Painting and Music

5 Abstraction

Between 1880 and 1915, it became fashionable for Salon painters to give musical titles to their works, while there was also an enormous increase in the use of musical terms to describe different moods in paintings. Critics and reviewers who viewed avant-garde art positively saw catchy, simple equations between music and painting as well as the use of musical terms in descriptions of paintings as effective means to bring this new type of nonobjective painting closer to the public. Because this development bore the risk of comparisons between painting and music becoming arbitrary, artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and František Kupka objected to the excessively simplistic claim that they wanted to paint music.[12] The artistic and theoretical oeuvre of the masters shows, however, that they were by no means opposed to a complex, reflected exchange with music; they simply rejected the shallow topos used by many art writers.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, a period in which artists all over Europe and America were seeking to legitimate their nonobjective approach, reflections on the relationship between music and art received further new impulses; for example, Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugue compositions became fashionable again.[13] In 1907, Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis had already used a fugue as a composition model for a painting (which was still tied to landscape motifs), and now Georges Braque and Kupka, alongside many others, referred in the titles of their works to Bach and to the fugue. As a paradigm of absolute musical logic, the fugue offered a comparative model for emancipation from the object and the reach towards abstraction. Bach’s music, which had been enjoying a renaissance since the end of the nineteenth century, was considered objective, constructed according to rules, profoundly poetic, and highly modern.[14]

Arnold Schoenberg’s music also became important for individual members of the Blauer Reiter group of artists, for, as a parallel development in music, his step into atonality represented a link to abstraction in painting. With reference to the principle of inner need, it became possible to contrast painting with visual ornamentation. Freedom from association with an object had already become the common denominator between ornamentation and music in the nineteenth century. Just like nonobjective painting, ornamentation drew its aesthetic effect from non-figurative creation and was now valued more highly. On the other hand, it remained applied art. As a decorative element, therefore, it represented for Kandinsky an insufficient goal in art.[15]

Above all, however, Schoenberg’s overcoming of traditional functional harmonics seemed to touch on problems that spanned several genres and whose resolution — in the sense of Kandinsky’s demand that the arts learn from each other not superficially but fundamentally — would also prove beneficial for the theory of painting.[16] In particular, Kandinsky was concerned with Schoenberg’s definition of a dissonance as a more remote consonance.[17] Kandinsky tried to apply this equal ranking of the means of expression fruitfully to painting because he saw in it an opportunity to expand the relationship between color and form. Kandinsky believed that it was no longer necessary to find associations between the two because harmony is anti-geometrical and anti-logical.[18] Artists’ interest in structural parallels between developments in music and painting was not limited to the theoretical: Kandinsky’s Impression III (Konzert) (1911) originated as a response to a concert featuring works by Schoenberg.

Together with theosophical and occult teachings, color-tone analogies again gained currency. Such correspondences seemed to be subject to cosmic laws as the highest instance, which artists sensed intuitively before scientists managed — as prophesied — to prove them. Although the views of many artists developed entirely independently, they were often similar — see Kupka and Kandinsky, for example — because of the artists’ common interests in theosophy, research on synesthesia, and symbolist literature.

Even within individual groups of artists, ideas about the relationship between music and painting diverged depending on each artist’s individually chosen artistic task. While Whereas Kandinsky, for example, saw associations between colors, forms, and sounds in a more inclusive model, Klee’s thoughts revolved around structural aspects such as polyphony and rhythm, with the latter even providing the title for some of his works, such as Rhythmisches, strenger und freier (1930). In the United States, the synchromists tended to include music in their considerations and discussions of abstraction, setting color and sound in relation to each other as well as intuitively transposing musical pieces into painting. The cubists, by contrast, did not investigate the application of musical principles to painting, although often the names of composers are found in their works. The preference for motifs such as violins and guitars is also not due to a desire to speak to the inner ear of the recipient and to evoke the sound of violins and guitars, but rather can be credited mainly to an interest in the shape of musical instruments.

A new development began to emerge in futurism’s multisensory experiments and theories. Although Giacomo Balla captured the movements of a musician in La mano del violinista (The Hand of the Violinist, 1912), his aim had less to do with musical structure than with portraying the dynamic processes of playing music. Assemblages seemed to be more appropriate than paintings for pictorial artists whose work focused on the new sound art.

Kandinsky shared these considerations in a letter to Schoenberg; Hahl-Koch, Kandinsky und Schönberg, 19.