“The Colour Fantastic”: Early Film Colour and the Universal Visual Language

On Laura Trager’s presentation, “Color between Abstraction and Affect: A Universal Visual Language in Film” 

by Britt Patterson 

Still from Walter Ruttmann's Lichtspiel: Opus I, II, III & IV (1921–25)

Still from Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel: Opus I, II, III & IV (1921–25)

On the occasion of the twenty years that had passed since the Amsterdam workshop on silent film colour, “Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film,” EYE and the Leverhulm Trust presented The Colour Fantastic: Chromatic Worlds of Silent Cinema, as a platform for exploring contemporary archival and academic discourse on the subject; as it has progressed over the past two decades. The three-day conference, lasting from the 29th until the 31st of March, incorporated eleven different panels addressing a variety of contemporary archival and academic topics in silent era film colour, presented through lectures by specialists from a range of disciplines in media studies and film preservation. The topics touched upon were varied and included contemporary preservation approaches, specific historical periods or techniques in silent colour films, the role of colour across various genres, and innovative theoretical perspectives on the subject. One such panel on the final day of the conference, “Intermedial Colour Theory,” delved into current research surrounding alternative perspectives on the theoretical analysis of film colour.

“Intermedial Color Theory” featured speakers Birk Weiberg, a PhD candidate from the Institute of Art History at the University of Zürich, Switzerland; and Laura Trager, an MA in Media Studies from The New School in New York City. Both presented in detail the outlines of their research introducing new ways to conceptualize alternative or abstract colour technique in silent film. Weiberg started off the panel with a dense, highly detailed explanation of his ongoing research into alternative and overlooked colour systems that emerged during the first part of the 20th century in film. Weiberg’s fast-paced presentation was followed by the second speaker of the panel, MA scholar Laura Trager, discussing her paper “Color between Abstraction and Affect – A Universal Visual Language in Film.”

Prior to embarking on an MA in Media Studies from The New School in 2011, Laura Trager pursued undergraduate studies in Sociology and through her graduate work went on to develop an academic background in Film Philosophy and Cultural Theory. In line with her topic of study, Trager’s primary academic interest concerns questions regarding the affective perception of film in relation to its aesthetic constitution. This is a subject that she has approached not only academically but also artistically, through work with 16mm and Super 8 film, digital video, still photography, and sound. Currently she works as assistant to the Coordinator of Special Programs at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and has since 2013 been the primary organiser of the Critical Themes conference at The New School in New York City.

In her presentation for the intermedial colour panel Trager explained in an easy-to-follow and succinct manner her unconventional lines of research into early film colour. Specifically, the role of abstract early film colour in the formation of a universal visual language as envisioned by artists Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, and Walter Ruttmann in the 1920s. As Trager explained with the help of colourful background slides, the universal visual language refers to the early 20th century aspiration of many visual artists to discover a mode of sensory communication (or a form of syntax consisted of sensory experience) that was not hindered by any kind of linguistic or cultural barriers. According to a now lost pamphlet created by Eggeling and Richter in 1920s titled “Universelle Sprache,” the basis for such a language was intended to lie in an identical form of perception shared by all human beings. This notion of identical perception is rooted in what Trager refers to as a sensory-sense making process of communication, or the body’s capacity for a certain set of sensory experiences comprising a universal language.

Richter, Eggeling, and Ruttmann believed that art was the ideal medium for communicating visual language and through their creative collaborations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries produced many avant-garde films that exemplify this philosophical vision. Trager’s case study of the three experimental filmmakers and their work takes into account the role of colour as an element in their early abstract, spatio-temporal experiments with visual components on film, which included the relationship of colour and shapes in the time and space of the films. These components were at that time considered essential conductors of sensory experiences and thereby represented building blocks to be systemized into a syntax comprising the universal language. Throughout her presentation Trager illuminated her discussion with vivid slides and clips of the artists’ work:

Series of stills from Walter Ruttmann's Lichtspiel: Opus I, II, III & IV (1921–25

Series of stills from Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel: Opus I, II, III & IV (1921–25

As a supplement and further theoretical context for 1920s notions of the universal language, Trager also emphasised in her presentation her incorporation of philosophical work on the relationship between the body and the experience of watching film. Trager references the philosophical perspectives of Vivian Sobchack, Robert Musil, John Dewy, and Gilles Deleuze regarding the sensory experience of cinema. She utilises concepts of the universal visual language in early experimental cinema in connection to these more recent philosophical views as context for forming her own questions concerning the role of abstract colour in the sensory-sense making process of the film experience. In doing so, it is clear from her presentation that through this work she aims to highlight the relevance of colour for a universal visual language in film according to past and present conceptions of the notion.

Trager’s presentation offered a unique case for pursuing alternative avenues in the technical and theoretical study of colour in silent film—her research orientation considers the possibility of multiple perspectives on the role of colour in film and how it is perceived, which strengthened the position of her research in the panel and the conference overall. It appears that one of the overarching aims of “The Colour Fantastic” conference was to provide a well-rounded impression of how the study of film technologies of the past have the capacity to inform developments in approaches to their preservation and theoretical analysis in the present. Considerations of how such approaches have evolved since the “Disorderly Order: Colours in Silent Film” workshop was held twenty years ago are also inherent in the conference’s celebration if its anniversary, functioning to provide perspective for current discussions.

With this in mind, I was impressed upon by the specific topics addressed in the panel on intermedial colour theory in their attempts to contribute something new to contemporary discussions concerning colour in early film—suggestions for how the study of colour can evolve from a technical and theoretical standpoint. While the work of Weiberg and notably Trager are focused on new ways to consider techniques of early cinema, they perhaps also have the potential to inspire alternative methods of studying the role of colour in the special effects of modern and contemporary film.
























One thought on ““The Colour Fantastic”: Early Film Colour and the Universal Visual Language

  1. Pingback: Highlights from the AMIA Student Chapters’ Annual Reports | AMIA Education Committee

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