Commercial and Artistic Success


All the films of Mary Ellen Bute and Oskar Fischinger that utilize Art music exploit some aspect of the music. Fischinger usually emphasized structural elements: form and musical contrast. Fischinger’s use of contrasting shapes with contrasting musical themes is one of the most elegant visual analogues to absolute music. His unique vision and his fine precision with all the modes of animation at his disposal allowed him to create visuals that powerfully evoke the spirit of the music he chose. Bute saw greater potential in the use of non-programmatic and programmatic music to tell a story. Bute experienced commercial success in America while Fischinger’s early films found an international audience. One must remember, however, that success is not a product of talent alone. Each animator’s personal relationships affected his and her career. Both Bute and Fischinger showed great artistic talent, but their personalities must have been very different. Fischinger, by many accounts, was a perfectionist and preferred to work independently. Bute attracted supporters and collaborators easily. Fischinger’s accent—especially during the war years—and his inability to speak English, proved to be a sizable obstacle in his path. As an émigré, the German government made it impossible for Fischinger to export prints of the films he made while in Europe. Furthermore, as an independent filmmaker, he was at the mercy of his patrons.

Fischinger’s commercial success in America seemed to have been thwarted at nearly every turn, but even in the face of so many obstacles, Oskar Fischinger never gave up his ideals of creating abstract animation with little or no narrative context and no representational images. Fischinger’s connection to the music was linked closely to the actual sounds of the instruments and the forms and textures of his chosen pieces. Although many of his works are remarkable visualizations of music, it was perhaps his fierce independence as an artist, and his unwillingness to compromise or collaborate that caused him the greatest hardships in the U.S.

Bute’s technique of suggesting narrative ideas for the music made some of her films very accessible to American audiences, and it seems clear that the breadth and depth of her experience as an artist, certainly enriched by her numerous collaborations, allowed her to make films that spoke to audiences, not just through the visual images she presented, but through the human emotion she found in the music. In the late 1940s, Lewis Jacobs saw in Bute a talent for such emotional evocation and remarked that she and collaborator Ted Nemeth included in their films “effective theatrical patterns such as comedy, suspense, pathos and drama in the action of the objects, which lifted the films above the usual abstract films and made them interesting experiments in a new experience.”43

Music was an extremely important aspect of both artists’ work. Each one engaged with the music in a unique way and it was this ability to understand certain pieces and translate this understanding into visual images that made their artwork successful irrespective of financial gain and commercial popularity.


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