Abstracted thoughts

Amid Amidi’s recent post on Cartoon Brew, the best website for news an opinion in the world of animated film, got me thinking. The language of abstraction has always been with us; it was not until the last century that western artists undertood it and brought it to prominence. The canon of the art world has enshrined certain artists as innovators and overlooked others. Abstract animation has often been neglected, even by animation enthusiasts, but Walter Ruttmann’s Opus III holds a special place in my limited experience for the number of abstract fine artists whose work it presages.

I wrote in my last post how an image from the Quay Brothers’ film The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer reminded me of Edward Gorey, though the connection is most likely solely in my head. Here I am dealing with more imagined connections, this time looking forward from the 1920s a good 20 to 30 years.

Ruttmann’s life was a curious one; an avant-garde film-maker and musician, he ended his life allied with the Nazis, who were stridently opposed to modern artistic trends. Let’s set that aside for the duration of this post, as we’re more concerned with premonitions. Abstract art is in its infancy when Opus III was made, in 1924. Wassily Kandinsky has moved from more expressionist abstraction into a cleaner, more geometric form, as shown by his paintings at the Guggenheim in New York (link: Kandinsky’s Composition 8, from 1923). Kazimir Malevich painted his Black Square in 1915, but it remained thoroughly cutting-edge nearly ten years later.

Ruttmann’s film – the most abstract of his that I have seen to date – is more fluid than the abstractions of Oskar Fischinger, the other notable abstract animator of the period, who was inspired by Ruttmann. The associations a knowledgeable art enthusiast would see today come not from the Roaring Twenties, but from the Stentorian Fifties (approximately). The use of repeated squares in Opus III, while briefly suggesting Malevich, are more suggestive of Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, which began in 1949. And the slender vertical rectangle that recurs in Opus III cannot help but suggest Barnett Newman’s “zips”, which began in 1948. These are the two most obvious examples. (Link: A classic Newman with two “zips”, in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art)

What does this mean? Were these painters merely imitators, or was Ruttmann peering into a future he would never see? As I said at the start, the language of abstraction has always been with us; some just learn the words before others.

A number of Ruttmann’s films can be seen on YouTube.

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