Cinema history, made today: The triple-screen projection that, occupying the Whitney Museum’s second floor theater through October 28, recreates a piece by German painter-animator-filmmaker Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) is as close to the original film installations of Weimar’s ’20s avant-garde as we are likely to get.
Fischinger’s “Raumlichtkunst” [Space Time Art] grew out of his work with future documentarian Walter Ruttman’s “painting with time,” which made use of Fischinger’s device for producing patterns from wax, and composer Alexander László’s “Farblichtmusik” concerts, performances that combined László’s music with Fischinger’s abstract motion pictures. By the mid ’20s, Fischinger was exhibiting his own multiple projections, pieces that included both painted glass slides and 35mm film, and were accompanied by modernist scores. Fischinger clearly thought that he was creating a new art form, describing his first Raumlichtkunst in ecstatic spiritual terms as “an intoxication by light from a thousand sources” and a “happening of the soul.”
The Whitney installation, which is separate from an earlier reconstruction by Fischinger’s biographer William Moritz, was assembled by the Center for Visual Music from the only surviving “Raumlichtkunst” elements, most dating from 1926 and 1927. It’s an exercise in percussive geometry and orchestrated noise (the audio is drawn from Edgard Varese’s “Ionisation” and two versions of “Double Music” by John Cage and Lou Harrison). Each panel in this wide screen triptych is a vibrant color field — the tones were evidently produced by a combination of of tinted, filtered, and hand-painted film. The “actors” are animated vertical bars, pulsating circles, and a variety of undulating moiré patterns. The total effect anticipates Fischinger’s great sound film animations of the mid ‘30s, “Muratti Gets in the Act” and “Composition in Blue”.
Although I can’t help but think that this recreated “Raumlichtkunst” has been necessarily rationalized (and certainly sweetened), it nonetheless gives ample evidence of a cinematic road not taken. There’s nothing academic about the piece—it’s pure enjoyment. This soft bombardment of forms is at once relaxing and stimulating, and possibly hypnotic. I stayed with it for several cycles (about 20 minutes) and found it hard to tear myself away.
This post has been updated.
Image: (c) Center for Visual Music