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A sense of perspective on this field can be gained through reference to some of its most important pioneers. I have not seen the works of all of them, and have certainly overlooked other important members of this group. But these are some of the historical figures who have been taken by the ideas discussed on these pages. Often they struggled against difficult circumstances to realize something of their visions.

The requirements for a listing in pioneers are simple. First, one must have made a substantial contribution to the integration of sound and abstract image. Second, one must be dead. Let me know when you qualify. In the meantime, if you are aware of people who meet these criteria but have been overlooked, please send a brief description, including references to any background material that you have identified.

Louis-Bertrand Castel (1688-1757) was a French Jesuit and mathematician with an interest in aesthetics. He devised the clavecin oculaire and wrote two essays concerning a "harpsichord for eyes." He experimented with prisms but found they did not provide sufficient luminosity. Later experiments used candles, mirrors and colored papers. The composer Georg Philipp Telemann was interested in his work and even translated and annotated one of the essays. Peacock (1988) provides details on his designs.

Alexander Burnett Hector (1869-1958), born in Aberdeen Scottland, spent most of his life in Australia where he developed an electronic color music instrument. It was described in the October 12, 1921 Aberdeen Scotland Evening Gazette. “In some way his colour piano or organ is linked to a multitude of intensely brilliant electric lights—forty thousand candle power, I fancy. These lights are immersed in many delicately graded aniline dye solutions of exceptional purity, contained in clear glass vessels; when a note on the piano is struck, it makes an electric contact, and the light bulb in connection with that particualr note blazes out through the coloured solution surrounding it, carrying that colour with it and throwing it on to the screen and stage of Mr. Hector’s pretty little demonstration theatre—an annex-room to his private house.”

Morgan Russell (1886-1953) and Stanton Macdonald-Wright (1890-1972) were abstract painters who, for over twenty years were preoccupied with the idea of a kinetic light machine. This was a natural extension of their interest in color study, which they referred to as Synchromism. "As a matter of fact when I left off the synchromies in paint I got to meddling with lights also, but never got funds or encouragement. ... It was inevitable that synchromies should lead to this," wrote Russel to Macdonald-Wright. They produced several designs for light machines. Russell thought that the light machines should be accompanied by slow music, because the changing lights would have to be slow or they would blur. He also felt that the music should produce a dialogue with the lights, not run simultaneously, so that one would not overwhelm the other. Russell and Macdonald-Wright worked with one such machine in 1931, but apparently damaged it by fire, since it used candles rather than electricity. Marilyn S. Kushner's biography, Morgan Russell, provides additional detail.

Leopold Survage (1879-1968) was said by avant-garde poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire to have "invented a new art of painting in motion." Survage believed that what he called 'colored rhythm' was based on the same psychological premises as music, it was not an illustration or an interpretation of musical work. He produced over 200 sketches, though he never saw his envisioned color film produced (Russett and Starr 1988, pp.35-39).

Viking Eggeling (1880-1925) was considered by many of his contemporaries to be among the most thoughtful of artists. He was interested in creating a new
universal language of abstract symbols. He was the first to focus on the importance of articulating an esthetic of time in film, attempting to set forth its principles with scientific precision. His sense of time started with musical frames of reference. He was most interested in the interplay of opposites and affinities, and with Hans Richter explored the unity of opposites (Russett and Starr 1988, pp.44-48).

Walter Ruttmann (1887-1941) was the first abstract filmmaker to screen his work for a general audience. When his Lichtspiel Opus I was screened in Germany in 1921, critic Bernhard Diebold and his friend Oskar Fischinger were greatly impressed. His later works were referred to by the London Times as Absolute Films, "moving patterns that produce the liveliest response in the spectator." The techniques used in his films are not known though some of his contemporaries have recorded that he used plasticine forms on horizontal sticks, painting on small glass plates, and mirrors to distort and animate painted designs (Russett and Starr 1988, pp. 40-43).

Hans Richter (1888-1976), who was influenced by early modern art and a member of the Dada group, worked initially with abstract and object animation
sequences interspersed with nonrealistic live-action photography. His collaboration with Viking Eggeling produced several important ideas. One was their use of "themes" or "instruments", transformations of one form into another. A second was the idea of continuity, the orchestration of a given instrument through different stages. Finally as these relationships multiplied, they realized that there was a sensation that the remembering eye received by carrying its attention from one detail, phase or sequence to another (Russett and Starr 1988, pp.49-56).

Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968) began working on the development of Lumia, his term for visual art based on light, in 1905. By 1922 he had created the Clavilux, a keyboard instrument that controlled the projection of colored light onto large screens. He used the Clavilux to give concerts in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. In 1930 he founded The Art Institute of Light, which he directed until 1943 when it closed for lack of funds. He continued work with lumia until his death (Malina 1974, p. 64; Pelligrino 1983, p.5-6; Peacock 1988, pp.404-405).

Oskar Fischinger (1900-1967) employed a variety of techniques over 30 years of producing animated films, including clay-figure animation, a wax-slicing machine, and charcoal drawing. The dynamics of motion were his interest. His work with music often related a visual rhythm to an auditory one. His work was screened regularly during the time that the Disney animators were working on Fantasia and directly influenced some of the others identified here (Harry Smith named a piece for him, for example). (Russett and Starr 1988 , pp.57-64).

Mary Ellen Bute (1906-1983) studied painting. She produced her first short film, Rhythm in Light, in 1935. She experimented with an extraordinary diversity of materials as sources for images ranging from egg beaterss through oscilloscope patterns. She took delight in simplicity and encouraged experimentation. Her 1958 film Imagination was shown on the Steve Allen show (Moritz 1996).

Cecil Stokes (1910-1956) created what came to be known as Auroratone films. These were abstract mobile colored patterns that accompanied music. The color effects came from growing crystal formations photographed with polarized light. According to Birren, the tempo of pattern changes, controlled in a way known only to Stokes, was remarkably harmonized with the emotional qualities of the music. Stokes hopes for his sound-color medium were that with "slow sedative and mildly sad music," mentally ill souls "would ventilate their pent-up tensions resulting from conflicts and frustrations (Birren 1978, pp.49-50)."

Frank J. Malina (1912-1981) was the founding editor of the journal Leonardo, a kinetic artist and an astronautical engineer. In a 1970 article on the future of computers and art he said "One can expect in the near future computer-produced visual art recorded on videotape for projection on the screen of a television set in the home, whenever desired. This kind of application of a computer may be the most promising one for the future of the visual arts (Emmer 1995, p.76)."

John Whitney (1917-1995) and James Whitney were among the most productive workers in the area of abstract image and music integration. They were inventive and managed to achieve an unusual level of acceptance and visibility for abstract art (their work was used in the film 2001, for example). In addition to their inventions and film, John wrote extensively about what they did. His book Digital Harmony collects together papers and reports that were produced contemporaneously over three decades.

Harry Everet Smith (1923-1991) was an avant garde film-maker who worked in San Francisco and New York from the 1930s through the 1980s. By his own description, his films were of four varieties. They started as "batiked abstractions made directly on film" (1939-1946); he then did "optically printed non-objective studies" (around 1950); next he produced "semi-realistic animated collages" (1957-1962); finally he worked on "chronologically superimposed photographs of actualities." His later works were presented as superimpositions and used multiple screens. He received a Grammy for his Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-volume compilation of blues and country recordings he put together in 1953. Many people's recollections of him are published in Paola Igliori's American Magus:Harry Smith .

Copyright 1998–2004 Fred Collopy. This document was last updated on 2/9/04; it is located at