Common Ground: Oskar Fischinger and Marcus Jansen

 Marcus Jansen, “When History Repeats,” 2015, oil enamel and mixed media on canvas, 88 x 135inches. Courtesy the artist and Weinstein Gallery.

Common Ground:
Oskar Fischinger and Marcus Jansen
Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco

By LEORA LUTZ, May 2018

Last winter, Weinstein Gallery in San Francisco mounted two premier exhibitions: a solo show of avant-garde artist Oskar Fischinger (b. 1900 Gelnhausen, Germany), and a mid-career retrospective by painter Marcus Jansen (b. 1968, New York, NY). The artists are completely different: Fischinger is known as the father of Visual Music and the grandfather of music videos, and Jansen has been deemed the pioneer of Modern Urban Expressionism. [1] Yet their stories overlap, creating a narrative timeline that links them both to war (WWII and Desert Storm), and their time living in both Germany and the United States.

Presenting Fischinger and Jansen back-to-back is in keeping with Weinstein’s plans for the rest of the year to pair established historical artists alongside contemporary artists. “We feel it is very important to show the viewer a direct line from the past to the present—and it may even give us all a peek into the future,” says Rowland Weinstein, Executive Director.

The shows were part of their 25th Anniversary exhibitions that also included a group show of Surrealists and Abstract painters. “We specialize in two things: Surrealism and Non-Objective Art,” says Weinstein. “Both of these movements converged in New York in 1939 when the Surrealists decamped from the Nazis and Hilla Rebay opened the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, the original Guggenheim Museum […] Fischinger was one of the European artists being shown at the Museum of Non-Objective painting and worked very closely with Rebay.” In contrast, Jansen is a contemporary artist whose work emerged from his dual–continent upbringing and his experience in the military.

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst c.1926/2012, Weinstein Gallery installation view featuring KlingendeOrnamente (Sounding Ornaments) drawings, c. 1930. Photo LLutz, Image courtesy Glossary Magazine, 2018.

While the elder lived the Nazi experience, the younger has lived through the slow reparations in Germany since the 1980s, including the opening of the Berlin Wall the same year he enlisted, followed soon after by its demolition while he was stationed in Iraq. The story of the two begins in 1920s Munich.

Munich, the capital of Bavaria, Germany was the birthplace of the Nazi movement. In 1923, Hitler planned a march from Munich to Berlin to rid the government of Communists and Jewish people. That same year he also held a workers movement revolution that attempted to take over the city, for which he was imprisoned for a short period of time, and began writing Mein Kampf during the incarceration. By 1926 Bavaria was divided into different Gaue (administrative subdivision regions).

That same year, Fischinger was presenting avant-garde films alongside Hungarian composer Alexander László’s color organ piano performances; László invited Fischinger to show his abstract projection works to accompany the music he was creating. Fischinger’s contributions were lauded by critics, while László received scant mention—needless to say, the two parted ways soon afterward.

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst c.1926/2012, Weinstein Gallery installation view featuring RadioDynamics drawings, 1944. Photo LLutz, Image courtesy Glossary Magazine, 2018.

Fischinger continued to show what was later understood through historic texts and press materials to be part of his multi-projector series Raumlichtmusik (Space Light Music).  Renamed Raumlichtkunst (Space Light Art) upon the suggestion of critics, the series incorporated up to five 35mm film projectors of animations created with drawings and objects, adding colored filters for effect, accompanied by live percussion.

As groundbreaking as it was, and seemingly popular with the critics, presentations of Raumlichtkunst were short-lived and stopped in 1927. That same year, Fischinger walked from Munich to Berlin, photo-documenting and journaling the 365 mile (587 km) trek along the way. In a manuscript, he described the three-and-a-half-week-walk as a quest in freedom, and a way to break ties with Munich. [2]

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst c.1926/2012, Weinstein Gallery installation view featuring KlingendeOrnamente (Sounding Ornaments) drawings, c. 1930. Photo LLutz, Image courtesy Glossary Magazine, 2018.

Raumlichtkunst was not shown again until 2012, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the Center for Visual Music presented a three-projector HD reconstruction. The work has traveled to several other museums since then, but was shown for the first time on the west coast at Weinstein Gallery, San Francisco on December 16, 2017 (closed February 10, 2018). Technically, Fischinger’s work falls under the genre of visual music, which is characterized by artworks that create a relationship between the visuals and their meaning or interpretation as carriers of sound—directly opposite from music videos, which apply visuals to already existing audio. [3]

The new version of Raumlichtkunst c.1926/2012 remains true to its original 1926/27 multi-projector installation, using three off-set loops, which ran continuously over the course of gallery hours in varying combinations that never repeated—without a set start or end time. Accompanying music included Ionisation by Edgard Varèse and two versions of Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison. [4]

Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst (c. 1926/2012)Three-projector HD reconstruction by Center for Visual Music35mm films transferred to HD video, looped. Courtesy Center for Visual Music

The black-box installation included comfortable seating. Bold and invasive percussion music emanated from the darkness adding momentum, and at times a disjointed contrast to the constantly flashing and alternating visuals. Yet, as more moments passed a soothing rhythm kept the pace, then suddenly: a thunderous BOOM! The imagery is powerful: thick black lines jut from one screen upward with green sinews folding toward them; squares build structures upon themselves against monochromatic backdrops of red; a blue flash—the image lost while looking at another; purple volcanic-like pools grow and dissolve. The immersive environment is an enthralling array of both dreamlike and psychedelic wonder and perplexity.

By 1933 the National Socialist party began its cultural cleansing crusade (Kulturellen Säuberung) to rid the country of art unfit for the Nazi Aryan ideology. Artists who had formed groups decades prior to Nazi power, such as The New Munich Artists’ Association, Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) were sent to concentration camps, or exiled—their works destroyed or stolen by the Nazis and labeled as “degenerate.” Although there is no specific evidence that Fischinger was threatened or labeled “degenerate” by the regime, it had to have been uncomfortable for any avant-garde artist at the time; it was not a safe place for experimentation or non-traditional art forms. [5]

Marcus Jansen, “The Bright Light in the Battlefield,” oil enamel and mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and Weinstein Gallery.

During that same time, Fischinger was working on a project titled Klingende Ornamente (Sounding Ornaments), which were comprised of black geometric drawings that were run through a projector to create sound. The sounds generated were a variety of tones; Fischinger discovered that different shapes and shades of gray produced different sound results: sharp shapes were the loudest and grey tones created varying degrees of distance. Through layering and various combinations, Fischinger saw a future where an artist or a composer could essentially create very specific music compositions with the drawings; in a sense he was wildly ahead of his time, as these formulations are akin to what would later become electronic music coding.

Shortly afterward, in 1936 Fischinger—having been making a modest living creating commercial projects—was recognized and ultimately invited by Paramount studios to leave Germany and come to the United States to work for them. But his time with the studios was not ideal. Fischinger was designing the sequence "Tocatta and Fugue" by Bach for Disney's Fantasia, but the studio altered and changed his work to such an extent that he resigned without credit—his ideas were no longer his. He remained in California, and continued to create numerous works amounting to some 800 paintings and 50 films, until his death in 1967.

Marcus Jansen, “The Bright Light in the Battlefield,” oil enamel and mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30inches. Courtesy the artist and Weinstein Gallery.

The following year in 1968, artist Marc Jansen was born to a West Indian mother and German father. He grew up between New York and Moenchengladbach, Germany, and lived a bilingual life attending school in Germany, and becoming involved in the German and New York graffiti scene in the 1980s. A strong sense of duty beckoned him to enlist in the US Armed Forces, and in 1989 he was immediately sent to the front lines of Desert Storm. There he witnessed atrocities that afflicted him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, burning a lasting mark into his well-being.

After his discharge, Jansen dove deeply into painting as a means of survival, community and healing. “Painting is the most intimate act of war,” he says. [6] Praised by historians and critics, Jansen’s success as a painter is marked by his ability to channel his perceptions and put forth dramatic and powerful expressionism in foreboding apocalyptic urban landscapes and tangled portraits.

 Marcus Jansen, “Faceless 13”, 2014, oil enamel and mixed media on canvas, 40 x 30 inches. Courtesy the artist and Weinstein Gallery.

For example, his Faceless series (2014) features presidential-like grotesque portraits with faces obliterated in comparison to flesh destroyed by violence—the similarity to Francis Bacon is obvious. In his landscapes, such as Obscure Line Between Fact and Fiction (2010) or When History Repeats (2015) land and buildings are in wreckage, people are mere silhouettes clambering in the rubble, wandering aimlessly, or backs turned looking into the brazen distance like a Caspar David Friedrich scene. 

Broadly speaking, parallels lie in both artist’s ability to translate the human condition through abstraction—be it advocating and creating new and distinct artistic methods, or by portraying very personal content. Ninety years after Fischinger walked from Munich to Berlin, Jansen mounted a solo exhibition at Heitsch Galerie, Munich in 2017 and a survey at the Museum Zitadelle, Berlin that opened on February 10, 2018. Seemingly coincidental, it reiterates the connectedness between the artists, though strangers shared “common ground.” While Fischinger’s work is pure abstraction, Jansen’s work vacillates between abstract expressionism and storytelling. Their compositions compel the viewer to seek and question meaning from the vibrant and expressive visual plains—be they rapid fire illuminated projections, or rapid fire gestures on canvas. 


[1] Jerome A. Donson (Director of the American Vanguard Exhibitions Europe 1961) deemed Jansen’s work “modern urban expressionism.”

[2] Texts by Oskar Fischinger, Center for Visual Music, accessed Feb. 12, 2018.

[3] A very similar definition of visual music previously appeared in an article written by the same author for Glossary Magazine, February 6, 2018, and includes history and expanded definitions of the term.

[4] Music was supervised by Richard H. Brown, PhD. No audio recordings exist from the original 1926/27 performances, but after extensive research Ionisation by Edgar Varèse (1929) was chosen because it is an example of avant-garde percussion performed during the Raumlichtkunst era. In addition, two versions of Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison (1941), were included due to negotiations between Fischinger and Cage to produce a soundtrack for a different project that was ultimately never realized.

[5] Oskar Fischinger biography (endnotes), The Fischinger Trust, accessed February 20, 2018.

[6] Marcus Jansen, Obscure Line Between Fact and Fiction, exhibition statement, Weinstein Gallery. Accessed February 20, 2018.


Leora Lutz

Leora Lutz is an artist, writer and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her art practice stems from a conceptual framework with a desire to bring ritual and routine closer together. She is a regular art writer and critic for several national and global publications both online and in print as well as the author of published exhibition essays and research papers.

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