Music in Art, Art in Music

In the beginning, all the arts were one, with music, art and literature illuminating one another, borrowing from one another the force that is able to unite body, mind, and spirit. In this post, I show examples of this mutual influence in the paintings of abstract artists such as Kandinsky and Klee and in the impressionistic music of Claude Debussy.

Music in Art

Many visual artists played musical instruments, among them: Titian, Tintoretto, Braque, Kandinsky, Klee, and Matisse. And many have been attracted, even envious of the mysterious nature of music to move the human spirit. It ia therefore not surprising that avant-garde artists like Kandinsky and Klee were foremost among painters of their day who frequently referenced music in their work.. In Kandinsky’s Improvisations series, for example, lines and colors intermingle, creating patterns of repetition that resembles musical rhythm and vibrating sound waves. In his book, On the Spiritual in art, Kandinsky made quite literal parallels between music and color. To him, black represents a different kind of silence than white, light blue is the sound of a flute, and dark blue a cello. Similarly Klee (who nearly became a professional violinist), looked to music as a touchstone for many of his paintings. He regularly incorporated letters, numbers in his paintings, creating a complex language of symbols with rhythmical arrangements that show his musical roots. Just as music is invisible but palpable, so “art does not reproduce the visible, but rather makes it visible.”, Klee famously said.

Two Works by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)

Composition VII, 1913, oil on canvas, 200 x 300 cm, The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Kandinsky believed that the “inner sound” of the picture was crucial to its success and the key to its understanding. In Composition VII (1913), imagery, motifs and color overlap to create the work an incredibly complex rhythmic structure resonant of the dissonant music of his friend, the Austrian expressionist composer, Arnold Schoenberg (1874 – 1951).

A decade passed before Kandinsky painted his next Composition (Composition VIII) in 1923, while teaching at the Bauhaus. This work is characterized by balanced arrangements of geometric forms in dynamic relationships, which gives greater room for forms, and not just color, to expressive their musicality.

] Composition VIII, 1923, oil on canvas, 140.3 x 200.7 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection, By gift.

Works by Paul Klee (1879-1940)

In the Style of Bach (1919), oil on canvas.

Early in his life, the Swiss-born German painter Paul Klee developed musical preferences for Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and showed promise for a career in music, though by age 20, he decided to switch to studying art. Yet, his love for the music of Bach never left him, and it showed quite clearly in this work, even without the overt reference of the title. In the Style of Bach painting was conceived as a musical score with its implied linearity, and with plants, symbols and signs used as fermatas and musical pauses. The depicted visual rhythm becomes the percussive rhythm of a musical composition, similar to the polyphonic structures of the fugues of Bach, the master of counterpoint.

In Polyphony (1932), Klee reveals his musical roots by using tonal blocks of colors to mimic the rhythmic harmonies of music.

Paul Klee, Polyphony (1932)

Art in Music

“Music has this over painting, that it can represent all the variations of color and light in one go.”

~ Claude Debussy

Just as art imitates music, composers frequently draw their inspiration from art, or arts more generally. Rachmaninoff said, “In my composition, I am greatly helped if I have in mind a book, a beautiful picture, or a poem. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is perhaps the leading composer of his day who wrote “painterly music”, inspired by the dreamy qualities of water, air and light in Impressionist paintings. Below are two examples of his “impressionistic music”: Nuages (Clouds) and Reflections in the Water. Have a listen to both pieces with your eyes closed and imagine the images Debussy tries to evoke in these slow, dreamy compositions.

In Nuages (Clouds), the first movement of Nocturnes, an orchestral composition written between 1892 and 1899, Debussy achieved a hazy vagueness that echoed Impressionistic effects such as shimmering light and shadow by placing fragmentary motives and littles flashes of difference tone colors side by side. Here is the movement, performed by the London Symphonic Orchestra. Nuages is the movement in the first 7:27 minutes.

Written in 1905, Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water) is the first piece of the first volume of Debussy’s “Images”. The piece creates an image of water being not quite still, then becoming rapid, then decreasing in motion again. Like many of Debussy’s compositions, Reflections is considered to be an impressionistic piece in which the composer tries to imitate not just the sounds of water but reflections on water, ie., pictures that float, which don’t necessarily make noises, like the famous water lily ponds captured on canvas by Monet.

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