The Artist that invented Computer Animation

Aapo Saask on the artist Ture Sjolander



On an island aptly named Magnetic Island off the coast of Australia, a Swedish artist lives in exile. Just like so many others in today's media-landscape, he was first praised and then brought to dust. However, he has left a lasting imprint on the world. As early as the 1960's, he made the first electronic animation. Had he been an inventor, he would have been celebrated as a genius today, but because he is a predecessor in the world of art, things are different. In that world, the great ones often have to die before they are recognized.

We all know how Disney's famous cartoons were made: thousands of drawings, filmed in sequence. Even today some films are made this way. However, electronic animation has opened up a new world within the film industry and it has also made computer games and countless graphic solutions possible in business and science.

Pixar, which used to be part of Lucasfilm and then sold to Steve Jobs in the lat 1980's, made the first completely computer animated film called "Andre and Wally B" in 1983. The first feature length fully animated movie was Toy Story from 1995. It was made by Pixar and distributed by Disney. Disney had already started to use computer animation in Little Mermaid from 1989, and then on through Aladdin, Lion King, Pocahontas, etc In those fantastic movies the pictures were however first drawn on paper and then scanned into computers for painting and cleanup and superimposition over painted backgrounds.  

Decades earlier, in 1965, Ture Sjolander’s electronically manipulated images were broadcasted by the Swedish Television (SVT). Among other things, Ture Sjolander was experimenting with the question of how much the portrait of a person could be changed before it was unrecognizable, something which has pioneered the amazing morph-technique that is used today.

Gene Youngblood, who, alongside with Marshall McLuchan, is the most celebrated media-philosopher of today, devoted a whole chapter in his book Expanded Cinema, 1970, (Pre face by Buckminster-Fuller) to the experiments of the SVT. Expanded cinema means transgression of conventions as well as mind-expanding transgressions and new definitions. Sjolander’s broadcasts were not technically sophisticated, but they were ground-breaking.

The film mentioned by Youngblood  is "Monument" (1968) by Ture Sjolander and Lars Weck. The other earlier televised pioneering animation were "TIME" (1965/66) by Ture Sjolander and Bror Wikstrom, and later "Space in the Brain" (1969) by Ture Sjolander, Bror Wikstrom, Sven Hoglund and Lasse Svanberg. Whereas most of the modern-day artists fade into oblivion, Ture Sjolander has found his place in the art history by the making of those films.

Ture, a lad from the northern city of Sundsvall, had instant success with his opening exhibition at the Sundsvalls Museum 1961. He moved to Stockholm in the beginning of the 1960's. At an exhibition in 1964 at Karlsson Gallery his imagery upset the public so much that the gallery immediately became the trendiest place for young artists in Stockholm.

In 1968, he created another scandal, when the film "Monument" was televised in most European countries. For a couple of years, Ture Sjolander was celebrated in France, Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain and the USA. In Sweden there was a lot of jealousy. The Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Sweden, to name a few, bought his works, but the techniques he worked with were expensive and after a few years, he found himself without resources. Instead he started to work with celebrities such as Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. They taught him that exile – mental and physical - is the only way to escape destruction for a creative genius. He moved to Australia.

Ture Sjolander's works include photos, films, books, articles, textiles, tv-programs, video-installations, happenings, sculptures and paintings – all scattered around the Globe. Tracing will be a challenging and exciting task for a future detective/biographer and web-archaeologist's.

But mostly, his work consists of a life of questioning and creation. This is what sets him aside as one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Another forerunner in the art world, the internationally celebrated Swedish composer Ralph Lundsten, says in an interview in the magazine SEX, 5, 2004: "In those days (the 19th century), a painting could create a revolution. Today people look idly at all the thousands of exhibitions that there are.’ Hmm. Oh, really. How clever he is’, and they yawn… If I were a visual artist, and if my ambition was to create something new, I would devote myself to the possibilities of the computer."

In 1974, Sherman Price of Rutt Electrophysics, wrote to the Swedish Television Company (SVT): "Video Synthesis is becoming a prominent technique in TV production here in the United States, and I think it will be interesting to give credit to your broadcasting system and personnel for achieving this historic invention."

He was referring to Ture Sjolander's revolutionary work in the 1960's. No one at the SVT could at that time imagine the importance that this innovation would have for television, and hereby lost a lead position in the computer-development business.

Amongst the younger generation of computer animators, few know that they have a Swedish predecessor. Many engineers were probably working away in their cellars in those days, trying to do the same thing, but Sjolander was the first person to show his results on the air. If any of you would like to have a look at the Godfather of animation, you can find a glimpse of him by googling.

He did not seek to patent his inventions and he has made no money from it. However, he has made it to the history books as one of the great precursors of art - and perhaps also of technology - of the 20th century.

For the past decades, Ture Sjolander has mostly lived in Australia, but he has also worked in other countries, such as Papua New Guinea and China.

After a couple of decades of silence, Sjolander's groundbreaking work was shown at Fylkingen, the avant guard media and music hide out in Stockholm in the spring of 2004.

In the autumn of 2004, some of his recent acrylic paintings on canvas were exhibited at the Gallery Svenshog outside of Lund, Sweden. This was to commemorate the forty years that have gone by since his last (scandalous) exhibition at Lunds Konsthall. Many artists take a pleasure in provoking the established art world. Ture Sjolander also provokes the rest of the world.


Aapo Saask