Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Fantasia and Transcendental Art

Walt Disney's masterpiece Fantasia is not only a brilliant synthesis of music and animation, nor an ambitious (if failed) experiment in the moviegoing experience, nor a repository of classic images Disney has utilized for 70 years, but also carries a distinctive if difficult to define visual style. It is painterly, yet lends itself so well to the sleek affectations of Art Deco and Streamline style. For many it seems to stand on its own, but its roots can be found deep within a short-lived artistic movement of the early 20th century, known as Transcendental Art.

One of the easiest connections to make is to the Russian painter and spiritualist Nicholas Roerich. Born in 1872 in St. Petersburg, he graduated from both St. Petersburg University and the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1893, with degrees in both art and law. From 1906 to 1917 he served as the director of the school of the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. His most direct connection to Fantasia was his role as the original costume and set designer for Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring in 1913.

One of Roerich's backdrops for Rite of Spring. 1930.
It was a perfect pairing, as the original intent of Rite of Spring was to portray ancient pagan Russian customs, a subject of intense interest to Roerich. As many fashionable people of his time did, Roerich's attentions in the 1910's turned towards spiritualism, occultism, archaeology, Eastern mysticism, and the new religious movement called Theosophy. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Roerich family migrated from Russia to Finland, then England, then the United States, and finally to India. An expedition spanning 1925 to 1929 took him and his family through India, the Punjab, Mongolia, Siberia, and Tibet.

Theosophy, an amalgamation of esoteric thought coalesced in 1875 with the founding of The Theosophical Society by Helena Blavatsky, holds to certain key principles about the nature of existence and human life in it. According to Blavatsky, it is "The substratum and basis of all the world-religions and philosophies, taught and practised since man became a thinking being. In its practical bearing, Theosophy is purely divine ethics." Which to more practical effect has three chief aims: "(1.) To form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, colour, or creed. (2.) To promote the study of Aryan and other Scriptures, of the World's religion and sciences, and to vindicate the importance of old Asiatic literature, namely, of the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian philosophies. (3.) To investigate the hidden mysteries of Nature under every aspect possible, and the psychic and spiritual powers latent in man especially." By the last point, what is meant is that "We assert that the divine spark in man being one and identical in its essence with the Universal Spirit, our 'spiritual Self' is practically omniscient, but that it cannot manifest its knowledge owing to the impediments of matter."

For Theosophists and other esotericists, the imagination acted a crucial faculty in drawing mythic connections that excavated this deeper spiritual self. For Transcendental artists, that imagination manifested itself in a genre of painting that reached from stylized landscapes to pure abstraction, based in the worldview, symbolism, and numerology of Theosophy. Roerich's work is more literal in its depiction of places and people, but the simplification of detail in them hints to deeper underlying spiritual principles. Their simplicity leaves blank canvas for contemplation.

Bridge of Glory. 1923.
Elijah the Prophet. 1931.
Hermitage of St. Sergius. 1933.
Himalayas. 1933.
Mohammed the Prophet. 1932.
Palden Lhamo. 1931.
Repentence. 1917.
Star of the Hero. 1936.
Star of the Morning. 1932.

The banner of Transcendental Art was picked up in the United States by the Transcendental Painters Group, which formed in Taos, New Mexico in 1938. The goal of group founders Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson, as well as later joiners like Agnes Pelton, was "to carry painting beyond the appearance of the physical world... through new concepts of space, color, light and design, to imaginative worlds that are idealistic and spiritual." The Roerich gallery established in the Thirties in Santa Fe served as a regular gathering place for these artists dedicated to Theosophical ideas and artistic abstraction.

Emil Bisttram, Oversoul. 1941.
Raymond Jonson, Watercolor No. 23. 1940.
Agnes Pelton, Spring Moon. 1942.
One artist to join the group in New Mexico was the Canadian Lawren Harris. By this time, Harris had already secured his reputation as a member of the Group of Seven, the seminal collective who inaugurated modern art in Canada. Bucking the tradition of European-style art done in Canada, Group of Seven members asked what a genuine Canadian art might be. Influenced by Post-Impressionism, their goal was to bypass strict representationalism to depict the Canadian landscape as a place of spiritual and emotional power, as well as patriotic pride. Lawren Harris, heir to the Massey-Harris fortune and Theosophist, was the main financier, spokesman, and spiritual centre of the group. The group found themselves unnecessary by the early Thirties and a public divorce scandal caused Harris and his new wife to leave Canada for the United States, where his work evolved from ever more simplified landscapes to outright abstraction. The following is a sample of his work arranged more or less chronologically, from the 1910's to the 1950's.

Winter Landscape with Pink House. 1918.

Lake Superior. 1923.
Afternoon Sun, Lake Superior. 1924.
Maligne Lake, Jasper Park. 1924.

Pic Island, Lake Superior. 1924.
North Shore, Lake Superior. 1926.
Mount Lefroy. 1930.
Winter Comes from the Artic to the Temperate Zone. 1935.
Abstraction 30. 1955.
The Spirit of Remote Hills. 1958.
Just as it is not overly difficult, I think, to catch similarities between Roerich and Harris' landscape paintings to the landscapes of Fantasia's Rite of Spring, Sorcerer's Apprentice, Pastoral Symphony and Night on Bald Mountain, I also don't think it is difficult to see the trajectory from the Harris' abstract works and the Transcendental Painters Group to the animations of pioneer Oskar Fischinger. A presentation of Walther Ruttmann's Light-Play Opus No. 1 - an abstract animation set to live musical accompaniment - set Fischinger's brain ablaze with creative ideas. Like the Transcendentalists, Fischinger found inspiration in Buddhism, and particularly, spiritually rich and geometrically intricate mandalas. After fleeing Nazi Germany, Fischinger's experimental films landed him a position at Walt Disney Studios, where he worked on the original ideas for Fantasia's Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor. Unfortunately his ideas were too abstract, as Walt didn't feel that "little triangles and designs" was quite enough to sustain a big screen production, and Fischinger left without taking any credit in the finished production. Nevertheless, the echoes of Allegretto and Radio Dynamics (released after Fantasia) are still there.

Oskar Fischinger, Allegretto. 1936.

This study into Transcendental Art is not to suggest that there is necessarily a direct line towards Fantasia. The connection between Roerich and Rite of Spring or Fischinger and Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor is as close as it gets, and in the former case is very tenuous. Nor would I want to be seen as diminishing the artistic voices of the men and women who actually did work on Fantasia directly, like Tom Codrick and Kay Nielsen. Rather, I would submit that in the artistic world of the 1930's, the themes, ideas, aesthetic, and notoriety of Transcendental Art may have been sufficient (alongside Art Deco, Constructivism, etc.) to shape a zeitgeist that in turn shaped the final imagery produced by Disney's studio.

No comments:

Post a Comment