- Eggeling and Richter: Collaborative Years
In 1918, Tristan Tzara introduced Hans Richter to Swedish painter Viking Eggeling. In theory and practice, each artist had been independently experimenting with abstract form in an effort to create a new method of visual communication. According to Richter, Eggeling was far beyond him in realizing this, recalling: "He had succeeded in articulating a complete syntax of form on the basis of line, which he called 'Generalbass der Malerei'. I was passionately impressed." [Hans Richter, 'Step by Step. An account of the transition to the first abstract films 1919-1921', in Studies in the Twentieth Century. A Scholarly and Critical Journal (Russel Sage College, Troy NY, Fall 1968) 1]. Eggeling and Richter worked closely together for the next three years.
- Drawing studies conveying abstract form, line, and space in a sequence of patterns on long pieces of paper were carried out. Eggeling's dominant motif was linear form and experimentation led the artist to create his first scroll picture 'Horizontal - Vertical Mass' (1919). Richter focused on the formal element of the plane, ultimately creating his first scroll 'Preludium' (1919). These works, through specific formal relationships articulated in a series of contrasts, displayed what the artists perceived as continuity, a distinct visual quality that prompted them decisively to introduce the term language to their practice [Hans Richter, 'Step by Step', 1].
- In 1920, Eggeling and Richter wrote the pamphlet Universelle Sprache (probably no longer extant). The manifesto connected abstract form to the notion of a universal language. Richter later wrote:
- "This pamphlet elaborated our thesis that abstract form offers the possibility of a language above and beyond all national language above and beyond national language frontiers. The basis for such language would lie in the identical form perception in all human beings and would offer the promise of a universal art as it had never existed before. With careful analysis of the elements, one should be able to rebuild men's vision into a spiritual language in which the simplest as well as the most complicated, emotions as well as thoughts, objects as well as ideas, would find a form [Hans Richter, 'My Experience with Movement in Painting and in Film', in The Nature and Art of Motion (George Braziller : New York 1965) 144].
- Abstract form allowed art to return to its social function, by expressing true meaning through evoking pure, natural emotions and ideas, untainted by social, cultural, and national realities. Reflected on paper, abstract form rhythmically expressed took on the appearance of movement. Understanding that movement is limited by drawing and painting's inherent properties, Richter and Eggeling moved their experiments to film. Richter wrote of this pivotal transition in medium, "it was just one of those steps by which the idea of the realization of motion took first form." [Hans Richter, 'Step by Step', 2]. But it became obvious that the scroll's implied movement meant, in the last instance, film.
- Viking Eggeling
While highly respected during his lifetime, Eggeling is rarely referenced alongside his more known contemporaries. As early as 1902, Viking Eggeling was progressing towards the idea of a universal language in art, writing that he "had made all kinds of attempts to construct a new communication machine." In the earlier, more figurative drawings of landscapes, coastlines, and villages, Eggeling treats form differently, focusing of the abstract properties of objects belonging to the natural world. Trees and village houses are reduced to the essence of form, becoming more of a sign or symbol of what each represents in the real world, rather than the object itself. In the later drawings, lines appear to be in a kinetic frenzy through a rhythmic presentation of opposites reaching a critical point in which the flat, static surface of the paper can no longer contain them.
- In 'Symphonie Diagonal' (1924), Eggeling applies an objectively analyzed movement of forms emphasizing line in which verticals contrast with horizontals, straight with curved, light with dark, strong with weak, disappearing with emerging. Various 'expressions' of line are presented at a controlled, mechanical tempo, revealing the film's acute observation on the organization of time intervals. Richter later wrote: "The principle of counterpoint in mind is not limited to music. For us it was more than a technical device; it was a philosophic way of dealing with the experience of growth." [Robert Russett and Cecile Star, Experimental Animation. Origins of A New Art (Da Capo Press : New York 1976) 51]. Eggeling referred to his early drawing experiments as 'orchestrations' and the film's title suggests musical associations. The film's visual imagery has a melodic quality, like a musical composition visually expressed.
- Hans Richter
Hans Richter explored the 'interplay of surfaces' in his drawing studies [Hans Richter, 'Step by Step', 1]. Experimenting with surface planes, he conceived form in opposite terms through focusing on form's unique ability to be articulated in positive and negative, or black and white. The paper's surface pulsates, as formal relationships continually shift and planes seem to project forth and recede back into the picture plane. As the eye moves along, the dominant, larger form at a one point in the drawing immediately becomes the weak, smaller form. This constant shift in formal relationship produces a visual effect in which squares and rectangles could leap from the paper's surface.
- In 'Rhythmus 21' (1921), emphasis is on the geometric forms of square and rectangle, articulating in a series of rhythms and tempos to indicate time, similar to the arrangement of a musical composition. These forms are expressed in alternating patterns, exploring their positive/negative properties at varying, yet controlled rates of fast/slow, near/far, large/small, and static/dynamic, continually eliciting immediate, unaffected responses from the viewer. Richter wrote: "So I made my paper rectangles and squares grow and disappear, jump and slide in well-articulated time-spaces and planned rhythms" [Justin Hoffmann, 'Hans Richter. Constructivist Filmmaker', in Hans Richter. Activism, Modernism, And The Avant-Garde / ed. Stephen C. Foster (MIT Press : Cambridge MA 1998) 79]. As form moves in varying speeds, sizes, and appearances, memory of the last image is demanded throughout the film's duration, further accentuating the passage of time.
- Eggeling worked on 'Symphonie Diagonal' for nearly four years. Completed in 1924, the film was shown for the first time (privately) on November 5. On May 3, 1925 it was presented to the public in Germany; sixteen days later Eggeling died in Berlin. Richter continued working in experimental cinema, eventually abandoning abstraction for representational forms in later films. This shift is viewed as Richter's "need for his message to be heard and understood," critically addressing the economic, social, and cultural issues of the time [Marion Von Hofacker, 'Richter's Films and the Role of the Radical Artist, 1927-1941', in Hans Richter. Activism, Modernism, And The Avant-Garde / ed. Stephen C. Foster (MIT Press : Cambridge MA 1998) 124]. In 1941, Hans Richter moved to the United States where he continued to be an influential figure among the younger post-war generation of avant-garde artists as well as the international modern art world.
- TEXT CREDITS
Shortened version of 'Universal Language & the Avant-Garde: Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Jonas Mekas'; exhibition in the Maya Stendhal Gallery, New York, curated by Lori Cole. This press release was published on the site of UnDo.Net [www.undo.net/cgi-bin/undo/pressrelease/pressrelease.pl?id=1183042420].
- DISSERTATIONS, THESES
- Monika Zurhake
Filmische Realitatsaneignung : Ein Beitrag zur Filmtheorie, mit Analysen von Filmen Viking Eggelings und Hans Richters (Heidelberg 1982).
- Louise O'Konor
Viking Eggeling 1880-1925. Artist and film-maker, life and work (Almqvist & Wikswell : Stockholm 1971).
- ARTICLES, ESSAYS and PAPERS
- Marion Von Hofacker
'Richter's Films and the Role of the Radical Artist, 1927-1941', in Hans Richter. Activism, Modernism, And The Avant-Garde / ed. Stephen C. Foster (MIT Press : Cambridge MA 1998) 122-159.
- Justin Hoffmann
'Hans Richter. Constructivist Filmmaker', in Hans Richter. Activism, Modernism, And The Avant-Garde / ed. Stephen C. Foster (MIT Press : Cambridge MA 1998) 72-91.