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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.

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.

Painting and Music Play on the Instrument of the Feelings

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.


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. Two aspects of this are particularly relevant. First of all, artists wanted to see behind appearance, or rather, they wanted to see the realities that create appearance, at a time when publications on the new physics were providing a new understanding of creation itself. Secondly, the artists were among the first to explore another reality: that of colour itself and tone itself, together with their effects on the human being. This was based on the many 19th century publications by experimental scientists like Helmholtz, Wilhelm Wundt, Freud, Mach and others. The premise of this work was that the nerve-sense system is a dynamic system in constant movement, receiving and responding to stimulae, called sensations, which are found to directly affect the feelings and hence states of mind. This field of exploration, called psycho-physiology, informed Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Kupka’s Creation in the Plastic Arts, Malevich’s writings, and traces are also found in Mondrian’s writings. 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. Scientists were asserting that colours and tones have direct and verifiable effects on every individual, so artists set about exploring the vast artistic realm of sensation and feeling through colour and tone, and this resulted in a new form of artistic expression. Artists could play on the harp of the soul, plucking now one string, now another, now sounding them together. This inner music, “in which tonality is completely suspended,” in which “jumping spots allow each tone sounded [or painted] to stand on its own,” was the touching of the soul (the feelings) directly. The created work was thus pure music or pure painting, having no intermediary and no intrusion from the world of thought in the form of any kind of imitation (mythology, religious philosophy, history or genre). It was the pure music or the pure painting of pure feeling in the artist’s use of colours and tones, stimulating pure feeling in the spectator.

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, dynamism, movement. This was asserted by the new physics of Einstein (1905 and 1916), Maxwell’s treatises on electromagnetism (1870s), Max Planck’s paper on quantum theory in 1900, Poincaré’s works, and so many others. Thus, the laws of harmonics – by which is meant the laws of constructing music and painting – are to be found in the laws of movement, dynamism and the expression of energy. The laws of construction are the forming processes of music and of painting, and they are parallel to the forming processes found in all reality. As music is the art of movement itself, and painting had always been thought of as a static art, it was to the language of music that painters turned for want of a traditional vocabulary of movement.

The Constructive Laws of Rhythm

‘Rhythm’ is music’s most basic component. Tone moves according to rhythm, but colours in a painting are also arranged according to rhythm. The same is true for poetry. In How Verses Are Made (1926) the Russian poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, wrote: “I went along, swinging my arms and mumbling almost incoherently, now slowing down so as not to disturb my mumbling, now mumbling quicker in order to keep time with my feet. That is the way to shape and plane rhythm, the basis of all poetry, which runs through it in the form of a subdued roar. Gradually, you begin to extract individual words from the roar.” And in the same year the German painter/poet/composer/builder, Kurt Schwitters, noted:

“What art is you know as well as I do: it is nothing more than rhythm. And if that’s true, I ... can modestly and simply give you rhythm, in any material whatsoever: bus tickets, oil paints, building blocks, that’s right, you heard me, building blocks, or words in poetry, or sounds in music, or you just name it. That’s why you mustn’t look too hard at the material; because that isn’t what it’s all about.... [Just] try, in spite of the unusual materials, to catch the rhythm of the forms and the colours.... Every artwork throughout history has had to fulfill this primary requirement: to be rhythm, or else it isn’t art.” (In poems performance pieces proses plays poetics, Cambridge, MA., Exact Change, 2002, p.229.)

In nature, rhythm is the manifestation of energy in its forming process, and it functions according to one of two fundamental laws: that of progression, and that of the contrast of forces; usually they are found together. Progression is always numerical and/or geometrical, as in the Fibonacci series, while the contrast of forces is the law of polarity, those forces of the centrifugal/centripetal, push/pull, the attraction/repulsion of electromagnetism. In art, rhythm is also the manifestation of energy in the forming, creative process. The law of numerical progression had been the fundamental creative means of classical Western music; in painting it is found in perspective – geometrical – and proportion – numerical. When artists like Schoenberg and Kandinsky began to use the law of the contrast of forces rather than that of progression, music and painting became subject to entirely different rules of rhythm and, hence, to entirely different rules of harmony, made up of consonance, the means according to which the law functions, and dissonance, the necessary opposite of consonance.

In the creative law of numerical and geometrical progression, consonance is determined by adherence to the particular order or structure of progression; dissonance is introduced when that order or structure is violated. When an artist creates using the energy of polarities, the law of contrasts – of tones or of colours push-pulling, 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. Movement or dynamism then take the place of a state of rest, allowing change to occur. Because of the innate dynamism of polarities, the term ‘dissonance’ became an alternative word for ‘creativity’ for many artists. 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, but rather in the anti-geometric, anti-logical way. And this way is that of ‘dissonances in art’, in painting, therefore, just as much as in music. And ‘today’s’ dissonance in painting and music is merely the consonance of ‘tomorrow’.”

It is interesting to note here Schoenberg’s interpretation of the term ‘anti-logical’ in his reply to Kandinsky, writing that it is what “I call the elimination of the conscious will in art.” Around 1910, art was rejecting cultural anecdotes of whatever subject matter, no longer constructing according to linear, intellectual progression, and becoming instead a means of revealing the very nature of the human being, a being that is dynamic, continuously ignited by contrast in the feelings, in thinking and in life itself. Art gave expression to, and extended, the potential of this vast creative realm, the realm from which the human being extends into the world and creates it.

Rhythm is innate to the human being, to the breath and to the heartbeat. It is innate to the very existence of nature and the universe. Rhythm, for so many early 20th century artists, was the heartbeat of all reality and it was the very substance of Frank Kupka’s art. Drawing on Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, and on many scientific publications, Kupka made visible the invisible forces of growth in nature, the universe and in the physical human body. These forces – taking the shape of the spiral, the triangle, the vertical and the horizontal – are both the scaffolding of everything that exists and the means of its creative laws. They are so, they are both particle/form and wave/energy, because they are determined by rhythm. Catching the rhythm meant catching the chord which holds together the human body, nature and the universe, meant catching the energy that creates.

Rhythm is not a thing: it can only act through things. For the painting-composer these things are colours and forms, for the music-composer they are tones. We shall consider painting only.

To begin with colour. In their writings, Kandinsky, Kupka and Mondrian all describe how colours function both optically and in the realm of feelings and, therefore, how they can be used to set up many, many kinds of rhythms. As Kupka wrote in Creation in the Plastic Arts, “The radiation of vital energy in nature, and of the same energy which dwells inside us, always manifests itself through the relationships between different vibrations and, therefore, between different colours.” (Liverpool University Press, p.87.) Scientists had shown how long exposure to certain reds made the subject anxious or angry, for example. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art Kandinsky writes that the intensification of a certain yellow “increases the painful shrillness of its note” (p.68). And Kupka says in Creation in the Plastic Arts that violet is “a mixture of passion and reason, is the colour of thought and of bishops” (p.86). Playing the strings of the feelings meant playing the effects of the colours on the feelings. And suddenly, the painting becomes active and activated, the spectator experiencing the light vibrancy or heavy thud of ‘jumping spots’ and, in the case of Kupka, say, a swirling of blues where inner movement is harmonious and pleasant.

Forms, too, affect the feelings. Kandinsky did studies on the effects of shape, concluding that the pointed triangle made a different impression on the subject than the curved circle, and he published his findings in 1926 in Point and Line to Plane whilst at the Bauhaus. Colouring the pointed triangle yellow or red produced yet another effect on the observer, one being harmonious and satisfying, the other like a conflict between two forces and thus producing another feeling. It is precisely in the law of forces, whether they are consonant or dissonant, that the laws of harmonies are found. Rhythm is an expression of these forces.

Painting, then, has a ‘grammar’ of colours and of forms, to use Kandinsky’s word. Simple and straightforward as the grammar itself might be, it allows great complexity of expression, just as the written and spoken grammar of words does. We have only to compare the painting of Kandinsky and Mondrian: Kandinsky’s Composition II (1910, destroyed) was full of colour energies in animated, painterly movement, while Mondrian’s compositions with the primary colours of red, yellow and blue (1920s and 1930s) were made of few colours in flat planes held within a few horizontal or vertical bands. The former work is visually dynamic, the latter are visually static. The former has many loud or breezy rhythms rushing about, the latter have quiet, even silent, rhythms, especially noticeable in the white and black paintings such as Composition II with Black Lines, 1930 (Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven). All these rhythms we feel, played as they are on the instrument of our soul, our feelings. These paintings do not come from music, they are not the translated tones of Schoenberg’s Three Piano Pieces or any other musical composition. But like anything that makes the soul sing – or weep or jump or dance – they can be called ‘musical’, if that is understood as only a metaphor for organised movement and dynamism.

Pure Painting, Pure Aesthetics

Consonance and dissonance of rhythm in pure painting, the play between contrasting forces and their coherence or unity, was for Vasily Kandinsky the basis of the new ‘harmony’, as he concluded in Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kazimir Malevich called consonance and dissonance and their unity in the work of art the ‘new aesthetic’, in the opening paragraph of his 1919, On New Systems in Art / Statics & Speed. Malevich writes that this new aesthetic, this new means of affecting the feelings directly through artistic means, is seen in nature by the artist as “painterly masses in motion and at rest, ... the unity of diverse painterly forms; ... the symmetry and harmony of contrasting elements”, the painter rejoicing in nature’s “flow of forces and their harmony”. Similarly, sitting before his canvas, the painter:

“regulates the flowing forces of colour and painterly energy in a multiplicity of forms, lines, planes; he also creates forms and the different elements of their signs and achieves a unity of contrasts on the surface of his picture. Thus the creation of contrasts between forms leads to a single harmony in the body of the construction without which creation would be inconceivable.” (In Malevich on Suprematism, University of Iowa Museum of Art, 1999, p.55.)

And all this because the contrasts set up by consonance and dissonance produce a harmony of the feelings. Pure painting had led to pure aesthetics, one that was of and for the feelings alone (without the intervention of thinking through mimesis), while awakening consciousness, the mind. This is why artists claimed that art was finally fulfilling its true task.

Since painting had become abstract after 1910, it could certainly be talked about in the same way as Schopenhauer had described music. Abstract painting was rhythm touching the feelings directly so now, it too, like music, was a ‘copy of the world will’. No longer passing through objects of the world but passing over them, no longer depicting only fragments of reality, abstract painting, like music, was independent of the phenomenal world of objects. Abstract painting objectifies the will itself, directly (no longer indirectly through ‘mimesis’, the imitation of the phenomenal world) through its artistic means and their arrangement, also like music.

Abstract painting, however, had taken a further step: because it embodies pure rhythm, which takes place in time, whilst existing as an object in space, abstract art brought time and space together in a way that had been inconceivable for Schopenhauer and 19th century painting and sculpture. Abstract art was a reconciliation of fundamental opposites. As the union of space and time, abstraction was both ‘representation’, or pure forms, and ‘will’, or pure energy, it was particular and universal, it was material and essence – that essence that sings its way through all eternity in every living thing.

© Patricia Railing 2005

Patricia Railing has published widely on early 20th century abstract art. She is director of Artists.Bookworks which publishes artists’ books and writings of the early 20th century.

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