely screened.” (from centerforvisualmusic.org)
Hans Richter (1888 – 1976), a contemporary and acquaintance of Walther Ruttmann, is another important figure of “absolute filmmaking”. “”[He] started out as a painter in the Dada movement around 1916 following a crippling injury during WWI. Before going to war, the Berlin-born Richter was a carpenter’s apprentice and had studied art. During the late ’20s, he was actively involved with the International Congress of Independent Film and worked closely with such major filmmakers as Eisenstein. When the Nazis came to power in the early ’30s, Richter fled the country. After spending a few rootless years in Europe, he moved to the United States. Arriving in 1941, he soon became the director of the Institute of Film Techniques at City College in New York. Richter also began directing American films such as “Dreams That Money Can Buy”, which won an award at the 1947 Venice Film Festival. Richter moved to Switzerland in 1952 and went on to become an important film theorist.” (from lightcone.org). While Ruttman’s films consist primarily of fluid, painterly, and colorful strokes, Richter’s first film, “Rhythmus 21” (1921) (3 min) (see below), uses black and white geometric shapes to play “with form and depth, as squares and rectangles pulse and change size in comparison both to one another and to the film frame itself.” (from MoMA Film Vault Summer Camp description)
Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) is perhaps the most influential absolute filmmaker – his work greatly influenced one of the sequences in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) (see week 5 ). “He spent his youth mastering the violin and apprenticing at an organ-building firm until the firm’s owners were drafted into World War I. The following year he was deemed too young and unhealthy for duty and thus moved to Frankfurt to become an apprentice draftsman in an architect’s office, ultimately receiving a diploma in engineering. In 1920 Fischinger was introduced to film critic Bernhard Diebold in a Frankfurt literary club. Taken by Fischinger’s abstract scroll sketches, Diebold introduced him to the artistic potential of filmmaking. The following year, Fischinger attended the first public screening of Walther Ruttmann’s Light Play Opus I. Fischinger was so moved by Ruttman’s film that he decided to devote his life to the creation of “absolute cinema” — also known as non-narrative film, this style of experimental film perfectly incorporated his musical and graphic art skills. Fischinger’s films of the early 1920s are examples of his most radical work, perhaps due to his interest in pushing past the more traditional romantic features of Ruttmann’s films. In the films Wax Experiments and Spirals, he portrayed hypnotic, complex, visual patterns interrupted by striking “singular frames of contrasting imagery” and experimented with this unique editing style again, ultimately creating a series of film performances called Raumlichtkunst (‘space-light-music’): abstract multiple-projection shows, first performed in Germany in 1926. Raumlichtkunst is widely considered to be far ahead of its time with its dynamic inventiveness.” (from “Oskar Fischinger, Pioneer of Abstract Animation” by Tori Campbell)
“In 1929 Fischinger was commissioned by Fritz Lang to make special effects of stars, planets, and rocketships for his science-fiction feature film Woman in the Moon. After breaking an ankle on set, Fischinger began drawing charcoal animations on paper — leading to the Studies series (see “Studie nr. 5” (1930) excerpt (0:30 min) below). [This] series, synchronized with music, was extremely popular with audiences around the world but the rise of Nazism led to the films being labeled as “degenerate art”. However, during this time, the advent of the Gaspar Color process afforded him new opportunities and his 1933-1934 film “Circles” became utilized as an advertising film. He also produced a second film in colour, “Composition in Blue” (1935) (see excerpt below), that he submitted to foreign festivals even though without an official permit.” (from “Oskar Fischinger, Pioneer of Abstract Animation” by Tori Campbell)
“A pioneer of visual music and electronic art, Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983) produced over a dozen short abstract animations between the 1930s and the 1950s. Set to classical music by the likes of Bach, Saint-Saens or Shostakovich, and filled with colorful forms, elegant design and sprightly, dance-like-rhythms, Bute’s filmmaking is at once formally rigorous and energetically high-spirited, like a marriage of high modernism and Merrie Melodies (see week5). In the late 1940s, Lewis Jacobs observed that Bute’s films were ‘composed upon mathematical formulae depicting in ever-changing lights and shadows, growing lines and forms, deepening colors and tones, the tumbling, racing impressions evoked by the musical accompaniment.’ Bute herself wrote that she sought to ‘bring to the eyes a combination of visual forms unfolding along with the thematic development and rhythmic cadences of music.'” (from Ed Halter on lightcone.org). While Bute’s films may seem “experimental” today, they were seen by a wide-audience during her lifetime as they were screened before prestige feature films in movie theaters.
Bute’s most famous (and commercially successful) film, “Spook Sport” (1939) (see below), ran for months at Radio City Music Hall. “It announces itself as a new kind of film ballet comprised of “color, music, and movement,” and is a lively interpretation of a night at a graveyard where colored shapes representing bats, ghosts, and spooks jump, shimmy, bounce, glide, and spiral across the frame. Bute hired animator Norman McLaren (see week 8) to draw these forms directly onto the filmstrip.” (from Kanopy.com)
Another artist who painted directly on film around the same time as McLaren and Bute to create animated shapes synchronized to music was Len Lye (1901-1980). He referred to his process of drawing and scratching directly on film as “direct animation”. While he spent most of his adult life in London and New York, his childhood in New Zealand had a big influence on his work: his films draw on Maori, Aboriginal and Samoan art forms. Aside from his semi-abstract animations, Lye also explored movement through kinetic sculptures. One of his most famous films is “A Colour Box” (1932) (3 min) (see below): “Lye’s first “direct” (camera-less) animation combined popular Cuban dance music with hand-painted abstract designs. Screened in many cinemas in Britain, the film had a huge impact because of its novelty and because it divided audiences – some viewers loved it, others hated it. Colour was still a novelty and Lye’s direct painting on celluloid created brilliant colours. The film won festival awards, though some festivals had to invent a special category for this new style of animation. In Venice, the Fascists disrupted screenings because they saw it as “degenerate” modern art. The film was funded and distributed by John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit on the condition that Lye included a postal advertisement at the end.” (from the Len Lye foundation)
Lotte Reiniger (1899 – 1981) is one of the most important figures of early 20th century animation.
Her technique and approach to animation is connected to the Bauhaus movement: “Bauhaus—literally translated to “construction house”—originated as a German school of the arts in the early 20th century. Founded by Walter Gropius, the school eventually morphed into its own modern art movement characterized by its unique approach to architecture and design. Today, Bauhaus is renowned for both its unique aesthetic that inventively combines the fine arts with arts and crafts as well as its enduring influence on modern and contemporary art. In 1919, German architect Walter Gropius established Staatliches Bauhaus, a school dedicated to uniting all branches of the arts under one roof. The school acted as a hub for Europe’s most experimental creatives, with well-known artists like Josef Albers, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee offering their expertise as instructors. Bauhaus as an educational institution existed in three cities—Weimar (1919 to 1925), Dessau (1925 to 1932), and Berlin (1932 to 1933). Weimar was where Gropius laid the groundwork for Bauhaus to come; it’s where he established ideals that would be considered visionary for the time. Art, according to his manifesto and the program, should serve a social role and there should no longer be a division of craft-based disciplines.” (from “Bauhaus: How the Avant-Garde Movement Transformed Modern Art” by Kelly Richman-Abdou). “Scherenschnitte” – the scissor-cutting technique which Lotter Reininger used masterfully in her animations was widely used by German women in the early twentieth century to create paper figures and scenes. The Bauhaus’ re-evaluation of “craft” meant that these types of art practices were given new importance and meaning.
“As a child, [Lotte Reiniger] was fascinated with the Chinese arts of paper cutting of silhouette puppetry (see week2), even building her own puppet theatre so that she could put on shows for her family and friends.(…) [She started her career by] making costumes and props and working backstage. She started making silhouette portraits of the various actors around her, and soon she was making elaborate title cards for Paul Wegener’s (famous for directing ‘The Golem” (1920)), many of which featured her silhouettes.
The success of this work got her admitted into the Institut für Kulturforschung (Institute for Cultural Research), an experimental animation and shortfilm studio. It was there that she met her future creative partner and husband (from 1921), Carl Koch, as well as other avant-garde artists including Hans Cürlis (filmmaker), Bertolt Brecht (playwright), and Berthold Bartosch (see below).
The first film Reiniger directed was “Das Ornament des verliebten Herzens” (“The Ornament of the Enamoured Heart”)(1919), a five-minute piece involving two lovers and an ornament that reflects their moods. The film was very well received, and its success opened up many new connections for Reiniger in the animation industry.
She made six short films over the next few years, all produced and photographed by her husband, Carl Koch, including the fairytale animation “Aschenputtel” (1922). These shorts were interspersed with advertising films (the Julius Pinschewer advertising agency innovated ad films and sponsored a large number of abstract animators during the Weimar period) and special effects for various feature films—most famously a silhouette falcon for a dream sequence in Part One of “Die Nibelungen” (1924) by Fritz Lang. During this time, she found herself at the centre of a large group of ambitious German animators, including Bartosch, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger.
In 1923, she was approached by Louis Hagen (a film producer), who had bought a large quantity of raw film stock as an investment to fight the spiraling inflation of the period. He asked her to do a feature-length animated film. There was some difficulty that came with doing this, however. Reiniger is quoted as saying “We had to think twice. This was a never heard of thing. Animated films were supposed to make people roar with laughter, and nobody had dared to entertain an audience with them for more than ten minutes. Everybody to whom we talked in the industry about the proposition was horrified.” The result, which took 3 years to complete, was “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926) (1 h 7 min) (see below), one of the first animated feature films, with a plot that is a pastiche of stories from One Thousand and One Nights. Although it failed to find a distributor for almost a year, once premiered in Paris (thanks to the support of Jean Renoir – one of French cinema’s most famous directors), it became a critical and popular success. Because of this delay, however, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed’s” expressionistic style did not quite fit with the realism that was becoming popular in cinema in 1926. Reiniger uses lines that can almost be called “colorful” to represent the film’s exotic locations.Today, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” is thought to be one of the oldest surviving feature-length animated films.
Reiniger, in devising a predecessor to the multiplane camera for certain effects, preceded Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney by a decade. Above her animation table, a camera with a manual shutter was placed in order to achieve this. She placed planes of glass to achieve a layered effect. The setup was then backlit. This camera setup was later invented simultaneously and innovated in cel animation. Reiniger wrote instructions on how to construct her “trick-table” in her book, “Shadow puppets, shadow theatres, and shadow films” published in 1975. In addition to Reiniger’s silhouette actors, “Prince Achmed” boasted dream-like backgrounds by Walter Ruttmann (her partner in the “Die Nibelungen” sequence) and Walter Türck, and a symphonic score by Wolfgang Zeller. Additional effects were added by Carl Koch and Berthold Bartosch.
With the rise of the Nazi Party, Reiniger and Koch decided to emigrate (both were involved in left-wing politics), but found that no other country would give them permanent visas. As a result, the couple spent the years 1933–1944 moving from country to country, staying as long as visas would allow. (…)In 1949, Reiniger and Koch moved to London. (…) After a period of seclusion after her husband’s death in 1963, renewed interest in her work resulted in Reiniger’s return to Germany. She later visited the United States, and began making films again soon after. She made three more films, the last of which, “Die vier Jahreszeiten” (“The Four Seasons”)(1981), was completed the year before she died.” (from Wikipedia)
This documentary (17 min) directed by John Isaacs in 1970 shows Lotte Reiniger (69 years old at the time) at work:
After working on Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed”, Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968), moved to Paris and worked on his own animated film: “L’Idée” (“The Idea”) (1932) (25 min) (see below). The short film is based on the eponymous book of 83 woodcut prints by Frans Masereel (1889-1972) published in 1920. Masereel, who was part of the same social circle as Bartosch, pioneered the “novel without words”, books consisting solely of woodcuts, that can be thought of as precursors to graphic novels. “The Idea” (1920) is one of his earliest novels. It “depicts a writer who summons forth an idea manifested in the form of a nude woman springing from his head. She escapes into the world, challenging the social order and inciting passionate action.” (from “Frans Masereel’s The Idea, Animated” by Molly Fair).
“Bartosch invented an elaborate, ingenious system for animating “The Idea”, using jointed cardboard characters for the figures, and photographing them through moving panes of glass, on which were superimposed various levels of scenery, much like a moving stage play. He tinted the glass with black ink washes and soap, lighting them from below, giving the scenes an otherworldly glow. The soaped areas read on film as iridescent light, increasing the poetic ambience of the images. In all, Bartosch worked for two years, animating approximately 45,000 frames for The Idea by himself. Another notable feature of the film was its score, created by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used an electronic instrument called an ondes Martenot, invented in 1928, the sound of which was very similar to the later Theremin. This is believed to be the first use of an electronic instrument in a film score. Honegger’s music intensified the film’s haunting quality, and the ondes Martenot provided the music with a lilting, modern edge. Bartosch’s film is a milestone in animation history, both in the innovation of its technique, and in the poetry that Bartosch achieved on film. Upon its release, his colleague Alexander Alexieiff (see below) called “The Idea” “the first serious, poetic, tragic work in animation.” Bartosch went on to produce his animated magnum opus, an antiwar film entitled either “Cosmos” or “Nightmare and Dreams”, depending on the source one reads. The Nazis destroyed the copy of the film that Barthold deposited at the Cinémathèque Française, and tragically, no other copies exist.” (from ineedartandcoffee)
“Alexandre Alexandrovitch Alexeieff (1901-1982) was a Russian Empire-born artist, filmmaker and illustrator who lived and worked mainly in Paris. He and his second wife, Claire Parker (1906–1981), are credited with inventing the pinscreen animation technique. In all Alexeieff and Parker produced 6 films on the pinscreen (…). Alexandre Alexeïeff spent his childhood between Turkey and Russia. He moved to Paris in 1920 and worked as a stage designer and costume designer (…). Passionate about drawing and engraving, he also illustrated many books by Giraudoux, Gogol, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Poe, Malraux, and Baudelaire”. Claire Parker was an American engineer who graduated from MIT. She met Alexeieff when she moved to Paris in her early 20s. “In 1931, Alexeïeff and Parker developed a new animation technique known as the pinscreen to bring his engravings to life. Thousands of pins are fixed on a vertical panel lit by grazing light and can be driven in or out at will. The shadows of the pins make it possible to form an infinite variety of images that will then be filmed one by one. In 1933, Alexandre Alexeïeff and Claire Parker made their first film together based on this technique: “A Night on the Bald Mountain” (11 min)(see below), a fantastic illustration of the music of Modeste Moussorgsky. They will realize four others using this same technique: “By the way” (1944), “The nose” (1963), “Pictures of an exhibition” (1972) and “Three themes” (1980). (from film-gallery.org). In 1973, the couple demonstrated the pinscreen for the NFB (National Film Board of Canada). The session was recorded and is available on the NFB website (see below).
In 2012, the Canadian animator Michèle Lemieux (b. 1959), used the Alexeieff-Parker pinscreen for her short film “Here and the Great Elsewhere” (14 min) (see below). “The short film concludes by referencing its creator and the source of its unique painterly aesthetic. The final shot tracks away from the pinscreen, revealing the enormous frame standing lonely on two legs. The image recalls a quip from pointillism master, Georges Seurat, who pursued similar effects with his artwork: “Painting is the art of hollowing a surface.” “Here and the Great Elsewhere” is a poetic ode to its tool, inspired by Lemieux’s first interaction with the pinscreen. “This idea came right away when I was first touching it,” she says. “It gathers together to create life just as particles gather together to create life. I could see the metaphor in front of me, that the universe is inside of this instrument.”” (from “It Took 240,000 Pins to Make the Most Innovative Short Film of the Year” by Maggie Lange)
Live-action filmmakers in the Soviet Union in the 1910s and 1920s pushed the medium’s visual, temporal and narrative possibilities to create a new “film language” which influenced filmmakers around the world and led to many filmmaking techniques still used today – including “montage theory”:
“Soviet Montage came from the concept that film theory doesn’t necessary have to align with theatrical frameworks, as the filmmaking process provides an entirely new set of tools. Director Lev Kulshov (1899-1970) first conceptualized montage theory on the basis that one frame may not be enough to convey an idea or an emotion. This would become known as the Kuleshov Effect. The audience are able to view two separate images and subconsciously give them a collective context. To prove his point, the filmmaker cut together various images, each of which changed the audience’s reading: The same facial expression, applied to different situations, will be interpreted entirely differently by the audience depending on its collective context. In this way, Kulshov was applying tools more commonly associated with literature and language, forming sequences as you would a sentence rather than composing a scene as if it were a live theatrical production.
Kulshov’s theory asked questions as to how editing and composition influences a viewer’s interpretation of a sequence. He inspired filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein (“Battleship Potemkin” (1926)), who was formerly a student of Kulshov, and Dziga Vertov (“The Man With a Movie Camera” (1929)). Collectively, the directors utilizing montage theory were able to explore how time and space can be presented on film, exploring how audiences may respond to various montage techniques.
Although montage is generally used in less radical ways in modern cinema, Kulshov’s theory has undeniably become a common tool for filmmakers worldwide, and films such as “Battleship Potemkin” and “The Man With a Movie Camera” are still celebrated as some of the most groundbreaking films of all time.” (from movementsinfilm.com)
Dziga Vertov’s (1896 – 1954) “The Man With a Movie Camera” (1929) (1 h 8 min) (see below) uses a range of innovative visual/sfx/animation techniques such as dissolve, slow-motion, stop-motion, split-screen, and double-exposure.
The history of animation in Russia can be traced back to the early 19oos: Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941), a choreographer, developed a system for documenting the dances he was choreographic by drawing poses frame-by-frame on long pieces of paper which he then “played back” with a “peep-show” device.
“Mest’ Kinematograficheskogo Operatora” (“The Cameraman’s Revenge”) (1911) (13 min) (see below), is one of the most famous and unique early examples of stop-motion animation. It was created by Wladyslaw Starewicz (1882-1965), the director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania. He used the museum’s impressive insect collection to create his animated film by installing wheels and strings in each insect, and occasionally replacing their legs with plastic or metal ones. IMDb’s synopsis for “The Cameraman’s Revenge” reads: “Mr Beetle seeks companionship from a statuesque dragonfly dancer, unaware that her ex-boyfriend, a slender grasshopper and an industrious cameraman, watches their every move. Will Mrs Beetle forgive him? Will he get away with adultery?” Starewicz kept on making stop-motion films (over 6o total- although not all using insects) until his death in France (where he’d relocated after the Russian Revolution) in 1965.
Please take the multiple-choice quiz on Blackboard.