Animation and Art by John Halas

The world of animation has been severely handicapped because it has never been classified according to its nature, its character and its type as so many other art movements have. This lack of classification has, unfortunately, contributed to the fact that the general public still thinks all animation is of the comic type which, as the medium expands, is only one category among many.

Looking back over this century, a highly interesting and exciting relationship has emerged between animation and fine arts, kinetics and music which has never been noticed properly. Looking ahead there are even more exciting developments to come which could be assisted greatly by definition and inspired observation.

Take for instance the 1909 Manifesto Figaro February 9th, Paris) calling on all artists to liberate their work from the graveyards of dusty museums, to denounce their cultural decay, and seek a new universal dynamism in the arts which should embrace visual beauty and technology. It was the birth of “Futurism”, advocating a new outlook. Out of it grew “Cubism”. Both movements expressed psychological and pictorial attitudes about the passage of time, and provided a means of analysing forms simultaneously from different fixed points of view. Traditional fixed points of view no longer dominated attitudes. Objects interacted with elements subjected to the effects of colour, time and speed. It is clear now that it was a recipe for animators at the time, yet it was not for another decade that animators began to take note of the new potential to enrich their work. As it turned out, influenced by the inevitable course of 20th century development, fine art underwent a gradual decay while the art of animation, due to its freer means of contemporary expression, fulfilled most of the aspirations of the Figaro Manifesto.

But where does this put non-comic animation today? Before they disappear totally from our view, where should we put such artists as Yuri Norstein, Ernest Ansorge, Peter Foldes, John Hubley, Len Lye, Norman McLaren, Nedeljko Dragic, Luzzati & Gianini, Manfredo Manfredi, Witold Giersz, Raoul Servais, Sandor Reisenbuchler and Frëdéric Back to name but a few who, in my estimation, rate as high in our time as Bonnard, Manet, Gauguin, Braque and Lautrec did in the last century. The language of expression is, of course, different as it would be considering the passage of time. Storytelling ability, optical continuity, flexibility, montage and the application of sound did not exist during the last century.

Contemporary developments have widened pictorial language and provided further spiritual and physical experiences through the talents of these contemporary representatives of art to a much greater extent than it did those working with the stiffness of canvas and brushes. It is highly overdue that the art world should give proper recognition to this generation of active artists and place them in their true perspective in history.

It is interesting to see that while fine art searched for its identity and to find a form which could represent and reflect our times; coming up with movements like simultaneity, conceptual and pop art; these concepts were already present in animation soon after the Second World War and typified studios like Zagreb Film in Yugoslavia. Animation greatly expanded its position and no longer depended on influences for its ideas. In fact it appears to convey and represent the character of the times more than any other art form in much the same way as the art manifesto did in Paris in 1909. Film animation has expanded in a manner which has brought it closer to the most contemporary form of art and graphics. The point of fusion seems to have been reached in the mid-fifties and is constantly expanding.

Today, after eighty years of development, with far more sophisticated facilities available, opportunities have opened up to all who want to experiment, involving optical and magnetic techniques, both in two- and three-dimensional formats, in time and space, and developing new dimensions. My travelling exhibition of animation artwork attempts to give an overall view of this development although missing form it is the pre-war period of experimental animation still to come.

The Cubist/Expressionist period produced many fine animators like Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, Len Lye and Norman McLaren but it was Alexandre Alexeieff who brought a lyrical and intimate touch to the medium. By the mid-fifties, through the work of Foldes (whose work by the way has almost been forgotten) we have experienced a fresh “graphic dynamism”, an imaginative use of metamorphoses giving the viewer a total visual, physical and spiritual experience. The post-war period was an important one as far as the expansion of “graphic dynamism” was concerned. Ernest Ansorge from Switzerland, Raoul Servais from Belgium, Dusan Vukotic from Yugoslavia, Witold Giersz from Poland, John Hubley from the USA, Luzzati & Gianini from Italy, Sandor Reisenbuchler from Hungary, Rein Raamat and Priit P;arn from Estonia (USSR) have crystalized the movement and lifted animation to new heights to establish the medium as a new art form. The stylistic diversity, from the sensuousness of Ansorge to the boldness of Raamat, or the mobile painted surfaces of Giersz, were there to express the new plastic dynamism and the new magic realism of this movement.

Another fundamental style arose during the early Seventies through the work of Yuri Norstein from the USSR. His multi-dimensional but simple style, his restrained humour, his rendering of figures in a new graphic freedom once again emphasises the richness of the medium.

In 1987 a major work appeared at the Annecy Animation Festival; The Man Who Planted Trees, by Frëdëric Back (French Canada) which could very well crystallize the category of “Neo-Classicism” bringing together the best in French expressionistic visual art with stylised realistic animation integrated into a pure form. This format will no doubt develop further in the future bringing animation closer to public acceptance to such an extent that even those who have resisted the medium will accept it as they do realistic live films, but with all the fluidity, imagination and freedom of the artistic expression of animated art.

Animation art is the first new art form for a very long time. It has taken centuries to discover that art can move. It is only now that we realise that like music, we can compose motion. It is the organic source of our physical sense of freedom, vital to our existence. As Len Lye said, “energy is the essential element in the enactment of our life span which is organically and psychologically organised to refine, symbolize and further the essence of individuality”. This description of motion opens up a new dimension for animation which is there to explore with all the present and future technologies available to artists.

The exhibition ‘Animation and Art’ which has been displayed in London, Barcelona, Leeds, Budapest, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood and Annecy will hopefully broaden the bases of this genre, and at the same time serve as a modest demonstration of the relationship between animation and other arts.

Printed in Animator Issue 25 (Summer 1989)