When Ads Could Be Avant-garde

We often forget that many cutting-edge modern artists found funding and support by making ads. The work of New Zealand avant-garde filmmaker Len Lye is a case in point.

His films, like “Rainbow Dance” (1936) or the beautifully abstract “Colour Flight” (1938), were commissioned as advertisements to be shown at the cinema. The former was created for Post Office Savings Bank and the latter for Imperial Airlines.

How these were intended to work as ads is not exactly clear to the contemporary viewer but the fact that brands stopped commissioning works like this may explain that they were not necessarily successful in the eyes of the sponsor. It’s interesting to not that while no one may know what the Post Office Savings Bank or Imperial Airlines are nowadays, Lye’s bizarre and thrilling short films remain alive in the art world. Lye also made ads in the 1930s for the British General Post Office (GPO), the Imperial Tobacco Company and Shell Motor Oil.

Here is Brett Kashmere’s take:

Akin to Oskar Fischinger’s fine art advertising films, Lye’s cinematic “figures of motion” sublimated their commercial purpose by emphasising geometric and all-over abstraction and direct authorial inscription. As Tess Takahashi notes, filmmakers like Lye, McLaren and Harry Smith saw direct animation as “a way for the artist to imbue film with the imprint of the filmmaker’s essential self… [This] self, represented for Lye by the then-new discovery of DNA, was transmitted in the process of direct animation.”

Coincidentally, “Colour Flight” (1938) was on display in MoMA’s recent Abstract Expressionist show, where the curator mentioned to me that Lye’s films were screened at The Club, the infamous “boys’ club” of the Abstract Expressionist.

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