The First Masterpieces of Abstract Film: Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921) & Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924)

Paint­ing, as any Art His­to­ry 101 lec­tur­er will tell you, found the moti­va­tion to turn abstract when pho­tog­ra­phy trumped it in the game of life­like rep­re­sen­ta­tion. But what push­es pho­tog­ra­phy, and even motion pic­tures, to give abstrac­tion a try? The vast major­i­ty of films made today still rep­re­sent real­i­ty in some basi­cal­ly direct fash­ion, but almost since the first appear­ance of the medi­um, cer­tain artists have tried to push it in oth­er direc­tions. If you know the work of only one abstract film­mak­er, you prob­a­bly know the work of Stan Brakhage, crafts­man of such vivid and dis­tressed cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ences as Cat’s Cra­dle and Dog Star ManBut who pre­ced­ed him?

The title of the very first abstract film­mak­er has been dis­put­ed, but we at least know who made sev­er­al ear­ly abstract mas­ter­pieces. Today we present two of them, Hans Richter’s Rhyth­mus 21, made in 1921, and from three years lat­er, Viking Eggeling’s Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale. “Clock­ing in at just over three min­utes, it’s a sig­nif­i­cant depar­ture from the news­reels, romances, cliff-hang­ers, and pen­ny-dread­fuls that made up the bulk of film pro­duc­tion in the ear­ly 20s,” writes the Get­ty’s Jan­non Stein of Richter’s hyp­not­i­cal­ly geo­met­ric pic­ture, “the first decade in which the film indus­try began to play a major eco­nom­ic and cul­tur­al role around the world.”

But Richter, Stein con­tin­ues, “cred­it­ed his friend Viking Eggeling with the idea of explor­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties for abstract ani­ma­tion. In fact, they’d worked togeth­er on a series of paint­ings on scrolls that pre­ced­ed both of Richter’s first films, as well as Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale,” which you can watch just above. This ver­sion opens with an endorse­ment from no less dar­ing a mind than archi­tect-artist-the­o­reti­cian Fred­er­ick John Kiesler, who describes it as “the best abstract film yet con­ceived” and “an exper­i­ment to dis­cov­er the basic prin­ci­ples of the orga­ni­za­tion of time inter­vals in the film medi­um.” I, per­son­al­ly, would call it some­thing like a pure shot of the art-deco aes­thet­ic which we now know, of course, not from the film it pro­duced in the 20s, but the archi­tec­ture.

That may excite you or it may not, but words have nev­er quite suit­ed the abstract. If Richter, Eggeling, Brakhage, or any who came between them or have come after them share a mis­sion, that mis­sion involves mak­ing movies that no words can real­ly describe. Eggeling would pass on the year after Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale, but Richter would go on to a long life and career that includ­ed oth­er projects meant to take film beyond its con­ven­tion­al uses, such as 1947’s “sto­ry of dreams mixed with real­i­ty,” Dreams that Mon­ey Can BuyEven now, in the 21st cen­tu­ry, it seems that the medi­um has a long way to go before it makes use of all the cre­ative space avail­able to it — which should only encour­age the next Richters and Eggelings of the world.

Sym­phonie Diag­o­nale and Rhyth­mus 21 will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Dreams That Mon­ey Can Buy, a Sur­re­al­ist Film by Man Ray, Mar­cel Duchamp, Alexan­der Calder, Fer­nand Léger & Hans Richter

CBS Evening News with Wal­ter Cronkite Intro­duces Amer­i­ca to Under­ground Films and the Vel­vet Under­ground (1965)

Man Ray and the Ciné­ma Pur: Four Sur­re­al­ist Films From the 1920s

Un Chien Andalou: Revis­it­ing Buñuel and Dalí’s Sur­re­al­ist Film

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Sur­re­al­ist First Film (1934)

The Seashell and the Cler­gy­man: The World’s First Sur­re­al­ist Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Rodney Noland says:

    Is it just a tech­ni­cal glitch on my side that there is no accom­pa­ny­ing music to the film aside from the cou­ple of sec­onds at the begin­ning? It is so visu­al­ly musi­cal, but on my machine there is only music at the begin­ning. What’s up with that?

  • DT says:

    The *pur­pose* of this exper­i­men­tal film is to visu­al­ly rep­re­sent music, with­out sound. But audi­ences basi­cal­ly could­n’t han­dle a com­plete­ly silent film, with­out even a sin­gle musi­cian or record­ing, let alone an orches­tra, to accom­pa­ny the film in the the­ater, so the film was some­thing of a flop. When Dis­ney came out with Fan­ta­sia, he knew which side his (finan­cial) bread was but­tered on, and thus: easy music that the audi­ence already knew, with plen­ty of sim­plis­tic, trite nar­ra­tive expla­na­tions of how the film’s visu­als relat­ed to the music.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.