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Viking Eggeling

Diagonal Symphony

I’m currently reading Matthew Gale’s Dada & Surrealism, an entertaining and authoritative primer on two of the most important, yet frequently misunderstood, art movements of the early-20th century. The book does a fine job of evoking the passion that these artists had for their work. Creating art was not a 9-to-5 for any of these artists; they lived and breathed their art to an extent that is perhaps difficult to understand nowadays.

Both movements happened in a competitive creative climate: artists would intentionally provoke audiences to the point of physical riots, art critics would challenge artists to duels over stylistic disagreements, artists would publish magazines to deride the work of contemporaries. In this type of challenging environment, boundaries were inevitably shattered and creative breakthroughs made.

To bring this back to animation, the book notes that a few of the Dada artists, like Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, also moved into experimental animation. In the early-1920s, they were creating pioneering pieces of abstract animation in Germany alongside other artists like Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttman. The combined output of these artists would have a major influence on future abstract animators like Len Lye, Norman McLaren and beyond. This sentence in the book about Eggeling caught my attention in particular: “Despite the relative simplicity of the technology, the production of [Horizontal-Vertical Orchestra and Diagonal Symphony] was a financial and physical strain and led to Eggeling’s premature death in 1925.”

The thought of an animation artist dying for his art is a powerful beautiful sentiment. A quick search online turns up a website that says the cause of Eggeling’s death was septic angina, a type of food poisoning, so I’m not exactly sure where Gale’s information comes from, but reading about the dedication of various artists throughout the book, it’s not difficult to imagine that an artist like Eggeling could work himself to the point of death. It is indicative of the commitment that artists felt towards their work and how far they were willing to push themselves in pursuit of their artistic ideals.

The wonders of the Internet allow us instant access to the film that did Eggeling in, Diagonal Symphony, a silent abstract short that was completed in 1924, but didn’t debut in Berlin until 1925. Eggeling died six days after the film’s first public screening. The same site, UbuWeb, also offers examples of early abstract animation by Hans Richter and Walter Ruttman.

  • A pure coincidence or is it. The short film Diagonal Symphony can be seen in London at the British Library at the moment. I just stood there, looking at it about 3 times, before I went on to the rest of the exhibition. It is really an inspiring short film still today, it must have been extraordinary for that time also.

  • I really like the film.

    Was it meant to be played with a piece of music originally? Most “silent” films were, after all…

  • amid

    Peter: Thanks for that note. It’s nice to know that groundbreaking films such as this are still being publicly exhibited.

    Niffiwan: According to film historian Bill Moritz, Eggeling insisted his films screen in silence. This article says:

    Perhaps the filmmakers of the 1920s were more open to experiments with colour-organs and dance performances because they themselves aspired to create films that rivaled the condition of music – not illustrations of music (Eggeling, for example, insisted that his films be screened in silence). Rather they brought a visual imagery that could perform a spectacle as free, subtle, and complex as music: free from the constraints of gravity and single viewpoint, richly layered and textured, and capable of evoking dynamic responses through nuances of rhythm, tensions of harmony, and dissonance. This ‘musicality’ was not at odds with other artistic goals. For example, Eggeling’s fellow Dadaists seem to have seen his non-objective experiments as compatible with their own: something to replace the bourgeois art that Dada was busy ridiculing and destroying.

  • I just checked some of the other links, and Walter Ruttman’s “Lichtspiel Opus I-4” is absolutely astounding. There’s no other word for it. It is the best visual depiction of music I’ve ever seen. Its figures and rhythms are very much like a symphony, and I got a great sense of melody, rhythm, structure and development from it (all the things that are essential to a lengthy musical composition).

    For whatever reason(s), it is a lot more engaging than some of the more recent “drawn on film” abstract films I’ve had the misfortune to see.

  • It brings to mind the original animated opening title of Metropolis.

    I wonder if the blown out backlit look was intended or just the result of a copy several generations away from the original.

    There certainly were a lot of exotic artistic experiments going on in Germany in the 20’s. I imagine a lot of regular volk were dumbfounded and felt threatened by them and were fertile ground for the reactionaries rising up at the time who promised to put an end to it.

  • Yes, I see what you mean amid. I actually wrote that last post before seeing yours.

    Although I still think that if I were a better and more ambitious composer, I’d try to write a score for one of these. They practically beg one (say what you will, but when music and visual art combine effectively, the result is often more impressive than either one alone, and more accessible).

    On the other hand, I recently watched Fantasia (the abstract “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” sequence, in particular) and thought that the images and music were too interconnected there; every time there was a certain sound, there was a certain image. Reiterating the point a bit too much – it’s like listening to a symphony where every single instrument has the same notes at the same time. In short, I can understand why that kind of thing doesn’t appeal to everyone. Maybe some greater counterpoint between images and sound is the secret.

    When you combine other things the mix (story, acting…) and use them contrapuntally, the possibilities for greatness become even greater, but so do the possibilities for all the dishes to come crashing down to the floor. The failing of many animated films that I’ve seen is that they try to juggle too many things at once, and whoever’s directing it doesn’t have the skill to keep them all up in the air. The results are sad to watch, even more so because of the great talent that’s being wasted.

    The animation that these German artists were doing is stripped down to the basics, but these basics are done very well. I wish I saw more of that kind of thing (not necessarily to that extreme, but the basic idea of doing something uncomplicated but good rather than something which has elements X and Y and Z done badly).

  • An interesting post with some good feedback. I often wonder about people’s views on abstract animation. There is a tendency towards disinterest unfortunately amongst the main stream. The history of this particular line of animation reveals a very rich and fascinating journey that I believe should have more of the limelight. I’ve discovered a lot in this field of animation – much more has to be uncovered though.

  • Thanks for pointing those out, they’re quite unusual. It made me think of D.A. Pennebaker’s terrific “Daybreak Express”, http://youtube.com/watch?v=kJ0aKDa-Nak ,
    which, although it is very specifically (and wonderfully) matched to a piece of music has a lot of “music” just in the shots and cuts. Wait for the big climax, it’s fantastic.

  • Robert Schaad

    Diagonal Symphony is Beautiful…can just imagine this on a large screen.

  • wundermild

    I saw the “Symphonie diagonale” in theater last year (at the Filmmuseum in Berlin), along with other experimental films (Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye – Norman McLaren films were also announced but pulled at the last minute). It was a very fine hour for me and a wonderful experience to watch them on the big screen. The German abstract animators had a totally different approach to the medium than their American counterparts, and I find it highly regrettable that their attempts were finally choked to death once the Third Reich wiped out modern art starting in 1933. One might speculate that if the Weimar Republic had been continued that these artists could have established an animation art form that combined music and visual art, illustrating entire concerts with abstract (and possibly also graphic) images.
    When Walt Disney tried that approach in 1940 (with “Fantasia” including a Disney-fied Fischinger abstract segment) it came clear that, in the U.S. at that time, it was not successful, and animation’s fate was basically to be a vehicle for jokes and funny stuff, and other approaches to the medium were doomed to niche existance. Films like “Fantasia” (which is my ultimate favorite in animation) were practically never reenacted, be it it the U.S., Germany, or elsewhere.

  • Firoz

    I also saw Diagonal Symphony at the British Library. It looks great projected on a large screen.

    I sometimes think that the most inventive and exciting abstract visuals today are being done in the field of motion graphics (most companies producing motion graphics work are creating advertising spots or promos). It’s a shame there isn’t more cross-over with the animation community. Or more independent work not tied to products – the talent is certainly there.