Our next Artist You Need To Know is Norman McLaren (1914 – 1987).
Norman McLaren was an award winning filmmaker, earning one Oscar, one Palme d’Or, three BAFTA Awards and six Venice Film Festival awards. An animator, director and producer – best known for his work for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) – he was a pioneer in a number of areas of animation and filmmaking, including hand-drawn animation, drawn-on-film animation, visual music, abstract film, pixilation and graphical sound. McLaren also incorporated his interest in dance into a number of his films, and was also a printmaker.
McLaren’s legacy is still significant decades after his passing. He once stated that “Animation is not the art of drawings that move, but the art of movements that are drawn.”
The images we’ve shared above are from two films that you can watch in their entirety at the NFB site: Keep Your Mouth Shut (1940) and Neighbours (1952). Keep Your Mouth Shut “features a human skull cautioning Canadians to “keep their mouths shut” in an effort to end gossiping during World War II” whereas Neighbours “is a parable about two people who come to blows over the possession of a flower.” (both quotes from the NFB site). The latter won an Academy Award.
Born in Scotland, McLaren attended the Glasgow School of Art. He began his filmmaking career in 1934: the following year, two of his films won prizes at the Scottish Amateur Film Festival which led to John Grierson offering him a job at the General Post Office Film Unit in London. McLaren worked at the GPO from 1936 to 1939. He relocated to New York in 1939, and with the support of the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation he created several films (including Boogie – Doodle) until he moved to Canada three years later.
Grierson – who was Canada’s first Government Film Commissioner – invited McLaren to become part of the National Film Board in Ottawa in 1941. Though many of McLaren’s first films with the NFB were primarily ‘propaganda’ in service to the war effort in WWII, ‘this didn’t prevent him from making several experimental films and founding an animation department. Over the course of his career, he mostly created experimental animation, with music as an important element.” (from here)
The images we’ve shared above are from the films Boogie – Doodle (1941), Rythmetic (1956, made in collaboration with Evelyn Lambart), Pas de Deux (1968) and Synchromy (1971). The links will take you to the full films at the NFB site, and we encourage you to spend some time there to explore and enjoy more of McLaren’s work.
Pas de Deux depicts a “bare, black set with the back-lit figures of dancers Margaret Mercier and Vincent Warren create a dream-like, hypnotic effect” while in Sychromy “McLaren employed novel optical techniques to compose the piano rhythms of the sound track, which he then moved, in multicolor, onto the picture area of the screen so that, in effect, you see what you hear.” Both are fine examples of how music, dance and the idea of translating an interpretation of performative actions all informed McLaren’s aesthetic. There was also an element of play in McLaren’s art: Rythmetic, for example, “endows arithmetic with lively humour. The screen becomes a numerical free-for-all as digits meet in playful encounter, add and subtract, jostle, attack and elude one another.” (all quotes in this paragraph from the NFB)
The images above are from the short films Fiddle-de-dee (1947), Begone Dull Care (1949, in collaboration with Evelyn Lambart) and Around Is Around (1951). These are works that demonstrate why McLaren has been described as an ‘abstract expressionist’ filmmaker, and his work can also be considered in the same way that painters like Frank Auerbach spoke of how painting was not a recording or depiction of an experience, but a singular experience in itself. McLaren himself stated that “I have tried to preserve in my relationship to the film the same closeness and intimacy that exists between a painter and his canvas.” Begone Dull Care, for example, “is a vivid interpretation, in fluid lines and colour, of jazz music played by the Oscar Peterson Trio.” (from here)
McLaren garnered many honours for his groundbreaking work: he was an Officer of the Order of Canada (1968) and later was recognized as a Companion of the Order of Canada (1973). A decade later he was named as a Chevalier of the National Order of Quebec. The Locarno Film Festival devoted a block of programming to his work – titled Homage to Norman McLaren – in 1954, and over two decades later (in 1975), McLaren was given the Winsor McCay Award in recognition of his lifetime contributions to the art of animation. McLaren received an honourary doctorate from Concordia University (1977) and in 1982 McLaren was the first Anglophone to be awarded the Prix Albert-Tessier for his ‘outstanding career in Québec cinema’. At the World Festival of Animated Film – Animafest Zagreb in 1986, McLaren received a Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2009, McLaren’s works were added to UNESCO‘s (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Memory of the World Programme, listing the most significant documentary heritage collections in the world.
The images above are from McLaren’s films A Phantasy (1952), Blinkety Blank (1955) and Short and Suite (1955). All three of these works have an amusing, entertaining quality that almost belies the skill, discipline and the ability to meld innovative techniques and experimentation while still producing artworks that seduce and charm.
He died in January of 1987: as testament to his legacy in both Canada and Scotland, there were numerous events to mark his birth centenary that you can learn about here.
Many, many more of Norman McLaren’s films can be seen at the NFB (National Film Board) site. They offer a page with a sampling of his works, but you can also search for more of his works as the NFB holds an impressive archive of McLaren’s art and legacy. It’s appropriate to end with a comment from McLaren that acts as a fine point of consideration of all of his works: “In any art movement, the art has to move into a new phase – a filmmaker has a desire to make a film that is not like a previous film.”