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Courtship of Music and Painting

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Art Gallery of NSW entitled ‘the Courtship of Music and Art’. It is always great when topics like this come to is harder when you then have to start researching them!

But this was a fascinating topic. On the surface there would seem to be little in common between the two besides they are both members of the arts and stimulate our senses; art is for the eyes and music for the ears.

The differences are obvious. Music is about the passage of time whereas paintings are eternally present moments, paintings are singularities while music is intangible ephemera, music is an abstract medium and up until about 100 years ago art definitely wasn’t.

But it doesn’t take long to discover how these two members of the arts have inspired each other throughout the centuries.

If we look at Della Fransesca (1415-1487), he used musical rations as a compositional device in his painting and Poussin (1594-1665) used the different moods associated with musical modes of the day to indicate the colours he would use in his paintings.

We also have musicians who were inspired by paintings created hundreds of years earlier like Ottorino Respighi (1879-1932) who was inspired by the Renaissance painter Botticelli’s work Primavera when he wrote Botticelli Triptych.

It’s also interesting to see the similarities between style and form and content and meaning. The painter James McNeil Whistler often used musical titles in his paintings to emphasis the tonal quality in his paintings. In the 1860’s he started with Harmonies (Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux) then with nocturnes in the early 70’s (Nocturne – Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge) and then moved to symphonies (Symphony and Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs France). And Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986) also used musical titles in her early works derived from her belief that visual art, like music could convey powerful emotions independent of representational subject matter. In 1918 she painted ‘Music, Pink and Blue No2’.

The relationship between artist and composer is heightened in the radically changing 20 th century. Both Arnold Schoenberg and Wassily Kandinsky highly influenced each other in the early years of the 20th century. Schoenberg’s breaking away from tonality to create the first atonal composition in 1909 inspired Kandinsky the following year, 1910, to then paint the first purely abstract work. These men not only inspired each other but also generations of composers and artists throughout the century.

We can also see this with the chance compositions of John Cage and the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg was so taken with the advances Cage had made with chance music that he painted the Combines and the White Paintings; Cage was then inspired to create the ultimate chance composition, 4’’33’, a silent piece (1952). This has often been described as his most famous and controversial of creations. The transparency of both of these works opens the audience’s ears and eyes to a different way of hearing and seeing with greater possibilities.

Many other artists used different types of music to inspire them. Mondrian arrived in New York in 1940 and heard Boogie Woogie music on his first evening. He said that after hearing this music he put a little Boogie Woogie in all of his compositions. Jackson Pollack was massive jazz lover, often attending concerts of the greats of the day like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong and would also listen, full boar, to jazz in his studio while he works. He was adamant how he wanted his work to be viewed. He said “I think it should be enjoyed, just as music is enjoyed”. Marc Chagall also listened to music while he worked, particularly Mozart – saying ‘ the two wonders of the world are the bible and Mozart’s music…the third is love”

So in actual fact the courtship between Art and Music has been long and varied. The two forms of the Arts have inspired each other to new ideas, new concepts and new perspectives. So although Art is for the eyes and Music for the ears, they are both for the soul!


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