Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt's "Abstract Films"

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Mary Hallock-Greenewalt's "Abstract Films"

Article excerpt

While the oldest surviving abstract films were produced in Germany by Walther Ruttman, Hans Richter, Viking Eggling, and Oskar Fischinger in the 1920s, earlier films were produced by Italian Futurists Bruno Corra and Alberto Ginna circa 1909 by directly painting on clear film. An American named Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, better known for having patented a system of color music, may have also produced a number of abstract films at the same time. An examination of the historical validity and context of her claims enables one to create a more detailed understanding of the relationship between abstract film and visual music performed with color organs.

The relationship between color music and abstract film was discussed by Malcolm Le Grice in Abstract Film and Beyond. In his examination of the now lost films produced by Corra and Ginna, Le Grice notes that their work with film developed from earlier experiments with a color organ of their own design. He explains the linkages between the two:

The production of the [Futurist's] 'color-organ' introduces another element which has a general place in the development of abstract cinema. As early as 1880 in America, Bainbridge Bishop, and, soon afterwards, Wallace Rimington constructed color-organs. The beginning of this concept, though, can be placed much earlier, at least as early as 1734 with the Clavecin Oculaire of Louis-Bertrand Castel. In fact, experimenters in this field in and around the end of the nineteenth century would make quite a considerable list. Extensions of the idea persist to the present, and experiments with various forms of 'light-machine' have often been made by abstract film-makers.1

Le Grice observes that the history and aesthetics of abstract film and color organs have been closely linked throughout the twentieth century. The movement between color organ and abstract film is a logical extension of the musical analogy between color and sound introduced by Isaac Newton's description of splitting sunlight into a spectrum.

The Futurists' movement into film from the color organ came as a result of their inability to create a satisfactory color-music instrument. Corra explains this transition as the result of attempting to find a new art based solely on color:

It could be said that the only display of the art of colors currently in use is the painting. A painting is a medley of colours placed in reciprocal relationships in order to present an idea. [...] After the violet of the first octave came the red of the second, and so on. To translate all this into practice we naturally used a series of twenty eight coloured electric bulbs, corresponding to twenty-eight keys. Each bulb was fitted with an oblong reflector: the first experiments were done with direct light, and in the subsequent ones a sheet of ground glass was placed in front of the bulb. The keyboard was exactly like that of a piano (but was less extensive). [...] This chromatic piano, when it was first tried out, gave quite good results, so much so that we were under the illusion that we had resolved the problem definitively. [...] But at last, after three months of experimentation, we had to confess that with these means no further progress could be made. We obtained the most graceful effects, it is true, but never to the extent that we felt fully gripped. [...] We turned our thoughts to cinematography, and it seemed to us that this medium, slightly modified, would give excellent results, since its light potency was the strongest one could desire.2

Corra and Ginna's trajectory from creating a visual music instrument to creating hand-painted abstract films demonstrates the close links these two parallel practices have, not only formally but aesthetically and historically. Yet the desire to create an independent "art of colors" is not unique to the Futurists. In 1895, A. Wallace Rimington, a British painter, announced his own invention of "Colour-Music" in conjunction with his receiving the patent for an instrument to play it. …

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