Harry Smith, the eccentric experimental filmmaker, artist, anthropologist, bohemian mystic and record collector, first encountered Oskar Fischinger’s animated films in 1947, when he was helping organize the experimental film festival Art in Cinema for the San Francisco Museum of Art. Fischinger’s work had a profound effect on Smith. According to Rani Singh, executor of the Harry Smith Archives, Smith traveled to Los Angeles in July 1947 on the festival’s behalf to connect with SoCal filmmakers. “There he met James and John Whitney, Kenneth Anger, and, most important, Fischinger, who became a seminal influence. Fischinger was one of the few artists Smith ever credited as an inspiration for his work.” William Moritz goes a step further, claiming that Smith didn’t take up abstract filmmaking until he saw Fischinger’s and the Whitneys’ work in connection with Art in Cinema. (Smith himself claimed to have started making his movies in 1939.)
Here’s how Smith described Fischinger’s influence in a 1977 interview with Moritz, quoted in American Magus Harry Smith: A Modern Alchemist:
You can tell how much I admire Fischinger: the only film of mine that I ever gave a real title to was Homage to Oskar Fischinger (Film No. 5, in the current scheme of things). I learned concentration from him—visiting his home and seeing how he could sit serenely in that small house, crawling with what seemed like a dozen children, and still paint those stunning pictures. That great film Motion Painting makes the process seem deceptively simple—and it was simple for him: the images really did just flow from his brush, never a ruler or a compass, all-freehand—but you can’t see all the obstacles he had to overcome in order to even work at all. Something so wonderful happened in that film, and in those paintings, something so much better than all the Pollocks and other stuff that the museums fight to get hold of. Did anyone ever fight to save Fischinger’s things?
Among the “obstacles” Harry referred to might have been that one time the Nazis branded Fischinger’s work entartete Kunst (degenerate art). In 1936, Fischinger fled to Los Angeles, where he worked for Paramount, MGM, and Disney in rapid succession. Film historian William Moritz wrote “Fischinger found it extremely difficult to work in studio situations.” Fischinger designed the Bach sequence for Fantasia, but quit without credit because Disney altered his designs to be less abstract. Fischinger also contributed to the special effects of the Blue Fairy’s wand in Pinocchio according to Moritz.
The first time I saw Motion Painting No. 1, it was on a big screen with the volume cranked, and I nearly jumped out of my seat. It’s not going to have the same effect streaming from Russia or wherever on your laptop, but it’s still glorious.
Oskar Fischinger’s Motion Painting No. 1
More after the jump…