BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 05 MAY 01
Featured in
Issue 59

My Painted Cell

Artists' animation

BY Dan Fox in Frieze | 05 MAY 01

He begins by making what I guess would be dubbed 'outsider art' - a botched DIY barbecue that's picked up by a hip über-gallerist. Arrogantly he begins developing a more mannered Primitivist style, runs into Jasper Johns at an opening party and ends up, after a period of creative frustration, by flooding the town of Springfield in a romantic act of macho Land Art (Marge always wanted to visit Venice). Aside from gently poking fun, the episode reminds us there was a time when art's relationship to cartoons, or rather, animation, was closer than pointed satire or sassy appropriation. It was the avant-garde film art of its day - abstract, but short, sharp, witty and seductive, or graceful, contemplative, even stately. A lot's changed though, and let's face it, contemporary video art can be a pretty moribund affair. The delicate passivity of Warhol's cinema now manners itself to the point of tedium, whilst shaky, lo-fi production values lurch towards a tepid approximation of Dogma purity. Sometimes, I'd just rather stay home and watch cartoons.

Ever since flint first struck flint and humans sat around the campfire, there's been a fascination with staring at shifting, numinous shapes. In its combination of painting and music, animation has always held the idea of the synaesthetic experience close to its heart, and music was there on the opening reel from the start. Alexandr Scriabin, the Russian visionary composer, never intended his Symbolist masterpiece Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910) to be played without coloured light displays, and the original orchestral score even includes a line for 'luce' (light). One of the great lost inventions of the 20th century was built by a society of Scriabin-ite 'colour music visionaries', or 'Prometheans' as they rather modestly preferred to be known. In the early 1920s, the wealthy theosophist Walter Kirkpatrick Brice built a studio on Long Island where former architect Claude Bragdon and one-time singer Thomas Wilfred built 'colour music instruments'. The result was the Clavilux, a console housed in a decorated cabinet for projecting 'lumia' - coloured light projections. Although identical to the first TVs in shape, Joe Public wasn't quite ready for the brave new Promethean future, and so it was in France and Italy that the controls were first set for the heart of cinematic purity.

The Futurist brothers Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Cora were making camera-less hand-painted films as early as 1910, whilst in Paris, under the critical wing of Guillaume Apollinaire, Leopold Survage's ideas for giving life to his 'Coloured Rhythm' paintings were being bandied around in 1912. It wasn't until 1916 that work on the first animated abstract film was begun. Viking Eggeling, a Swedish Dadaist, had been working on the idea of making scrolls to allow his paintings and designs to be viewed sequentially. Teaming up and then falling out with Hans Richter in the early 1920s, Eggeling finally completed Symphonie diagonale in 1925, with the help of the young Bauhaus student Erna Niemeyer. Screened silently, it was a stately, black-and-white study in geometric form in which sequences of lines, beautifully shaded art-deco rectangles and cones moved with serene velocity according to some internal, but strangely satisfying, logic of their own.

By the mid-1920s, everyone was at it - Marcel Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (1926), Hans Richter's Rhythm 21 (1923) and Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy's Ballet méchanique (1924). Throughout the decade animation dominated avant-garde film, especially in Germany. Perhaps the best known of the German animators at this time was Oskar Fischinger. An organ builder and architect by training, Fischinger taught himself the principles of animation, and began to make his short, abstract film studies. Usually accompanied by live music or records, his films sometimes manifested themselves as multiple projections. By the 1930s, with his friend Bela Gaspar, Fischinger developed Gasparcolour - the first European system of colour film. Branded a 'degenerate' by the Nazis, he fled to the United States, where he began working for Paramount Pictures.

Fischinger left Paramount under something of a cloud - 'artistic differences' would be the contemporary euphemism - and set about trying to find funding for a full-length animated feature set to Dvorak's New World Symphony, but with little success. He presented his idea to the conductor Leopold Stokowski (Fischinger had wanted to use one of Stokowski's Bach arrangements for another project) who in turn approached Disney and promptly sold the proposal to them. The result was Fantasia (1940), and Fischinger was slowly edged out of the picture. Supported by measly grants and a sinecure on Orson Welles' payroll, he continued his experiments in both two and three-dimensional animated form. In Allegretto (1936), radiating concentric circles pulse urgently whilst rhomboids and diamonds pirouette gracefully and shimmy suggestively across metronomic radio waves, all synched perfectly to a Gershwin-esque score. Short and sharp, his films were a tour de force of visual onomatopoeia. They were the bright lights, the big city, the Broadway boogie-woogie Mondrian and Busby Berkeley never got to make.

Surprisingly, the Post Office was the locus of British experimental animation. The GPO Film Unit, under the aegis of John Grierson, attempted to fuse corporate patronage with creative freedom. The output was a mixture of documentary and advertising, but the results in both fields pretty much comprised the entirety of British avant-garde film at the time. Grierson commissioned work by both the New Zealander Len Lye and Scotsman Norman McLaren. Working directly on the celluloid, thus doing away with camerawork, Lye's hand-painted abstractions are lyrical, gorgeously saturated exhortations to use parcel post or save stamps. A Colour Box (1936) jives to a jazzy samba soundtrack like an overexcited Beatnik at a party, whilst the semi-figurative Trade Tattoo (1937) - a documentary explaining the workings of the postal service - comes on with all the vibrancy of painting 30 years its junior. McLaren, meanwhile, developed methods of animated sound: and from early works like Dots (1948) to the later Spheres (1969) and Synchromy (1971) graphic patterns were printed onto the part of the celluloid reserved for the soundtrack, producing a kind of musique concrete when run through the projector.

Ultimately though, and maybe simply because most of us prefer a good story, figurative cinema triumphed and the avant-garde turned to post-Buñuelian psychodramas, such as Meya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), for its inspiration. Film clubs, not cinemas, became the home of graphic animation. The prestigious movie awards began to dry up but still this curious form persisted. Stan Brakhage's one-idea-fits-all, kinetic action paintings are perhaps the best known from this period, but within animation circles names such as Mary Ellen Bute, Larry Cuba, the Whitney brothers (whose work inspired the 'stargate' sequence in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968), Lotte Reineger and Stan VanDerBeek carry much weight. The global success of Disney, the temptation offered by commerce and the powerful consumer demographic that is the under-tens meant that figurative animation became the dominant form. But while graphic cinema eked out a fringe existence, and Loony Tunes ruled, in Eastern Europe figurative animation dived underground, becoming a serious format for protest against Soviet rule. In Czechoslovakia, for example, work tended towards either fairy tale allegory - Jiri Trnka - or the feverishly grotesque, as with Jan Svankmajer. The Estonian Priit Pärn, on the other hand, pulled no punches. Pärn began making work in the mid-1970s, cutting short a career as an ecologist. Living under the Soviet thumb, animation paradoxically afforded him a world of complete control, a land of vicious satire for his shape-shifting psychedelic Art Brut. In perhaps his finest film, Hotel E (1992), rotoscoped figures move languidly through a hazily narcotic cycle of prosperous decadence, a dream world of bedraggled refugees banging at the hotel doors. The sharply linear forms and saturated pastel colours echo the seductive look of the West from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Art Spiegelman once said that comics are 'below critical radar', free of the burden of having to prove themselves somehow on the 'serious' cultural playing field. The history of experimental animation exists in a similar state of critical invisibility, cropping up quietly every now and then - in a Kubrick movie, web design software, advertising, pop promos - but perhaps enjoying the liberty afforded by life as a minor historical footnote. Its utopian aspirations - the idea that we'd spend Saturday matinees enjoying kinetic Constructivist paintings to a Free Jazz soundtrack - are as absurdly appealing as the quaint charm and sheer delight these films take in themselves. It's a tonic for those left feeling weary or a bit jaded by the dross of misunderstood neo-Structuralist film that clogs up so many art spaces. Switch off the projector for a moment, step out into the light and take a look around.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).