The Music of Painting
Music, Modernism and the Visual Arts from the Romantics to John Cage
Phaidon, London, 2012 (paperback edition)
out of print
Composers and artists repeatedly borrowed from one another, yet their motives have seldom been explored. Professor Peter Vergo in this volume provides a broad analysis of changes in the character of the analogies drawn at different times, using in his analysis critical and philosophical sources as well as evidence about artistic and musical practice.
Music has inspired some of the most progressive art of our time from the abstract painting of Wassily Kandinskv to the mid-century experimental films of Oskar Pischinger. Personalities as different in their background and outlook as František Kupka and Paul Klee both created ‘fugue’ paintings. Similarly, a wide-spread admiration for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the acknowledged master of fugue, affected not only painters in Paris on the eve of the First World War such as Georges Braque but also artists at the Bauhaus during the 1920s including the American Lyonel Feininger and the Swiss Johannes Itten. Other Bauhaus artists, Klee and Kandinskv among them, devoted significant time and energy to examining whether it was possible to translate actual fragments of music or specific musical motifs into the language of visual art.
The path that led from music to painting was, however, by no means a one-way street. Many musicians were influenced in their turn not just by ideas about art – for example, Claude Debussy’s interest in the notion of visual arabesque – but by specific works of painting and sculpture, which in some cases they sought to ‘represent’ by purely musical means. Strongly influenced by Impressionist painters such as Whistler, Turner or Monet, Debussy, regarded as the founder of musical Impressionism, used in his music unusual voice leading and timbral colours to evoke pictorial images and moods, especially of languor and hedonism. Franz Liszt attempted in the 1850s to depict musically Raphael’s Betrothal of the Virgin (1504) and one of Michelangelo’s effigies form the Medici Chapel (1519–33). Similarly, in 1874, Modeste Musorgsky devised subtle ways of translating his friend Viktor Hartman’s drawings and watercolours into musical language in his famous piano pieces, Pictures at an Exhibition – pieces that, intriguingly, were translated back into the medium of visual art by Kandinskv in his designs for a new-abstract staging of them in Dessau in 1928.