Space Light Art: Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst Makes S.F. Debut

Considered a seminal figure in the history of German and American film, Fischinger's work hasn't gotten the respect it's due lately, and Weinstein Gallery has a restored version of his masterpiece.

Whether used in art circles or elsewhere, the label “ahead of one’s time” is fraught with hype and misuse. Leonardo da Vinci? Sure. Way ahead for his detailed ideas about inventions that would arrive generations later. Ronald Reagan? No. Not ahead, no matter what advocates say about the late president’s ideas on social conservatism.

Then there’s the case of Oskar Fischinger, the German-born filmmaker whose abstract movies from the 1920s were so far ahead of their time that Fischinger had to invent the equipment to make them. While Bruce Conner is considered the progenitor of the music video because of his works from the ’50s and ’60s, Fischinger twinned music and film in the 1920s — 30 years before Conner. That was the same decade that Fischinger filmed his 300-mile walk from Munich to Berlin — a quixotic montage of people and scenes that was one of the world’s first filmed travelogues. It was also the same decade in which Fischinger made Raumlichtkunst, a virtuosic spectacle of colorful, abstract scenes and movements — full of arrows, splatters, swirls, orbits, explosions, labyrinths, you name it — that Fischinger originally screened with upward of five film projectors. In English, it means “space light art.” There was nothing like it. There still isn’t.

That’s why the West Coast debut of Raumlichtkunst, at Weinstein Gallery’s Clementina Street space, is such a big deal, even though it comes nine decades after the film’s original release. The exhibit is a chance to experience Fischinger’s creation in a restored iteration, as a high-definition triptych of side-by-side-by-side projections accompanied by otherworldly music from composers Fischinger would have approved of: Lou Harrison, Edgar Varèse, and John Cage, who apprenticed for Fischinger in the 1940s. 

On June 22 of this year, Google made its Doodle an interactive tribute to Fischinger — giving everyone a chance to make their own Fischinger-like creation of sound and scene. But the best way to experience Raumlichtkunst is in person, in a darkened gallery space where the movie’s three projections are randomly looped, and the accompanying music is unsynchronized, so that each collective widescreen “scene” is a new experience in sensory abstraction. To Fischinger’s devotees, seeing his work on a laptop or phone is a kind of sin or sacrilege — like saying you know the Grand Canyon because you’ve seen photos in a book.

Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst,c. 1926/2012., © Center for Visual Music, Courtesy Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco



“They feel like they’ve seen it if they’ve seen it online, but if you’ve seen it just on your little laptop, you have not,” says Cindy Keefer, director of the Center for Visual Music, the Los Angeles nonprofit that orchestrated Raumlichtkunst’s high-definition version, as she attended a recent press preview at Weinstein Gallery – SOMA. “How do you see an immersive, historical work online? You can’t. We started with Fischinger’s original nitrates. We spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring and digitizing, and adding the digital color, and creating this. We don’t want it seen as ‘mush’ — as video mush.”

Fischinger made Raumlichtkunst around 1926. In the past four years, its restored version has screened at New York’s Whitney Museum, London’s Tate Modern, Paris’ Palais de Tokyo, and other venues. Fischinger, who died in 1967, has fans around the world. They consider him a kind of film prophet — a figure as important as, say, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, Charlie Chaplin, or Francis Ford CoppolaRaumlichtkunst can be considered as Fischinger’s Apocalypse Now, an unforgettable work whose scope, rawness, and drama the director could never really duplicate.

Fischinger’s life was full of cinematic ups and downs, and a seismic uprooting. In the mid-1930s, he essentially fled Nazi Germany, which viewed works like Raumlichtkunst as “degenerative art” that was unworthy of anything but scorn. Paramount sponsored Fischinger’s 1936 immigration to the United States, recognizing his talent on Fritz Lang’s 1929 film Woman in the Moon, for which Fischinger did the special effects on rockets and planets, and Fischinger’s innovative short color films, which were screened around the world. But Fischinger had a falling-out with Paramount after the studio refused to let him work in color. He later fell out with the Walt Disney Co. as well, which had hired him to work on the now-iconic 1940 animation Fantasia.

Fischinger, whom film scholar William Moritz has called “one of the greatest artists of the 20th century,” created designs for the 9-minute sequence in Fantasia that features Bach’s Toccata and Fugue. Like some of the scenes in Raumlichtkunst, the Fantasia Bach sequence has swirling circles, rays of light, and other fantastical shapes — but they aren’t really Fischinger’s. They’re Disney’s, because the studio demanded Fischinger produce more representational work that audiences would easily recognize: more Mickey Mouse than Max Ernst.

“Walt didn’t think audiences could handle that much abstraction, so they kept putting in trees and clouds and things,” Keefer says.

So a frustrated Fischinger quit, returning to making more personal films and turning to drawing and painting. The Weinstein Gallery exhibit has examples of Fischinger’s drawings, and it’s also screening another film, 1942’s Radio Dynamics, which Fischinger made as a silent work. Also on exhibit are a publication and invitation card to herald Fischinger’s Jan. 23, 1953 appearance at what was then called the San Francisco Museum of Art.

Museum members paid 75 cents (and non-members $1) to hear Fischinger present a series of his films and to play a “Lumigraph,” a color-light instrument he played with his hands to accompanying music. For whatever reason, Fischinger didn’t screen Raumlichtkunst at his 1953 event.

“He wrote this manifesto,” Keefer says, “that said, ‘Someday, there will be audiences that will truly appreciate this kind of abstract film. It may not be here yet. In the future, there will be.’ ”

Raumlichtkunst’s 2017 debut in San Francisco stems from gallery owner Rowland Weinstein’s commitment to abstract and surrealist art. The gallery is celebrating its 25th year, and he wanted to showcase the work of an artist who emerged from the hellish shadows of World War I and Nazi Germany to show that “even in dark times” the “human spirit” can produce exhilarating work and inspire others.

So Raumlichtkunst’s San Francisco debut is partly a show of defiance at a time when conservatism — the kind Ronald Reagan enabled with White House policies that Donald Trump inherited — is politically ascendant in Washington, D.C. Raumlichtkunst’s San Francisco debut is also an antidote to conventionality.

“It was beyond my ability to fully comprehend it,” Weinstein tells SF Weekly of seeing his first screening of Raumlichtkunst just before the exhibit opened on Dec. 16. “You are enveloped by it. … Every moment you see will never happen again. The combination of sound and music and picture can never happen again, so there is an element of random chance. Whatever experience you get will be a different experience from someone who walks in after you.”

It’s true. Which is why art-goers are making repeat visits to Weinstein’s gallery. They’re catching up to Fischinger’s work while they can. Better late than never.

“Oskar Fischinger: Raumlichtkunst (1926/2012), HD Reconstruction by Center for Visual Music,” through Jan. 20 at Weinstein Gallery – SOMA, 444 Clementina St. Free; 415-362-8155,

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