Mary Hallock-Greenewalt's 'Abstract Films'

Michael Betancourt

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

While the oldest surviving abstract films were produced in Germany by Walther Ruttman, Hans Richter, Viking Eggling, and Oskar Fischinger in the 1920s, earlier films were produced by Italian Futurists Bruno Corra and Alberto Ginna circa 1909 by directly painting on clear film. An American named Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, better known for having patented a system of color music, may have also produced a number of abstract films at the same time. An examination of the historical validity and context of her claims enables one to create a more detailed understanding of the relationship between abstract film and visual music performed with color organs.

The relationship between color music and abstract film was discussed by Malcolm Le Grice in Abstract Film and Beyond. In his examination of the now lost films produced by Corra and Ginna, Le Grice notes that their work with film developed from earlier experiments with a color organ of their own design. He explains the linkages between the two:

The production of the [Futurist's] 'color-organ' introduces another element which has a general place in the development of abstract cinema. As early as 1880 in America, Bainbridge Bishop, and, soon afterwards, Wallace Rimington constructed color-organs. The beginning of this concept, though, can be placed much earlier, at least as early as 1734 with the Clavecin Oculaire of Louis-Bertrand Castel. In fact, experimenters in this field in and around the end of the nineteenth century would make quite a considerable list. Extensions of the idea persist to the present, and experiments with various forms of 'light-machine' have often been made by abstract film-makers.1

Le Grice observes that the history and aesthetics of abstract film and color organs have been closely linked throughout the twentieth century. The movement between color organ and abstract film is a logical extension of the musical analogy between color and sound introduced by Isaac Newton's description of splitting sunlight into a spectrum.

The Futurists' movement into film from the color organ came as a result of their inability to create a satisfactory color-music instrument. Corra explains this transition as the result of attempting to find a new art based solely on color:

It could be said that the only display of the art of colors currently in use is the painting. A painting is a medley of colours placed in reciprocal relationships in order to present an idea. [...] After the violet of the first octave came the red of the second, and so on. To translate all this into practice we naturally used a series of twenty-eight coloured electric bulbs, corresponding to twenty-eight keys. Each bulb was fitted with an oblong reflector: the first experiments were done with direct light, and in the subsequent ones a sheet of ground glass was placed in front of the bulb. The keyboard was exactly like that of a piano (but was less extensive). [...] This chromatic piano, when it was first tried out, gave quite good results, so much so that we were under the illusion that we had resolved the problem definitively. [...] But at last, after three months of experimentation, we had to confess that with these means no further progress could be made. We obtained the most graceful effects, it is true, but never to the extent that we felt fully gripped. [...] We turned our thoughts to cinematography, and it seemed to us that this medium, slightly modified, would give excellent results, since its light potency was the strongest one could desire.2

Corra and Ginna's trajectory from creating a visual music instrument to creating hand-painted abstract films demonstrates the close links these two parallel practices have, not only formally but aesthetically and historically. Yet the desire to create an independent "art of colors" is not unique to the Futurists. In 1895, A. Wallace Rimington, a British painter, announced his own invention of "Colour-Music" in conjunction with his receiving the patent for an instrument to play it.3 His design anticipates that of the Futurists by fifteen years.4 Oskar Fischinger later created his own variety of color organ called a Lumigraph that directly translated the performer's touch on a screen into visual imagery.5 While these two histories are parallel and often intersecting, the history of visual music and the history of abstract film remain separate fields of inquiry with the key figures of one history often completely unknown in the other. Mary Hallock-Greenewalt is such a figure in the history of visual music whose work has relevance to the history of abstract film.

In an experience parallel to the Futurists', Mary Hallock-Greenewalt became an electrical engineer in order to invent the Sarabet, her color organ,. By the time of her death, she had received eleven patents for devices necessary for her variety of visual music she called Nourathar. Her patents provide a factual foundation for the examination of her claims related to visual music and to their neighboring field of abstract film. In a letter, held by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) dated January 12, 19416, addressed to the Simon and Shuster publishing company, she claims that abstract "films painted into being by myself around 1909-1912" prove that she, not Walt Disney, invented abstract cinema. These dates make her films of the same vintage as those produced by Corra and Ginna in Italy and place them among the earliest known abstract films. If her claim is correct and if she should be recognized as an inventor of abstract cinema, her trajectory would be opposite that of the Futurists -- from film into visual music, rather than from visual music into film.

The validity of Hallock-Greenewalt's claim requires a closer examination of her films and their place in the broader aesthetic structure of Nourathar. However, an examination of her claim immediately encounters difficulties. The most obvious problem is the lack of any evidence that she produced or exhibited a motion picture publicly. While the HSP does have several rolls of hand-painted nitrate roll film (neither perforated nor of a gauge used with motion picture projection), nowhere in the archive are there programs, flyers or other references to film screenings. However, these materials are present for Nourathar concerts. (Hallock-Greenewalt preserved these films along with other papers and materials used in her patent infringement suit against General Electric et. al. over her invention of the rheostat.)

The films stored at the archive are curious objects. They more closely resemble the roll film used in aerial photography -- large format still images shot on long rolls -- rather than motion picture film. Each roll is loosely spooled around a solid core rod, and each strip is connected to the next with either metal staples or tape, or both. The holdings at the HSP consists of separate rolls of hand-painted film, approximately 6 and 10 inches wide, with lines along the edges evenly spaced in groups of four. The patterns on these films appear to have been produced with a spray and templates cut with organic and geometric shapes, and when back-lit on a light table, they reveal brilliant, saturated colors and rhythmic organization across the roll as a whole. In many respects, they resemble the scroll paintings produced by Viking Eggling and Hans Richter, but using organic forms instead of linear geometry. However, unlike the Eggling/Richter scroll paintings, Hallock-Greenewalt's films are continuous lengths of color rather than divided into specific "frames." In this regard, their visual form relates to the Len Lye and Normal McLaren hand-painted films from the 1930's where the color and image continue across the framelines. The description of these films is hand-written on an index card.

Unlike the colored film used for tinting light in her original Sarabet patent,7 the films are patterned, and clearly are those reproduced in Nourathar: The Fine Art of Light-Color Playing. Hallock-Greenewalt's explanation is ambiguous about their role in the performance while being specific about how they were produced and that she regards them as "films" of some type:

Color sprayed acetate of cellulose roll used to furnish required sequences for accompaniment to music played by me at my disclosure of the fine art of light-color play. September, 1916

This card, the films, and her other materials in the HSP are largely related to her patent infringement suit. Noting that she claims in 1941 that these films date from 1909-1912, that she identified them as being from 1916 is surprising. This discrepancy suggests a degree of unreliability in her dating. In addition, the discrepancy in the chronology for these films increases with an examination of her patents.8 The earliest patent for the Sarabet, her Nourathar-playing instrument from 1918 (patent no. 1,481,132) makes no reference to roll film as a guide to performance even though it includes a means to display colored light along with a roll film attached to a player-piano mechanism for autoplay; this mechanism becomes a colored light-score display mechanism with a later design. Another patent (no. 1,385,944) describing her Light-Score (1919) presents a notation system that can accompany traditional music notation, implying that the later use of
colored, hand-painted films as a score notation system were a way to overcome the cumbersome written notation she originally produced.

The disagreement between these dates implies that her claim of 1916 is false, or at least that the films she used for autoplay in her earlier Sarabet were merely colored gels -- this early instrument includes no lenses or other means for projecting any kind of imagery. Hallock-Greenewalt mentions in Nourathar that she was forced to create her own colored gels for lights,9 and while it is possible that these films were used in that fashion, a colored gel is not an abstract film.

The earliest date for any of these films is much more likely to be from sometime between her initial filing of the original patent in 1918 and her first patented revision filed in 1925 (patent no. 174,504). Her changes to the Sarabet include more precise lighting controls and a display system near the controls that would accommodate these roll films. The design that includes this scoring system is an elaboration designed around this score-display system; it is not simply an addition that could have been omitted from her previous patent.

As her patent clearly shows, these "films" are not meant to be visible to anyone but the performer, and then only as intermittent motion across an illuminating bar: the film is marked along the edge in increments corresponding to 4/4 time in music. Every film held at the HSP includes these edge marks. Every fourth mark is larger than the previous three, serving to identify "beats" and "measures," and allows the correct understanding of these "films" as scores, not motion pictures. In contrast, the colored light gel films "played" by her original patent scrolled continuously at the same speed as the player piano score. The identification of the first Sarabet patent as a "method and means for associating light and music" and the later revision as a "control system for light and color players" supports the changed role of the film in the performance. However, given the automated aspect of her performance system still contained by this version of the Sarabet, it is possible that these films could be displayed in the manner of a nickelodeon during the course of an autonomous performance. In that regard, the films, while still not presenting true motion, would become a visible intermittent image rather than a score. Their imagery, while elaborate when viewed in toto, is not visible in this way during the performance and is not shown to the audience; while such an autonomous performance and nickelodeon-type view is possible, it is not a potential she acknowledges. Her book on Nourathar discusses this score system and makes its relationship to the audience clear. It is for the performer only:

An early use of a roll of film stained for the transmission of a pre-arranged color sequence. Separate means for control of darkness and brightness and shade or tint degrees. Note also an apparatus for the automatic
reproduction of such sequence.10

The transformation of Sarabet from its origins in an automated system built around a phonograph to a manual instrument connected to a network of remote actuated lights with variable color filters passes through a stage where it can function both autonomously and manually. An examination of the 1925 patent design reveals that the controls for the light (brightness and tint) are separate from the roll film that serves as a guide to the performer. The automated system runs on a punched roll of paper, as with a player piano. While the 1925 version resembles the original 1918 design, the structure and purpose of the film is entirely different: in the second version, the "film" remains an invisible component of the performance. This shift in the film's role is the most significant change between the original version and the intermediate stage. The rolls of film preserved at the HSP are not projectable. They lack consistent registration (the timing marks are hand-drawn and slightly irregular as a result) or any means to load the film into a projector. Also lacking is any suggestion of a "frame" that would be necessary for the imagery to be in motion as in a film. Her "films" are fundamentally different from motion pictures. While the lights she patented for use with (or more correctly as part of) her Sarabet project colored lights and are able to change their color filters on demand, they neither project film nor are designed to project imagery by using metal gobo filters. Nourathar does not include imagery.

The very form of light-color play used as a medium for human expression is made through time. The picture features through lineament, through line. In Nourathar, it is a matter of asking at what moment did this brightness begin to wax or wane? What instant did one shade give way to another? When did the highest climax attain? When is the instant that all light became gradually extinguished into the total of darkness? When this color? When that? It does not ask at what spot on this canvas or sheet does the value begin to shape a nose, a mouth, or image of any sort.11

Nourathar is thus an amorphous art, more akin to color field painting in its form than to the kinds of painterly abstraction created by artists such as Vassily Kandinski. By defining her art as without imagery, the nature of these "films" becomes puzzling: they present clearly defined areas of color and shape with very sharp edges, completely unlike the variety of performance suggested by her description. The Sarabet and its lights would be readily capable of presenting the sharp-edged abstraction these "films" present but would produce a soft-edged color field.

To further clarify her position on imagery and Nourathar, Hallock-Greenewalt added a disclaimer filed December 23, 1933, to her renewal (re16,825, 1929) of the original Sarabet patent from 1918:

I disclaim the use of stereoptically focused images such as are known as painted pictures and the like, projected between lenses as distinguished from the sue of substantially shapeless flood of light.12

The disclaimer to patent reissue 16,825 demonstrates her art's lack of specific visual shape. Thus her "films" are not examples of what her performances would be like; the precise relationship between them as scores and the resulting performance is uncertain. However, on January 12, 1941, Hallock-Greenewalt wrote a letter to Simon and Shuster regarding Deems Taylor's book Walt Disney's Fantasia. While the claims made in Taylor's book may be of questionable factuality,13 Mary Hallock-Greenewalt asserts her own priority:

In Stokowski's forward, p. 2: "Synchronized with this music is an art of color and form in motion, as conceived by one of the most outstanding creative minds of the world today -- Walt Disney." "He has brought to life a new phase of art -- painting in motion" -- "The imagination of Disney -- has unfolded a new and freely flowing way of painting with color, light, form and motion." And then again by Walt Disney himself in his foreword: "At last, we have found a way to use the great music of all times and the flood of new ideas which it inspires."


Films painted into being by myself around 1909-1912 are in my possession and cover these descriptions. There were considered important exhibits in court actions brought by me and in various ways the proofs of my priority as to these having constituted a step in my having created the fine art of light color play are irrefutable.14

These claims are quite shocking given the nature of her art and the very minor role these "films" play in that art as a technical aid to performance, not as a presentation in themselves. Her letter is a direct contradiction of her 1933 disclaimer. While the distinction between "substantially shapeless" and "form" may be a moot point since "shapeless" is a description of a variety of visual "form," nevertheless, it is not a description that is readily applicable to Fantasia. This fact makes her claim of priority very strange and unlikely to be taken seriously by the recipients of the letter. The irony that she falsely claims priority over Walt Disney, who in many ways stole Fantasia from Oskar Fischinger, tarnishes what rightfully are her accomplishments.

That the creation of abstract film and visual music so easily overlap aesthetically means that the history of abstract film needs to include borderline figures such as Hallock-Greenewalt. While her films are not motion pictures, their formal similarities to the work of filmmakers make their consideration as part of a history of abstract film useful in acknowledging the links between live, performed visual music (and the VJ tradition it has evolved into) and the abstract film tradition. While it is possible that she simply altered the existing films to work with her later device as a scoring system, the dramatic differences between a scrolling colored lighting gel and an abstract film could not be clearer. There is no clear evidence to support or deny this possibility. Her reuse of an earlier design with modifications implies that this may be the case, but her claim that these colored roll films should be regarded as abstract motion pictures is not supported by either possible role her hand-painted films might have had. A continuously scrolling lighting gel with various colored patterns on it would create only a gradual shift in overall, shapeless color, while the intermittent scrolling of the score would not be called a "motion picture" except in its broadest meaning. This examination of her claim and films suggests that Mary Hallock-Greenewalt's assertion that she produced abstract films is untrue, and that her documentation of her own work is ambiguous, if not completely suspect, in its claims.


1. ^Le Grice, Malcolm. Abstract Film and Beyond (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), pp. 17-18.

2. ^Apollonio, Umbro. "Abstract Cinema -- Chromatic Music (1912)" in The Futurist Manifestos (Boston: Art Works, 2001), pp. 66-67.

3. ^ Rimington, A. Wallace. Colour-Music (Wildside Press: 2004).

4. ^ Betancourt, Michael, editor. Visual Music Instrument Patents, Volume One (Borgo Press, 2004), pp. 1626.

5. ^ Moritz, William. Optical Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 137-138.

6. ^ The letter in question is held in the Historical Society of Philadelphia's Mary Hallock-Greenewalt collection (867) "Color Organ" box.

7. ^ The 1918 Sarabet contained a light-colored film array. This device becomes a score display system in her 1925 revision of the instrument.

8. ^ Betancourt, Michael, editor. Mary Hallock-Greenewalt: The Complete Patents, (Wildside Press: 2005).

9. ^ Hallock-Greenewalt, Mary. Nourathar: The Art of Light-Color Playing (Philadelphia: Westbrook Publishing Co., 1946), pp. 301-304.

10. ^ Ibid., p. 407.

11. ^ Ibid., p. 221.

12. ^ Betancourt. Visual Music Instrument Patents: Volume One), p. 106.

13. ^ Moritz, op.cit., pp. 89-108.

14. ^ The Historical Society of Philadelphia's Mary Hallock-Greenewalt collection (867) "Color Organ" box.