Animation seen by most people today is different from the absolute animations of one hundred years ago. Back then, the new medium was seen as a way to explore the ideas of the avant-garde movement, specifically abstraction. Animators such Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttmann, Hans Richter, and Viking Eggeling all sought to visualize sound and elicit emotional responses from their audiences. Viking Eggeling, however, stands out from his peers, as his only surviving animation Symphonie Diagonale was the only early animation of the time to be screened without sound and receive critical acclaim.
But what made Symphonie Diagonale so special that it could be successful without music? The answer lies in that Eggeling’s conception of Symphonie Diagonale was much like Kandinsky’s conception of any of his Compositions.Absolute animators used the formal aspects and design elements of film in nonrepresentational ways, much in a way comparable to abstract painting. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings.
The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposely, to cause vibrations in the soul. Kandinsky, who was already famous for his analogies to music through abstraction, heavily influenced the absolute animators. Eggeling, in particular, was familiar with Kandinsky’s color theories and Henri Bergson’s philosophies on duration. According to Bergson’s philosophies, time is perceived via a succession of separate, discrete, spatial constructs ” just like seeing a film. We think we’re seeing a continuous flow of movement, but in reality what we’re seeing is a succession of fixed frames or stills. Using the knowledge of these theories, Eggeling could effectively use them to his advantage. His animation was composed of a succession of fixed frames on which he could control what forms people would see, how fast or slow they would appear, and how many would appear at once.The main emphasis in Symphonie Diagonale was based on the movement of the forms rather than the expression, which seems to present a contrast between it and Kandinsky’s Composition series of paintings. However, it should also be noted that Kandinsky had theorized the particular movements of colors and forms in addition to their emotiveness in his own manifesto. Kandinsky likens retreating cool colors to a horizontal line and approaching warm colors to a vertical line. This gives us insight as to why Eggeling depicted his forms diagonally. Perfectly balanced between the horizontal and vertical, the figures neither approach nor retreat from the viewer. Instead, they remain unexpectedly static despite their supposed movement on screen. This can be seen as analogous to music or sound in that it never physically approaches or retreats from despite its own supposed movement. In addition to this, the contrasting colors of white and black also play a role. According to Kandinsky black and white, have once more their peculiar movement to and from the spectator, but in a more rigid form. The black in Symphonie Diagonale can be seen as a soundless void, while the white is interpreted as the sound in contrast. This was a conscious decision on Eggeling’s part, because every image shown in Symphonie Diagonale is actually a photo negative of what was originally shot, meaning that the colors of the forms and background are reversed. Aside from formal similarities, Eggeling and Kandinsky also spent a substantial amount of time studying and theorizing. Kandinsky was well aware of Goethe’s color theory, which touched upon many of the same aspects as Kandinsky later would. Color became Kandinsky’s staple, and he sought universal spirituality from them. He created his Improvisation series, which were smaller scale than any of his Compositions. They were also created more spontaneously, which allowed Kandinsky to use them as studies for his more carefully planned Compositions. Meanwhile Eggeling had become fascinated with the idea of universal communication through abstract visuals and worked with Hans Richter for three years to build up this theory. The two eventually released a manifesto titled Universal Sprache, which laid out their ideas. Leading up to this, Eggeling and Richter also worked on a series of scrolls. Much like Kandinsky’s Improvisations, these were more spontaneous works with little to no planning involved. Initially, scrolls were only used because using canvas was seen as being to artsy, however the way the scrolls unraveled often helped Eggeling see the movements of the forms. This helped his ability to more carefully plan their movements in Symphony Diagonale. Through his extensive time spend studying and theorizing Eggeling was more effectively able to produce an animation that could, in a sense, stand on its own. Meanwhile, the more spontaneous works of Ruttmann and Richter, the only two really well-known absolute animators active at the same time as Eggeling, were unable to.This leads to our final point: Eggeling’s film was music. By focusing more on the timing and movements of the form, Eggeling never relied on music for pictorial processes like Ruttmann, Richter, or later absolute animators would. As Fischinger would later say, their visuals were more akin to ornaments. The universal aspect of their films was the music, while the visuals decorated the sound. It’s interesting that Kandinsky even mentions decorations in his manifesto. Beauty of Form and Colour is no sufficient aim by itself, despite the assertions of pure aesthetes or even of naturalists, who are obsessed with the idea of “beauty.” It is because of the elementary stage reached by our painting that we are so little able to grasp the inner harmony of true colour and form composition. The nerve vibrations are there, certainly, but they get no further than the nerves, because the corresponding vibrations of the spirit which they call forth are too weak. Certainly we are moved by animations such as Fischinger’s Optical Poetry or Ruttmann’s Opus I, but those animations were made to be synchronized to one song. Meanwhile, the forms in Eggeling’s Symphonie Diaagonale and the colors and forms in Kandinsky’s Compositions are the universal aspect.Symphonie Diagonale by Eggeling is, without a doubt, unique for its lack of sound. Through its conception the visuals presented were able to retain their universal aspect, and that was why it was so successful. Through taking an approach similar to Kandinsky, Eggeling created a work that could stand on its own.