Len Lye. Photo courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation.

A Len Lye filmography can be found at the tail of this article.

It’s November 1968, and Corinne Cantrill and I have been living in London for three years. We’ve come to Cambridge (UK) to attend the 2nd Cambridge Animation Festival, directed by Richard Arnall. Corinne and I have been making films in partnership for eight years, and as we seem to be moving from documentaries on art to films as art, we’re keen to experience Len Lye’s festival appearance – he’s a model for anyone pushing into what he calls ‘fine art film’. He promises in a program note: ‘with six films and some seventy slides we’ll see how genetic juices seep into art’. The dynamic, enthusiastic figure bouncing about on the stage, with his gleaming bald head and primary red pullover, looks as if he’d just leaped out of his Gasparcolor Rainbow Dance (1936). We are familiar with this and most of his other London advertising films, made some 30 years earlier, and want to see his more recent work and something of his kinetic sculpture.

Lye standing in front of his painting 'The King of Plants meets the First Man' from the Cambridge Animation Festival program leaflet

England was Lye’s first stop on a world-wide tour which took him and his wife, Ann Lye, to New Zealand for the first time in 40 years. In 1968 he had been officially ‘on strike’ as a ‘fine art filmmaker’ for about 10 years because of lack of support and was now pre-occupied with his kinetic sculpture. The British press described him as ‘a legend’. His complex three-hour presentation was in two parts: ‘Art and the Body’ and ‘Art and the Genes’. It used films, slides and audio tapes, and needed the aid of three assistants. It was a performance as much as a talk.

‘My film talk is called The Absolute Truth of the Happiness Acid‘,’ said Lye. This acid was not LSD but the nucleic acid of DNA and his ‘absolute truth’ was in ‘the gene-pattern which contains the one and only natural truth of our being.’ To support the case he quoted the British art critic, Clive Bell: ‘art lies in the genes’. Added Lye: ‘All the evolutionary experience of the species is stored in the nucleic acid of one cell.’ When art draws on this information it resonates with our sense of essential selfness, and we experience the aesthetic value as happiness. For Lye, this ‘selfness’ was anchored to the body and to bodily weight and motion, which explained his preoccupation with the kineticism of film and moving sculpture. Although he didn’t mention it, Lye’s ideas were reminiscent of the surrealist project of creating art that drew on material submerged in the subconscious, except that Lye referred to the site for this information as ‘the old brain’ (the right hemisphere). He practised a form of automatism, in which he attempted to suppress his more recently evolved ‘new brain’ to free his ‘old brain’ to produce his ‘doodlings’ and his writing. He exhibited with the surrealists in London in the 1930s, but generally found them too literary, and far from his ideal of ‘the kinetic of the body’s rhythms’.

Happiness was important for Lye – he was essentially a happy person, and he worried that personal and international problems prevented others from sharing his attitude. When he developed his political/philosophical concept of ‘Individual Happiness Now’ in 1941 at the height of the war, he was hopeful that he could share ‘the best in human experience’ with others.

In his Cambridge talk Lye used slides to demonstrate ‘unconsciously depicted information which could only have been derived from the genes’. He compared Le Corbusier’s squarish head with his chair designs, and he showed how the more oval features of Henry Moore related to his ovoid sculpture – in both cases a form of self-portraiture. Describing his own work practice, Lye showed pictures of the organised clutter of his studio and his work bench.

Speaking with a curious mix of NZ and US accents, the artist recalled boyhood memories of New Zealand (he was born in Christchurch in 1901) – the kinetic interaction of sea and land and the weather (his family ran a lighthouse for a while, ‘The Great Flasher’) and the discovery, during his art studies, that forms in his paintings resembled primeval forms of spiral cell structures, or nerve ganglia. He credited an art lecturer at Wellington Technical College for suggesting that, as an artist, he should strike out on his own, and develop an individual philosophy. He showed a frame from his 1958 hand-etched black and white film Free Radicals which appeared to ‘discover’ the form of the DNA molecule, ahead of the scientists. He showed other hand-made, or ‘direct’ films: Particles in Space (1966 and which he was to rework in 1979) and also the 1952 Color Cry, produced by laying transparent or textured coloured media directly on the unexposed film stock in the dark room, and fogging it with light, after the manner of Man Ray’s black and white Le Retour à la raison (1923). The connection of his art with body movement was underscored by his choice of African tribal, Afro-American or South American dance music to accompany the films, so prompting the viewer to read the image as a dance of forms and colour.

He showed us a 10-minute film sequence of a stainless steel motion sculpture in action in his New York studio. He considered his sculptures as models for larger versions to be constructed in the 21st century, and plans are indeed in train now to build the giant versions in New Zealand. One piece was to produce 6 million volts of lightning, reproducing the horizontal lightning which appeared at the creation of a volcanic island – the same lightning which cleared the atmosphere of methane at the creation of the world. The pieces had motor-driven movement, and generated sound from the colliding, flexing, twisting and rebounding of the metal parts, an example being Storm King, which produced a tempestuous clamour. Since then we have seen some of these pieces in action at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, NZ. They are extraordinary for their narrative-like events: for example the discourse between three huge twisting loops of metal in Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters) (1977), creates thrilling, palpable feelings of expectation and suspense (and danger – if one came loose, you could be decapitated!).

In New Zealand, and when he moved to Sydney in 1922 where he worked at an animation studio, Lye had haunted museums and libraries in search of the latest in avant-garde art, and he researched the culture of the Ocean Islands, the African Bushmen and Australian Aborigines. Baldwin Spencer’s The Native Tribes of Central Australia and Ezra Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska were important inspirations. He even struggled with Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Lye spent two years in Samoa ‘to work on kinetic constructions’, but he found the island life so intoxicating it was difficult to apply himself to his art. He wanted to get to the Soviet Union when he saw a photograph of Lyubov Popova’s constructivist set for Meyerhold’s production of The Magnanimous Cuckold (1922), but instead worked his passage, stoking, to London where he was immediately embraced by the artistic vanguard in Hammersmith. With the encouragement of the writers Laura Riding and Robert Graves, and making the most of his ‘old brain’, he began writing a modernist, highly personal form of prose/poetry (Gertrude Stein found it ‘refreshing’), and his book No Trouble, based on his correspondence, was published by the Seizen Press of Graves and Riding. He designed book covers for their hand-printed volumes, and exhibited sculpture, paintings and batik prints with other London artists.

Tusaluva

He had experimented with hand-scratched images on short lengths of 35mm in the Sydney film studio, but his first film, Tusalava (1928), was a 9 minute black and white animation on the origins of life, based on the indigenous art of Australia and the South Pacific. (‘Tusalava’ is a Samoan word ‘inferring that eventually everything is just the same.’) It was partly funded by the London Film Society, and Lye laboured over it for two years – there are several references to its progress in his book No Trouble. The Society couldn’t afford an optical sound print so it showed the film in 1929 with live piano music written by the Australian Jack Ellitt, who had known Lye in Sydney and was now in London, but it was inexpertly played on one piano instead of the two that Ellitt intended. At the time the music was described as ‘all rhythms – not a scrap of melody’, similar to the music Ellitt later wrote for Francis Bruguière’s 1930 Light Rhythms. Tusalava is now a silent film as its score has been lost, maybe forever since Ellitt recently died in NSW. At a time when avant-garde film was associated with the fast cutting of the Soviets, Tusalava had an almost minimal slowness, quite different from the pace of Lye’s following films. There is a slow development and interaction of forms in essentially a one, 9-minute shot. Roger Fry, the British art critic, was impressed. He wrote to Lye: ‘…you really thought not of forms in themselves but of them as movements in time. I suspect it will need a new kind of imagination to seize this idea fully…’ The British Board of Film Censors was less enthusiastic: it asked Lye for evidence that the film was not salacious. Lye replied that the film ‘represented a self-shape annihilating an agonistic element.’ He didn’t hear from them again. Lye intended Tusalava, which dealt ‘with beginnings of organic life’, to be the first part of a trilogy. The second was to show geology and the sea, and the third dealing with humanised forms, but they were never begun.

Instead, Lye convinced John Grierson of the British General Post Office Film Unit to commission the abstract hand-painted A Colour Box (1935), to be used as a 4-minute cinema advertising film promoting the GPO. For music, he used a piece played by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra. The film was shown widely and won a prize at the 1935 Brussels Film Festival.

Another was Rainbow Dance, made for the Post Office Savings Bank in 1936. For this, Lye experimented with black and white footage coloured by manipulating the three red, green and blue matrices of the Gasparcolor 3-colour separation system, as had Oskar Fischinger in his 1930 advertising film, Circles. Lye used music by Rico’s Creole Band, and sound editing for this and Colour Box was by Jack Ellitt. Lye used these films as ‘curtain raisers’ at his 1968 Cambridge talk.

Lye experimented with live-action in N. Or N.W. (GPO, 1937) on the importance of addressing envelopes correctly, and in his war effort films such as When the Pie was Opened (1939), on coping with food shortages, and Kill or Be Killed (1942). When I showed the latter in Berlin in 1985 as part of a lecture-screening on Lye it caused some discomfort: one audience member described it as ‘a propaganda film on how to kill a German soldier with one shot’.

In his writing Lye asserted his aim was to depart from an inhibiting film narrative tradition set in place by D.W. Griffith in favour of one based on the kinaesthetic potential of film, which he thought was achieved in some animated cartoons (UPA, not Disney). He outlined similar ideas for television production in a Sight and Sound article in 1939. (1)

He moved to the USA in 1944 and worked on the March of Time series until 1951, and although disappointed at the lack of funding and sponsorship in the States for ‘fine-art filmmaking’, he produced other hand-etched and hand-printed abstract films. In 1957 he pioneered TV commercial ‘jump-cutting’ with his Rhythm, which, although it was rejected as a car advertisement by the Chrysler Corporation, won the New York TV Art Director’s Award. Free Radicals was made following an invitation from the Belgian International Experimental Film Competition to submit a film in 1957, and won the second prize there. At the same time he was developing his Tangible Motion Sculptures, and these were shown for the first time at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1961 and then in Europe.

In the 1970s New Zealand rediscovered Lye, and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth began to collect his work. Lye produced a number of large canvases, sometimes reworking his smaller pictures or batiks from the past. There was a big Len Lye exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery in 1979, and Lye, though dying with leukaemia, collaborated on it. The Len Lye Foundation was set up in New Plymouth to care for Len Lye’s work. In 1980 his last words to his wife, Ann, were: ‘Don’t sit on my glasses, I might need them in heaven.’ She found a note: ‘…just to let you know that dying is no problem…’

But for that large audience in November 1968 in the Lady Mitchell Hall, Cambridge University, Len Lye, ‘dancing from sentence to sentence’ (2), was still full of vitality.

References

Quotes by Lye and other information on him were taken from the 1968 Cambridge Animation Festival program notes, and from:

Figures of Motion: Len Lye / Selected Writings, edited by Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks, Auckland University Press, 1984

Roger Horrocks, Len Lye: a biography, Auckland University Press, 2001

Len Lye, No Trouble, Seizen Press, Majorca, 1930

Cantrills Filmnotes:
#29/30, Feb. 1979, pp. 38-42: interview with Lye and extract from No Trouble;
#31/32, Nov. 1979, pp. 21 & 24-35: Roger Horrocks, Len Lye’s Figures of Motion;
#33/34, Aug. 1980, pp. 4, 24-25: tributes by Jas Duke and Arthur Cantrill;
#39/40, Nov. 1982, p. 63: Len Lye, Wave;
#93-100, Dec. 1999/Jan. 2000, pp. 20-26: Roger Horrocks, Jack Ellitt – the early years

Len Lye filmography

Edited from a filmography compiled by Roger Horrocks in Figures Of Motion – Len Lye / Selected Writings, editors Wystan Curnow and Roger Horrocks, Auckland University Press & Oxford University Press, Auckland 1984

1929 Tusalava
9 minutes B&W 35mm
Silent film (music was written by Jack Ellitt but not used)
Sponsor: London Film Society.

1934 Experimental Animation
(Also know as Peanut Vendor)
3 mins B&W 35mm
Music: ‘Peanut Vendor’ (Red Nichols and his Five Pennies)
Sponsor: Sidney Bernstein

1935 Colour Box
4 mins Dufaycolor 35mm
Producer: John Grierson
Music: ‘La Belle Creole’ (Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra)
Synchronized by Jack Ellitt
Sponsor: G.P.O. Film Unit

1935 Kaleidoscope
4 mins Dufaycolor 35mm
Producer: Gerald Noxon
Music: ‘Biguine d’Amour’ (Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra)
Charted and synchronized by Jack Ellitt
Client: Churchman’s Cigarettes (Imperial Tobacco Co.)
Agency: Pritchard Wood

Lye working on The Birth of the Robot

1936 The Birth of the Robot
7 mins Gasparcolor 35mm
Producer and colour director: Humphrey Jennings
Script: C.H. David
Camera: Alex Strasser
Music: Holst’s ‘The Planets’ (London Symphony Orchestra)
Sound: Jack Ellitt
Art direction: John Banting and Allen Fanner
Sponsor: Shell-Mex and BP Ltd.

1936 Rainbow Dance
5 mins Gasparcolor 35mm
Producers: Basil Wright and A. Cavalcanti
Camera: Frank Jones
Music: ‘Tony’s Wife’ (Rico’s Creole Band)
Sound: Jack Ellitt
Dance: Rupert Doone
Sponsor: G.P.O. Film Unit (for the P.O. Savings Bank)

1937 Trade Tattoo
(Also known as In Tune With Industry)
5 mins Technicolor 35mm
Producer: John Grierson
Music by the Lecuona Band
Musical Editor: Jack Ellitt
Sponsor: G.P.O. Film Unit

1937 Full Fathom Five
9 mins Colour 35mm
3 passages from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ read by John Gielgud

1937 N. Or N.W.
7 mins B&W 35mm
Producer: A. Cavalcanti
Cast: Evelyn Corbett and Dwight Goodwin
Camera: Frank Jones
Music: ‘I’m gonna Sit Right Down’ (Fats Waller and his Orchestra), ‘T’aint No Use’ (Benny Goodman and his Orchestra), and ‘Give Me a Break Baby’ (Bob Howard and his Orchestra)
Sponsor: G.P.O. Film Unit

1938 Colour Flight
4 mins Gasparcolor 35mm
Music: ‘Honolulu Blues’ (Red Nichols and his Five Pennies)
Sound editor: Ernst Meyer
Sponsor: Imperial Airways

1939 Swinging the Lambeth Walk
4 mins Dufaycolor 35mm
Music: Various versions of the ‘Lambeth Walk’
Music Director: Ernst Meyer
Financed by a British Council Grant

1940 Musical Poster #1
3 mins Technicolor 35mm
Music (including ‘Bugle Call Rag’) played by British jazz groups.
Sound editor: Ernst Meyer
Sponsor: British Government (Ministry of Information)

1941 When the Pie was Opened
10 mins B&W 35mm
Producer: John Taylor
Cast includes Valerie Forrest and Hilda Masters
Photography: A.E. Jeakins
Sound: Ernst Meyer
Produced by Realist Films for the British Government (Ministry of Information [M.O.I.] and Ministry of Food)

1941 Newspaper Train
5 mins 35mm
Commentary: Merril Mueller
Camera: A.E. Jeakins
Sound: Ernst Meyer
Produced by Realist Films for the British Government (M.O.I.)

1942 Work Party
Music: Jazz by Louis Armstrong and others
Produced by Realist Films for the British Government (M.O.I.)

1942 Kill or Be Killed
15 mins B&W 35mm
Producer: John Taylor
Camera: A.E. Jeakins
Produced by Realist Films for the British Government (M.O.I.)

1943 Cameramen at War
17 mins B&W 35mm
Commentary by Raymond Glendenning
Sound editor: Ernst Meyer
Produced by Realist Films for the British Government (M.O.I.)

1941-3 Lye also directed various short cinema films for Realist Films and the M.O.I., with Adrian Jeakins as cameraman. These included wartime messages about saving fuel (with comedian Ted Ray) and saving tin (a film known for its strong image of the enemy as a spider being squashed); and a documentary, Factory Family, about a family working in a weapons factory.

1944-51 The March of Time
Lye worked as a full-time director and contributed to many episodes of the series.

1945 Basic English
Six 10-minute segments B&W
Made in association with I.A. Richards
Sponsor: The March of Time

Film Strips from Color Cry. 3 minutes 16mm colour. Courtesy of the Len Lye Foundation. Photographer: Bryan James, Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

1952 Color Cry
(Also known as ‘The Fox Chase’)
3 mins Colour 16mm
Producer: Ann Zeiss (Ann Lye)
Music: ‘Fox Chase’ (Sonny Terry)
Produced by the Direct Film Company

1957 Rhythm
1 minute B&W 16mm
Producer: Ann Zeiss
Music: African music (Zeetzeektula and Zinkil tribes)
Produced by the Direct Film Company, as a commercial for the Chrysler Corporation
Producer: James Manilla

1958 Free Radicals (first version)
5 mins B&W 16mm
Music by the Bagirmi Tribe of Africa
Produced by the Direct Film Company

1959 Peace
(Also known as Fountain of Hope)
1 minute
Music by Henry Brant, performed by the U.N. Choir
Sponsor: United Nations

1979 Free Radicals (revised version)
4 mins B&W 16mm
Assistants: Paul Barnes and Steven Jones
Music by the Bagirmi Tribe of Africa
Financial assistance from the New Zealand Film Commission

1979 Particles in Space
4 mins B&W 16mm
Assistant: Steven Jones
Sound-track: sound effects by Lye’s kinetic sculpture Storm King (head credits) and Twister (tail credits); also, Jumping Dance Drums by the Bahamans, and drum music by the Yoruba of Nigeria.
Financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council of New Zealand.

1980 Tal Farlow
2 mins B&W 16mm
Music: ‘Rock ‘n’ Rye’ (Tal Farlow)
Synchronized by Steven Jones, assisted by Gwain Gillespie
Financial assistance from the Queen Elizabeth ll Arts Council and the Len Lye Foundation

The above list does not include some minor films and experiments. Also, Lye worked as technical adviser on a number of other films or contributed material to them, for example, Post Haste, Bells of Atlantis, Pittsburgh, and The Sign of Plexiglass.

Endnotes

  1. Sight & Sound vol. 18 no. 29, 1939, pp. 65-70
  2. Hamish Keith, quoted by Roger Horrocks in Len Lye: a biography, p. 339, see below.

About The Author

Arthur Cantrill is an experimental filmmaker who has worked in partnership with Corinne Cantrill since 1960. From 1971, they co-edited Cantrills Filmnotes, a review of experimental film, until it concluded in 2000. Arthur currently has an 'emeritus' position of Senior Associate with the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne.