This paper delves into the relationship between painting and music, predominantly through the lens of early 20th-century artistic philosophies and oeuvres. Central to this exploration are the works, methodologies, and foundational principles underpinning the creations of the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg. The paper illuminates their mutual influences, accentuating their interdisciplinary endeavours within their principal disciplines. The manuscript critically examines the direct analogical connections, while emphasising the synthetic interplay between the two art forms: music and painting.
The intersection of multimedia art productions, or interdisciplinary artistic practices, stands as a focal point for artists, art historians, critics, and philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although the phenomenon of multimedia art has been perennial in its presence across the annals of art history, the profound shifts heralded by the Industrial Revolution in our scientific understanding and analytical capacities greatly influenced artistic methodologies and practices.
It’s noteworthy to mention the fundamental dichotomy between music and painting: music operates as a temporal art or “Zeitkunst,” evolving in time, whereas painting is intrinsically a spatial art or “Raumkunst.” Yet, these disciplines have often journeyed hand in hand, sharing convergent evolutions, particularly from the early 20th century onwards.
Before delving into the intricate interactions or analogies constructed from the early 20th century to the present, it’s imperative to recognize that these disciplines have jointly been umbrellaed under myriad art movement designations, including but not limited to Classic, Romantic, Impressionist, Expressionist, Pointillistic, and Minimalist. Within these movements, numerous direct analogies, critiques, and theoretical articulations emerged. However, many pre-20th-century theories and works remained ensnared within the confines of subjective interpretation, rarely transcending to evoke a profound sensory engagement.
The remarkable scientific advancements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries served as catalysts, inspiring artists, painters, and composers to delve deeper into the concrete understanding of sound, colour, image, time, and space, particularly from a physical perspective. Consequently, these artists began to engage in interdisciplinary dialogues, constructing direct analogies and exploring parametric dissociations in one medium to subsequently transpose or adapt them to another. The nascent undertones of expressionism and abstraction in both painting and music sought to obliterate the barriers hindering the confluence of these art forms within an abstract domain. Yet, while music inherently possesses a non-representational, abstract essence, painting needed to ascend to this abstraction, a quality that music had inherently embodied throughout its existence.
The Pure Abstraction
By the latter part of the 19th century, Richard Wagner’s concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “Total Art Work” had significantly impacted composers, painters, and artists. Notably, Wassily Kandinsky was deeply influenced by the ethos of Gesamtkunstwerk. This influence is evident in his approach to merging diverse mediums and striving for a multi-sensory artistic experience. However, what further fuelled Kandinsky’s creativity was his inherent cognitive phenomenon, Synesthesia.
Given the subjectivity inherent in synesthesia, Kandinsky’s abstract art serves as a conduit, mediating between the realms of music and painting. In his seminal work, “On the Spiritual in Art”, Kandinsky segments his oeuvre into three distinct categories: impressions, improvisations, and compositions. The evident correlation between his art’s nomenclature and musical terminology provides insights into his perception of painting and its profound connection to music.
Impressions pivot on the direct transference of nature’s tangible essence, improvisations embody spontaneous, unconscious mental images, articulating moods or sentiments, and compositions emerge from formalised studies, underpinned by critical and analytical deliberations.
At a macroscopic level, drawing an analogy between Kandinsky’s “concept of composed painting” and the intricate structure of a “symphony” illustrates the meticulous planning behind his work. In his own articulation regarding Composition Number IV, Kandinsky observed: “The entire composition aims for a luminous impression, replete with mellifluous colours that frequently blend, even as the cold yellow stands apart. This vivid, yet contrasting tonality, juxtaposed with angular movement, forms the composition’s primary contrast. Compared to Composition II, this work presents a sharper contrast, offering greater clarity yet, arguably, at the cost of becoming too explicit.”
Revisiting “Composition no. IV” in the context of his discourse in “On the Spiritual in Art”, one discerns Kandinsky’s embrace of “musical thinking” in his abstract compositions. His play on colours, contrasts, and lines, as well as the strategic placement of non-representational elements, evokes the aura of a musical interpretation. The composition’s central focus on the yellow hue could metaphorically represent the “tonic” or “home key,” while the contrasting blue undertones introduce a colder, contrasting tone. Such analogies, drawing from the realm of organised sound forms, suggest that Kandinsky mined musical concepts to inform his painting methodology.
‘’Impressions (III)’’ on Arnold Schönberg
Both Impressionism and Expressionism, terminologies rooted in visual art theory, have also found resonance in Music theory. Expressionism, characterised as the direct transmutation of the subjective psyche onto a medium—akin to a stream of consciousness—dominated the artistic landscape of the early 20th century. Notably, music’s inherent nature has always been expressive, operating autonomously from its causality, a distinction from other fine arts. What expressionism introduced to visual arts in the early 20th century was a liberation from the constraints of traditional content in painting. Canonical symbols, once deemed indispensable to the art of painting, were supplanted by impressions and interpretations.
Arnold Schönberg is esteemed as one of the pioneering voices in ‘’Expressionist Music’’. Yet, this epithet was not simply a fortuitous title but stemmed from a pivotal moment in his life which intertwines his journey with painting. In a 1911 correspondence to his colleague and perhaps pupil from the Second Viennese School, Alban Berg, he conveyed, “I am currently devoid of any compositional drive. My previous works no longer resonate with me. I now discern flaws and shortcomings ubiquitously.”
During this introspective phase, replete with creative inertia, Schönberg embarked on a journey into painting. Notably, the canvases he produced became reflective tools, aiding him in deciphering his own musical theories. This interplay between music and painting catalysed his deep dive into post-tonal concepts, challenging traditional norms of consonance and dissonance, and culminating in the exploration of the emotive potency inherent in musical language. Amidst this tumult of grappling with tonal constraints, Schönberg’s composition “Pierrot Lunaire” emerges as a testament to his evolving style—distinctly atonal, replete with cabaret undertones, and marked by the innovative Sprechstimme technique in the soprano line. Its gestural, motivic, and colourful instrumentation epitomised expressionism and informed the work of Schönberg’s contemporaries.
Wassily Kandinsky, in his artistic doctrine, posited that colours, gestures, and motives could coexist harmoniously without inherent contradictions. In other words, dissonances didn’t necessitate the presence of consonance; they should emerge from an “inner necessity”, the quintessential abstraction of direct expression over a medium. Given the concurrent ascendancy of both Arnold Schönberg and Wassily Kandinsky in early 20th century expressionism, one might argue that expressionism, as contemporarily understood, wasn’t exclusive to either painting or musical composition. The symbiotic evolution of these disciplines, mutually nurturing and pushing the boundaries of abstraction, was neither the inaugural nor the terminal instance of inter-disciplinary blossoming in the annals of art history.
Material Mining and Intermaterial Transmission
“Material is the foundation upon which artists craft their work: it encompasses the entire spectrum available to them, ranging from words, colours, and sounds, to the gamut of techniques developed over time. In this realm, even forms can metamorphose into material, as it constitutes everything the artist encounters and deliberates upon. The prevalent notion amongst many artists—that every conceivable material is equally viable—is contentious, given the inherent limitations posed by technical procedures and the dictates of the material itself. Thus, the selection, utilisation, and the very boundaries of materiality become integral to the artistic production process.”
For many, the material—a tangible medium through which an artwork is realised—remains a latent component once the work is presented to the observer. Yet, it is this material and form, born from it, that holds paramount significance to the perceiver. Historically, the material has been a point of profound contemplation for artists, informing the refinement of their craft. As such, every art form curates its material lexicon, intricately linked to its medium. At times, these materials can transcend their conventional contexts, forming the bedrock for interdisciplinary exchange.
Bulat Galeyev, an interdisciplinary scholar and artist, in his treatise, “Wassily Kandinsky and Arnold Schönberg: The Problem of Internal Counterpoint,” abstractly reconceptualises these materials, divorcing them from their traditional realm and transplanting them into novel territories. He commences by equating the amplitude variations in sound with the dynamics of visual gestures in painting, and similarly, the temporal dimension in music with the visual transformation in painting. He further extrapolates on these analogies, drawing parallels between timbre in music with colour gradations in painting, and the shifts in musical tonality with colour planes in a visual piece, among others.
At a cursory glance, these analogies, especially in the context of the relationship between Arnold Schönberg and Wassily Kandinsky, may appear cogent, given that they are distilled from either musical or visual paradigms. However, the inherent subjectivity embedded within these material concepts, even if they induce a multisensory resonance in the observer, doesn’t ground them in any objective theoretical framework. Such correlations remain deeply personal, reflective of the artist’s individualistic experiences. Consequently, the culmination of these empirical and spiritual experiences, as articulated by the artist, cannot be rigidly anchored within the positivist scientific paradigm.
Galeyev elucidates further, introducing the concept of “internal counterpoint.” Drawing from Kandinsky’s painting lexicon, he delineates the portrayal of ‘grief,’ contending that a juxtaposition of contrasting elements, such as a vivid red dress against a somber backdrop, could accentuate the sudden poignancy of grief more than a monochromatic representation. An attentive examination of Kandinsky’s abstract oeuvre reveals a vast spectrum of contrasts, allowing the observer to perceive his visual pieces akin to a symphony—a veritable “music for the eye.”
Contrasted with the initial direct analogies proffered in his article, Galeyev’s latter approach—abstracting materials from their entrenched contexts and presenting them afresh—provides a more nuanced liaison between music and painting. Direct analogical constructs, such as parametric mappings between disciplines, risk the pitfall of elevating the artist’s subjective experiences to objective, or even more problematically, universal interpretative standards for artworks.
Throughout art history, analogies drawn between painting and music, manifesting in diverse contexts and forms, have fundamentally shaped the evolution of both disciplines, fostering an inexorable and profound interplay. The groundbreaking contributions of Arnold Schönberg and Wassily Kandinsky—transitioning from figurative to abstract painting and from tonal to atonal music—signify more than mere milestones in their respective realms; they epitomise a deepened interdisciplinary dialogue. However, anchoring studies or analogies in personal impressions or synesthetic experiences, when posited as foundational to interdisciplinary interactions, risks entanglement in the complexities of theory or systematisation.
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