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Original Creators: Oskar Fischinger, The Father Of Visual Music

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Oskar Fischinger.

Music and visuals belong together—it’s a pairing that’s as universal as peanut butter and jelly or root beer and vanilla ice cream. With new innovations in technology, audio visualizations are evolving from the music video to large, site-specific projections live shows. Though visual music may seem like a recent phenomenon, its history goes back much further than you would think—enter Oskar Fischinger, an early 20th century animator who specialized in avant-garde, audiovisual films. Fischinger avoided portraying the representational in his work and embraced the abstract, moving in a completely different direction than any other animator at the time.

Born on June 22, 1900, Fischinger grew up in Germany where he indulged in his passion for art and music through painting and violin lessons. Once he finished school at the age of 14, Fischinger started to work at an organ-building firm to learn the theoretical physics of music. However, he abandoned his musical career when his family encountered financial strain. Instead, he entered trade school and became an engineer at a manufacturing factory. However, this didn’t deter him from pursuing his artistic interests—once he obtained his diploma, he started to pursue a full-time film career.

Raumlichtkunst (1926-2012).

© Center for Visual Music.

Fischinger synthesized his passion for both art and music when he started to perform Raumlichkunst, or Space-Light-Art, a series of audiovisual shows that featured his experimental animations on multiple 35mm projectors with an accompanying score. Many of his animations were created using unusual materials such as colored liquid, filters, slides, and wax. At one particular Raumlichkunst, he used seven different projectors. These shows were a precursor to expanded cinema and 1960s light shows, such as Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Studies (1929-1933).

While pursuing his career in film by completing commercial projects, Fischinger would simultaneously work on abstract personal projects. He created Studies while he was working on special effects for the German, sci-fi feature, Woman in the Moon. Studies is a series of abstract short films that feature black and white forms that are synchronized to music. A few of the early Studies were synchronized to new record releases by Berlin-based record label Electrola and screened at theaters, making them the very first music videos. These short films were wildly successful— the demand for them was so high that Fischinger created 16 Studies in four years. Listen to an excerpt from Studie nr. 8 above.

Allegretto (1943). © Fischinger Trust, courtesy Center for Visual Music.

Following the success of Studies, Fischinger was invited to work for Paramount in Hollywood. While he was at Paramount, he created a short color film titled Allegretto that was to be a part of the full-length feature The Big Broadcast of 1937. However, the studio heavily-edited the film and refused to print it in color. As a result, Fischinger broke off all relations to Paramount and, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, bought Allegretto’s rights back.

When creating Allegretto, Fischinger utilized a cel-layering technique to animate formal visual equivalents of rhythm, harmony, and counterpoint. He implemented a “divisionist” technique of changing colors from frame to frame in order to achieve the luminous hues in the film that could not be produced by normal methods of animation photography. Although Fischinger was forced to finance the distribution of the film himself, it was shown at museums and art centers all over the world, and received international critical acclaim.

After Paramount, Fischinger had short tenures at MGM and Disney that each lasted a year or less. He could not work for major studios because they forced him to abandon his creative vision. Later on, he made two more independent feature-length films including Motion Painting No. 1, which won the Grand Prix at the 1949 Brussels International Experimental Film Competition. However, he grew increasingly frustrated with filmmaking, and exclusively painted until his death in 1967.

Although Fischinger struggled with the film industry, he created critically successful and influential animations that combined his strong sense of audiovisual awareness. His method of conveying sound and rhythm with color and shapes is the basis of visual music, and his influence is obvious in contemporary music videos and other forms of audio visualizations.

Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst is on display at the Whitney Museum in New York City from June 28—October 28, 2012.

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