Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967), the Kandinsky of cinema, is timely again. Featured in numerous surveys of L.A. modernism, he’s currently in the Laguna Art Museum’s “Extract: Developing Exhibitions from the Collection.” German-born Fischinger became the first great proponent of abstract filmmaking. Below is a still from his 1943 film Allegretto, originally made for Paramount’s Big Broadcast of 1937 and left on the cutting-room floor. Everyone from Stan Brakhage to Jeremy Blake to Jennifer Steinkamp owes something to Fischinger’s example. Yet Fischinger is most often remembered as a cautionary tale—of what happens when good artists meet big, bad Hollywood.
In 1936 Fischinger fled Hitler for L.A. In due course he found himself working for Walt Disney, who was slightly less antisemitic and 20 percent more dictatorial. Fischinger devised animation effects for the Blue Fairy’s wand in Pinocchio. More notably, he did a trippy Bach animation for Disney’s classical-music vanity project, Fantasia. However, the studio judged Fischinger’s sequences too advanced for mass consumption. “We allow no geniuses around our studio,” Walt Disney once said. It seems that Fischinger took a different view. In a statement published in a 1947 SFMOMA catalog he said,
“No sensible creative artist could create a sensible work of art if a staff of co-workers of all kinds had his or her say in the final creation—producer, story director, story writer, music director, conductor, composers, sound men, gag men, effect men, layout men, background directors, animators, inbetweeners, inkers, cameramen, technicians, publicity directors, managers, box office managers, and many others. They change the ideas, kill the ideas, before they are born, prevent the ideas from being born, and substitute for the absolute creative motives only the cheap ideas to fit the lowest among them.”
Fischinger quit and demanded that his name be taken off the project.. The Disney studio recut his Fantasia sequences. Ever afterward, Fischinger struggled to support himself and find financing for his abstract films.
His main angel was Hilla von Rebay of New York’s Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Guggenheim). Like Fischinger, Rebay was a German ex-patriate—a baroness, in fact. Guggenheim staffers called her “the B.” The B did not stand for “Baroness.” Rebay was a temperamental sort with an endless appetite for facile Kandinsky knockoffs—including the ones she painted herself, and especially those of her onetime boyfriend Rudolf Bauer. Fischinger was was the real McCoy, a visionary who took Bauhaus abstraction in a genuinely new direction. Rebay was perceptive enough to award Fischinger the grant money he needed to create Motion Painting No. 1 (1947)—despite the title, a film, and his most famous work.
Meanwhile, Fischinger produced oil-on-canvas abstractions from the mid 1930s onward. This turned out to be a good career move. Museums are far more likely to show paintings than films, especially noncommercial ones. LACMA’s Abstract (1943, above) is often on view, and there are Fischinger paintings at the Norton Simon and Long Beach museums.
In 1955 Fischinger patented a “Device for Producing Light Effects,” otherwise known as the Lumigraph. It was a semi-mechanical way of producing abstractions on a screen. Fischinger wasn’t the first to think along those lines. Another von Rebay protegé, Charles Dockam, had invented such a device, and artist-engineer Thomas Wilfred had one as early as 1919. (There’s a Wilfred “Lumia” on display at LACMA, now in working order.)
Fischinger’s invention consisted of a vertical sheet of rubber, held in place in a square frame. Nearly parallel to the rubber sheet were planes of colored light, created by many pinpoint light sources hidden in the frame. The user simply pressed the rubber sheet with his hands or other objects. This action caused the rubber surface to intersect with the light beams, creating a surprisingly wide range of luminous effects. A performance required two people, one to work the rubber sheet and another to change the colors of the lights. Though the Lumingraph made no sound, Fischinger intended it to be “played” in concert to music. You can see a video of it courtesy of the Los Angeles-based Center for Visual Music (whose website is highly recommended).
Fischinger hoped to market the Lumigraph as a home entertainment device. Kids would play it; every home would have one. For that to happen, Fischinger needed publicity. Hollywood showed some interest. There was talk of featuring the Lumigraph on an Andy Williams TV special. Then came the big break. B-movie maven Ib Melchior wanted to use the Lumigraph in a film. Fischinger agreed.
The film was Mechior’s cult science-fiction epic, The Time Travelers (1964). There Fischinger’s invention is presented as a futuristic “love machine.” IMDb records one of the film’s taglines:
SEE women who use the Love Machine to allay the male shortage!
Uh-huh. Well actually, it’s not a dildo. The Lumigraph sequence, now on YouTube, presents Fischinger’s device as an aphrodisiac-fluffer for getting post-apocalyptic males in the mood. FWIW, Mod Chick is Delores Wells, Playboy centerfold for June 1960.
According to the Center for Visual Music, fate spared Fischinger this ultimate Hollywood bastardization. He never saw the movie, and his doting family managed to steer him clear of all reviews and ads.
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