Squaring the Circle: Wilfred’s Lumia and his Rejection of ‘Colour Music’

Lambert, Nicholas (2018) Squaring the Circle: Wilfred’s Lumia and his Rejection of ‘Colour Music’. In: Music, Art and Performance from Liszt to Riot Grrrl. Bloomsbury, London, pp. 149-166.


Throughout the twentieth century, a variety of art forms emerged that shared a similar approach to abstract images in motion. They evolved with the medium of motion film from the 1890s to 1910s and also shared a root in the older area of ‘colour music’ although, as we shall see, some of their major practitioners distanced themselves from earlier attempts to make an equivalence between the scales of music and sequences of colours. The range of names for this practice of making animated abstract images reflects the breadth of approaches, but one overarching term that could probably apply to all of them is ‘visual music’. This chapter will explore Thomas Wilfred’s relation to music in his self-defined art form of ‘lumia’, and compare him to contemporaries including the abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute (1906–83) and Oskar Fischinger (1900–67), as these two artists were the most successful and visible proponents of visual music in mid-twentieth-century America. They went on to influence a number of significant successors in the field, not least the pioneers of early computerized animation, James and John Whitney. Fischinger also influenced the young John Cage, whilst Wilfred had some impact on Jackson Pollock and was exhibited alongside him at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

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