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Norman McLaren: Umbrian angels and stereoscopic drawings

A highlight of this year’s McLaren 2014 celebrations was the screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival of Norman McLaren’s stunning 3-D films from the early 1950s, painstakingly digitally-restored by the National Film Board of Canada. The fascinating history of these ‘lost’ films was recently told on the Canadian Animation Blog, and the films will receive another screening at MoMa in New York in November.

McLaren’s interest in the creative possibilities of stereographic art is recorded in a set of papers which were recently donated to the University of Stirling Archives by Prof. Harold Layer of San Francisco State University. Prof. Layer corresponded with McLaren in the 1970s and 1980s about his 3-D film work, these letters forming part of the collection. It also includes copies of stereoscopic drawings and paintings created by McLaren in the 1940s which Prof. Layer has documented on a very useful online resource.

Stereoscopic portrait (left and right) by Norma McLaren, 1944.

Stereoscopic portrait (left and right) by Norma McLaren, 1944.

The material also includes a set of reports and articles written by McLaren in the 1940s and 1950s, noting the new approaches offered by stereographic drawing and providing technical notes for the 3-D films he produced for the National Film Board of Canada. In 1946 McLaren wrote a proposal for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, seeking support for his research into the new field of sterographics which he defined as “the art of doing a separate drawing, painting, sculpture or mobile for each eye, which when viewed together, will synthesize a new additional dimension.”

Honeycomb, Stereoscopic painting (left and right) by Norman McLaren, c 1946.

Honeycomb, Stereoscopic painting (left and right) by Norman McLaren, c 1946.

McLaren argued that this method of drawing offered “Freedom from the physical laws of a three-dimensional world.” He went on to argue that:

“The laws of physics such as balance and gravity need not operate in this type of three-dimensional space created by stereoscopic synthesis. Apparently solid objects, heavy substances, complex structures and liquid matter may float in space, needing no support and existing by a sort of auto-suspension. The renaissance painter, with his growing awareness, gradually realized that he, on his flat surfaces, was released from such laws, and the first Umbrian angels who rose a few timid inches from the ground were soon to lead the imagination to a magnificent world of soaring form. Today’s stereographic drawings are like those Umbrian angels, for they point to a world where angels may ascend with a new magnificence into the very three-dimensional substance of space itself.” (Ref. GAA 31/F/7/2/2)

A later annotation to this document shows that many of McLaren’s plans remained unrealized. In the introduction of the paper he wrote that:

“It is my intention to go much further, and open up stereography as a creative medium. I am writing this paper on the basis of my past researches, my present conclusions, and my future plans.”

Beside the words “future plans” McLaren added an annotation in red pencil in 1980 which read “unfulfilled as yet.”

Norman McLaren’s Chinese Odyssey

The University Archives holds a collection of material relating to the Stirling-born filmmaker Norman McLaren including over 400 letters he wrote to his parents in Stirling over a 30 year period beginning in 1936. The letters were written on a regular, sometimes weekly, basis and include information on the development of his career, accounts of his travels and discussions of his work, alongside family business and personal information.

In 1949 McLaren was invited by UNESCO to travel to China to teach young Chinese artists how to make animated films as part of a project to improve the health of China’s rural population. McLaren’s adventure started pleasantly enough, travelling from his home in Ottawa, Canada, (where he worked at the National Film Board) west across the Pacific. He stopped off at Honolulu which he described in a letter to his parents as “utterly bewitching, no place for a Scot with a buried Presbyterian conscience to remain!” From the tropical paradise of Hawaii McLaren continued on to Tokyo, a city still struggling to rebuild itself in the aftermath of the Second World War. He kept a detailed journal of his trip and noted the poverty and destruction still clearly visible in Japan’s capital.

Norman McLaren

Photograph of Norman McLaren taken during his trip to China.

From the dust and rubble of Tokyo McLaren continued onwards to the heat and humidity of Hong Kong and into China to the small town of Pehpei in Szechuan province. Unfortunately for McLaren he arrived in China as the conflict between the Nationalists and Communists swept through the country. For several months life continued as normal in the sleepy rural town of Pehpei where McLaren got on with his job of educating his Chinese pupils. In December 1949 the Communist revolution arrived on Pehpei’s doorstep. In an article he wrote for a Canadian magazine on his return McLaren recounted the efforts made by the town’s mayor to prevent the retreating Nationalist forces from ransacking the town by welcoming them, feeding them and providing them with transport to help them on their way. With the Nationalists gone the town prepared a big welcoming show for the advancing communist troops – which had to be quickly cancelled when a further group of Nationalist soldiers appeared on the horizon! After entertaining thousands of retreating nationalist troops the town put up it’s bunting and held its breath for the victorious communist army. However the expected red army didn’t appear and the town was entered by a single truck of slightly bemused soldiers.

The arrival of the communists made McLaren’s departure difficult as the country closed its doors to the outside world. With no way home McLaren was forced to remain in Pehpei and extend the educational project. After the initial upheaval of the Communist take-over life in Pehpei appears to have returned to quiet normality. In a letter written on 22 Jan 1950 McLaren noted “life here is very quiet and simple, with little to do, little to read, and no radio.” A new regime brought new bureaucracy and it took McLaren five months to get a travel permit to leave. In March 1950 he received an official invitation from the Ministry of Culture to visit them in Peking. It was his ticket out of China. He left Pehpei and travelled across the country by train where he witnessed “many evidences of the battlefields of the past twenty years of war”. Following a brief stop-off in the capital he finally reached Hong Kong in May 1950.

Letter

Letter from Norman McLaren to his mother, 26 September 1949.

Despite the conflict he witnessed and the virtual imprisonment he suffered McLaren appears to have enjoyed his time in China and gained a great respect for its people. Reflecting on his experiences he wrote, in a letter to his parents, “Chinese civilisation in many ways is superior to our recent western civilisation. I am sorry in many ways to be leaving it. It is not in its plumbing or mechanical gadgets that China is superior, but in its simple human attitudes.”