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Why Abstract Painting Isn’t Music | Issue 50 | Philosophy Now


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Jan/Feb 2013

Why Abstract Painting Isn’t Music
Patricia Railing on the point of abstract art, and on how it works.
A recent exhibition in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay, entitled At the Origins of Abstraction (Aux Origines de l’abstraction), explained the advent and practice of abstract painting at the beginning of the 20th century as the ‘translation of music’. Thus continues into our new century the widespread misunderstanding of the early abstraction of ‘pure painting’ and of the relationship between painting and music.
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Certainly there were composers who wrote scores accompanied by colour-light shows (e.g., Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov) and painters like Ciurlionis who wrote scores as sound compositions of their paintings. This correspondence between the arts issued largely from Symbolism and had been inspired by scientific studies of colours and tones as sensations. The ‘pure’ painters – Vasily Kandinsky, Frank Kupka, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich – who followed after 1910, however, always declared that their paintings were not music, nor that they were painting music. Rather, they claimed that painting’s colours have an effect on the human being just as music’s tones do: the relationship between music and painting is a parallel one, colour and tone affecting and enlivening human feelings.


More articles from this issue It is the feelings, then, that are the ‘instrument’ on which colours and tones play their tunes. The media are different but both set the feelings in motion, giving them a particular kind and quality. In his 1912, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kandinsky wrote: “Generally speaking, colour is a power which directly influences the soul (i.e., the feelings). Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” (Dover Publications, p.25). It was Schopenhauer who had inspired this image of the feelings, writing: “We ourselves are now the vibrating string that is stretched and plucked” by pleasure and pain, by harmony and dissonance. (The World as Will and Representation, Vol. II, p.451.) References to music abound in Kandinsky’s book, and he gave musical titles to three groups of work between 1909 and 1914: Improvisations, Impressions, and Compositions. Frank Kupka also titled a few of his works with the musical terms of Nocturne and Fugue. So critics at the time, standing before works the likes of which they had never seen in their lives, latched on to the musical theme and explained this abstract painting in terms of music. This was so frequent that Kandinsky was compelled to state in a 1913 catalogue and a 1914 lecture: “I do not want to paint music. I do not want to paint states of mind.” Rather, it had to be understood that the “laws of harmonics in painting and music are the same”, to borrow the title of Henri Rovel’s article of 1908 in Les Tendances nouvelles. This parallelism of the arts of painting and music was based, on the one hand, on their inner creative laws and, on the other hand, on their effects in the human realm of feeling (called the soul). This is neatly illustrated by Kandinsky and by Franz Marc in letters of January 1911 after they had attended a concert of the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Remarking particularly on the composer’s 1909 Three Piano Pieces, Kandinsky wrote to Schoenberg: “The independent progress through their own destinies, the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions, is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings.” What Kandinsky meant is made clearer by Franz Marc, writing to Auguste Macke: “Can you imagine a music in which tonality (i.e., the adherence to any key) is completely suspended? I was constantly reminded of Kandinsky’s Composition [see Illustration], which also permits no trace of tonality, and also of Kandinsky’s ‘jumping spots’, in hearing this music, which allows each tone sounded to stand on its own (a kind of white canvas between the spots of color!)”. (In Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider, Scala, 2003, p.25 and p.21.) Applied to his painting, Kandinsky’s ‘jumping spots’ of colour allow each colour to stand on its own, independent of colour tonality. To feel the content of each tone or each colour, to feel their ‘independent voices’, is one of the essential creative aims of the abstract arts of music and of painting around 1910.

Painting and Music Play on the Instrument of the Feelings

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at a time when publications on the new physics were providing a new understanding of creation … 100% Hand-Painted. Freud. Vladimir Mayakovsky. Wholesale Cost. in any material whatsoever: bus tickets. because that isn’t what it’s all about. p. Max Planck’s paper on quantum theory in 1900. dynamism and the expression of energy. This inner music. [Just] try. noted: “What art is you know as well as I do: it is nothing more than rhythm. usually they are found together. those forces of the centrifugal/centripetal. while the contrast of forces is the law of polarity. Maxwell’s treatises on electromagnetism (1870s).. rhythm is the manifestation of energy in its forming process. creative process. I . and painting had always been thought of as a static art. and traces are also found in Mondrian’s writings. history or genre). Two aspects of this are particularly relevant. it was to the language of music that painters turned for want of a traditional vocabulary of movement. Mach and others.” was the touching of the soul (the feelings) directly. Secondly. or rather. “in which tonality is completely suspended. It was the pure music or the pure painting of pure feeling in the artist’s use of colours and tones..” in which “jumping spots allow each tone sounded [or painted] to stand on its own. now another. religious philosophy. The metaphor that the feelings are like a musical instrument playing the songs of life allowed artists to take a new look at their media. movement. dynamism. now sounding them together. The created work was thus pure music or pure painting. This was asserted by the new physics of Einstein (1905 and 1916). the basis of all poetry.. Thus. Kupka’s Creation in the Plastic Arts.Europic-Art. Every artwork throughout history has had to fulfill this primary requirement: to be rhythm. The same is true for poetry. or else it isn’t art. That’s why you mustn’t look too hard at the material. so artists set about exploring the vast artistic realm of sensation and feeling through colour and tone. they wanted to see the realities that create Oil Painting Reproduction www. The Constructive Laws of Rhythm ‘Rhythm’ is music’s most basic component. together with their effects on the human being. In art.. the laws of harmonics – by which is meant the laws of constructing music and painting – are to be found in the laws of movement. Gradually. All is Energy But what were the ‘laws of harmonics’ that stood behind the creation of pure painting and pure music and that were common to both? Essential to them is that they were based on yet another component of the early 20th century Zeitgeist: the world-view that all is energy. you heard me. Kurt Schwitters. or sounds in music. 2002. rhythm is also the manifestation of energy in the forming. First of all. or words in poetry. stimulating pure feeling in the spectator.. or you just name it. wrote: “I went along. now slowing down so as not to disturb my mumbling. Exact Change. called psycho-physiology. artists wanted to see behind appearance. building blocks. And if that’s true.) In nature. you begin to extract individual words from the roar. as in the Fibonacci series. the attraction/repulsion of electromagnetism. swinging my arms and mumbling almost incoherently. Cambridge. receiving and responding to stimulae. but colours in a painting are also arranged according to rhythm.Why Abstract Painting Isn’t Music | Issue 50 | Philosophy Now http://philosophynow.. That is the way to shape and plane rhythm. the artists were among the first to explore another reality: that of colour itself and tone itself. As music is the art of movement itself. which are found to directly affect the feelings and hence states of mind. Progression is always numerical and/or geometrical. and so many others. oil paints. now mumbling quicker in order to keep time with my feet. The law of numerical progression had been the fundamental creative means of 2 de 4 22-01-2013 21:14 . that’s right.229. plucking now one string. In How Verses Are Made (1926) the Russian poet. Why should artists want to tap the feelings in this way? This is a broad issue and part of the Zeitgeist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.” (In poems performance pieces proses plays poetics.. The premise of this work was that the nerve-sense system is a dynamic system in constant movement. This field of exploration. informed Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. MA. which runs through it in the form of a subdued roar. called sensations. push/pull. can modestly and simply give you rhythm.. This was based on the many 19th century publications by experimental scientists like Helmholtz. having no intermediary and no intrusion from the world of thought in the form of any kind of imitation (mythology. to catch the rhythm of the forms and the colours.” And in the same year the German painter/poet/composer/builder.. 100% Satisfaction Guarantee. Artists could play on the harp of the soul. in spite of the unusual materials. and that of the contrast of forces. Wilhelm Wundt. Malevich’s writings. and it functions according to one of two fundamental laws: that of progression. and they are parallel to the forming processes found in all reality. and this resulted in a new form of artistic expression. The laws of construction are the forming processes of music and of painting. Poincaré’s works. Scientists were asserting that colours and tones have direct and verifiable effects on every individual. building blocks. Tone moves according to rhythm.

The former has many loud or breezy rhythms rushing about. It is precisely in the law of forces. therefore. They are so.87. nature and the universe. the painting becomes active and activated. and dissonance. especially noticeable in the white and black paintings such as Composition II with Black Lines. Similarly. For the painting-composer these things are colours and forms. Art gave expression to. sitting before his canvas. Catching the rhythm meant catching the chord which holds together the human body. music and painting became subject to entirely different rules of rhythm and. the painter: 3 de 4 22-01-2013 21:14 . hence. our feelings. for example. and he published his findings in 1926 in Point and Line to Plane whilst at the Bauhaus. the play between contrasting forces and their coherence or unity. And suddenly.86). but rather in the anti-geometric. Drawing on Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky writes that the intensification of a certain yellow “increases the painful shrillness of its note” (p. It is innate to the very existence of nature and the universe. Kupka made visible the invisible forces of growth in nature. for the music-composer they are tones. a being that is dynamic. the latter have quiet. they are both particle/form and wave/energy. has a ‘grammar’ of colours and of forms. When an artist creates using the energy of polarities.) Scientists had shown how long exposure to certain reds made the subject anxious or angry. whether they are consonant or dissonant. Pure Aesthetics Consonance and dissonance of rhythm in pure painting. destroyed) was full of colour energies in animated. concluding that the pointed triangle made a different impression on the subject than the curved circle. this new means of affecting the feelings directly through artistic means. in the opening paragraph of his 1919. and extended. Playing the strings of the feelings meant playing the effects of the colours on the feelings.” Around 1910.” (Liverpool University Press. and of the same energy which dwells inside us. intellectual progression. These paintings do not come from music.. In the creative law of numerical and geometrical progression. because they are determined by rhythm. the painter rejoicing in nature’s “flow of forces and their harmony”.68). meant catching the energy that creates. they are not the translated tones of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces or any other musical composition. On New Systems in Art / Statics & Speed. allowing change to occur. anti-logical way. Because of the innate dynamism of polarities. art was rejecting cultural anecdotes of whatever subject matter. In their writings. Kazimir Malevich called consonance and dissonance and their unity in the work of art the ‘new aesthetic’. Rhythm is an expression of these forces. made up of consonance. When artists like Schoenberg and Kandinsky began to use the law of the contrast of forces rather than that of progression. how they can be used to set up many. Malevich writes that this new aesthetic. Forms. even silent. the law of contrasts – of tones or of colours push-pulling. then. . And this way is that of ‘dissonances in art’. attracting and repelling – consonance is that state of balance between the two forces while dissonance is that state of imbalance between the two forces when one or the other increases or decreases its energy. therefore. to the breath and to the heartbeat. We have only to compare the painting of Kandinsky and Mondrian: Kandinsky’s Composition II (1910. Kandinsky. no longer constructing according to linear.. in thinking and in life itself. . Eindhoven). the unity of diverse painterly forms. p. 1930 (Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum. if that is understood as only a metaphor for organised movement and dynamism. a swirling of blues where inner movement is harmonious and pleasant. Rhythm is not a thing: it can only act through things. All these rhythms we feel. is the colour of thought and of bishops” (p.” It is interesting to note here Schoenberg’s interpretation of the term ‘anti-logical’ in his reply to Kandinsky. the potential of this vast creative realm. one being harmonious and satisfying. say. affect the feelings. the spectator experiencing the light vibrancy or heavy thud of ‘jumping spots’ and. and becoming instead a means of revealing the very nature of the human being.Why Abstract Painting Isn’t Music | Issue 50 | Philosophy Now http://philosophynow. But like anything that makes the soul sing – or weep or jump or dance – they can be called ‘musical’. yellow and blue (1920s and 1930s) were made of few colours in flat planes held within a few horizontal or vertical bands. continuously ignited by contrast in the feelings. Rhythm is innate to the human being.. writing that it is what “I call the elimination of the conscious will in art. rhythms. Kandinsky did studies on the effects of shape. dissonance is introduced when that order or structure is violated. just as the written and spoken grammar of words does. the means according to which the law functions. just as much as in classical Western music. played as they are on the instrument of our soul. in painting. These forces – taking the shape of the spiral. And Kupka says in Creation in the Plastic Arts that violet is “a mixture of passion and reason. the triangle. the necessary opposite of consonance. Kupka and Mondrian all describe how colours function both optically and in the realm of feelings and. Painting. The former work is visually dynamic. the term ‘dissonance’ became an alternative word for ‘creativity’ for many artists. was for Vasily Kandinsky the basis of the new ‘harmony’. To begin with colour. Pure Painting. was the heartbeat of all reality and it was the very substance of Frank Kupka’s art. to use Kandinsky’s word. between different colours. “The radiation of vital energy in nature. As Kupka wrote in Creation in the Plastic Arts. Simple and straightforward as the grammar itself might be. Movement or dynamism then take the place of a state of rest. the latter are visually static. that the laws of harmonies are found. always manifests itself through the relationships between different vibrations and. consonance is determined by adherence to the particular order or structure of progression. for so many early 20th century artists. therefore. the universe and in the physical human body. and on many scientific publications. the other like a conflict between two forces and thus producing another feeling. to entirely different rules of harmony. it allows great complexity of expression. the realm from which the human being extends into the world and creates it. is seen in nature by the artist as “painterly masses in motion and at rest. while Mondrian’s compositions with the primary colours of red.. And ‘today’s’ dissonance in painting and music is merely the consonance of ‘tomorrow’. as he concluded in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. the vertical and the horizontal – are both the scaffolding of everything that exists and the means of its creative laws. in painting it is found in perspective – geometrical – and proportion – numerical. many kinds of rhythms. the symmetry and harmony of contrasting elements”. Colouring the pointed triangle yellow or red produced yet another effect on the observer. Rhythm. too. in the case of Kupka. painterly movement. We shall consider painting only. Thus would Kandinsky write to Schoenberg in his letter of January 1911: “I am certain that our own modern harmony is not to be found in the ‘geometric’ way.

Why Abstract Painting Isn’t Music | Issue 50 | Philosophy Now http://philosophynow. planes. p. Pure painting had led to pure “regulates the flowing forces of colour and painterly energy in a multiplicity of forms. As the union of space and time. All rights reserved. Abstract painting objectifies the will itself. the mind. or pure energy. Since painting had become abstract after 1910.55. ABOUT CONTACT FOR AUTHORS TERMS & CONDITIONS © Philosophy Now 2013.) And all this because the contrasts set up by consonance and dissonance produce a harmony of the feelings. it was material and essence – that essence that sings its way through all eternity in every living thing. lines. abstract art brought time and space together in a way that had been inconceivable for Schopenhauer and 19th century painting and sculpture.Bookworks which publishes artists’ books and writings of the early 20th century. had taken a further step: because it embodies pure rhythm.” (In Malevich on Suprematism. or pure forms. © Patricia Railing 2005 Patricia Railing has published widely on early 20th century abstract art. however. it could certainly be talked about in the same way as Schopenhauer had described music. Thus the creation of contrasts between forms leads to a single harmony in the body of the construction without which creation would be inconceivable. No longer passing through objects of the world but passing over them. University of Iowa Museum of Art. and ‘will’. directly (no longer indirectly through ‘mimesis’. Abstract painting was rhythm touching the feelings directly so now. was independent of the phenomenal world of objects. while awakening consciousness. one that was of and for the feelings alone (without the intervention of thinking through mimesis). no longer depicting only fragments of reality. 4 de 4 22-01-2013 21:14 . the imitation of the phenomenal world) through its artistic means and their arrangement. This is why artists claimed that art was finally fulfilling its true task. abstract painting. like music. also like music. was a ‘copy of the world will’. he also creates forms and the different elements of their signs and achieves a unity of contrasts on the surface of his picture. abstraction was both ‘representation’. it was particular and universal. Abstract art was a reconciliation of fundamental opposites. whilst existing as an object in space. it too. like music. She is director of Artists. 1999. Abstract painting. which takes place in time.