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In Psyche, Michelle Liu writes about the debt of abstract painting to music. She states that paintings that imitate music “exist on a spectrum”:
On one end, there are abstract artists such as Williams and Paul Klee, for whom music itself sometimes becomes the subject matter. On the other end, there are the likes of James Whistler, Paul Gauguin and Wassily Kandinsky, who paint in a ‘musical manner’, moving away from a concern with representing reality. Whistler, known for his almost abstract ‘nocturne’ pictures, defined painting as ‘the exact correlative of music, as vague, as purely emotional, as released from all functions of representation’. Though not going as far towards pure abstraction, Gauguin saw colours and lines as having the power to evoke emotions and thoughts just like music. When asked why he painted red dogs and pink skies, Gauguin replied: ‘It’s music, if you like!’
In what way are Kandisky’s abstract works “musical”? There may be some connection, Liu argues, between notes and colors:
In an influential 2013 study by Stephen Palmer and colleagues, participants were presented with musical samples from Bach, Mozart and Brahms while viewing different colour patches. They were asked to select best-matching and worst-matching colours in relation to the music. Results showed a high degree of convergence in participants’ judgments. In particular, more saturated, lighter, yellower colours were judged to be associated with faster music in the major mode, whereas greyer, darker, bluer colours were found to be associated with slower music in the minor mode.
In the same study, participants were also given eight emotional descriptors – happy, sad, angry, calm, strong, weak, lively and dreary – and were asked to rate how strongly each musical sample and each colour patch was associated with each descriptor. Colours and music samples that were judged to match also turned out to share similar emotional associations. Palmer and colleagues take the results to show that judgments regarding music-colour associations are mediated by common associations of emotions. But this still leaves us with the question of why it is that certain colours, and certain musical samples, are associated with certain emotions in the first place.
There may be some structural connection, too. Liu argues that the structure of the fugue, which, in her words, uses the “counterpoint” of “different voices that are melodically independent and harmonically dependent,” had a profound impact on early abstract art:
In the 1910s, the word ‘fugue’ comes to feature in the titles of many paintings: eg, Kandinsky’s Fugue (Controlled Improvisation), Marsden Hartley’s Musical Theme No 2 (Bach Preludes et Fugues), Adolf Hölzel’s Fugue on a Resurrection Theme, and Josef Albers’s Fugue.
One notable example is František Kupka’s Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colours. In The Music of Painting (2011), the art historian Peter Vergo notes that a pianist regularly played Bach’s fugues during his visits to the Kupkas, which may have ‘led Kupka to reflect on how one might set about translating a fugue in music into the language of painting’. The painting imitates the basic structure of a two-part fugue. The two intertwined ribbons – red and blue – resemble the two interwoven voices in a fugue.
Klee’s Fugue in Red captures a much more complex fugal structure. Various shape sequences – one after another – represent different musical motifs. They reappear in different parts of the painting, just as the musical subjects in a fugue are usually repeated and developed. The left-to-right orientation of the shapes signifies the temporal order of the music. The inverted triangles on the bottom right resemble the technique of melodic inversion, sometimes used in fugues, where the intervals making up the subject are turned upside down. Klee was himself an accomplished violinist, with a special interest in the music of Bach and Mozart. So, it is not surprising that his visual ‘fugue’ is much more elaborate in its musical associations than Kupka’s. Just as the structural complexity and the interconnectedness of different musical motifs are often the focus of a composer, colour arrangements and the way different shapes visually relate to one another can be the sole concern of an abstract painter.
The problem is that the “sequences” of Klee’s Fugue in Red (view it here) do not “reappear in different parts of the painting, just as the musical subjects in a fugue are usually repeated and developed” (my emphasis). The shapes in Fugue in Red appear all at once in a single moment. The way we experience the painting visually—our eyes roaming over the canvas—is entirely different from the way we experience Bach’s Fugue in G minor, for example, where each note or combination of notes is experienced both distinctly and in relation to the notes before and after in a sequence over a set period of time. The fact is both music and poetry are aural arts and, therefore, have a different relationship to time than the visual arts do.
In a piece a few years ago for The New Criterion (which was reprinted in this book), I wrote about why surrealism, which has been such a success in film and painting, has been such a failure in poetry. The reason is that surrealism is an image-making technique that has limited applicability in sequential art forms like poetry (and music):
Unlike painting’s images, the poetic image is revealed linearly. One word is encountered after another. Objects take shape by addition. Characters appear. They do things with objects. Speakers speak. These elements must work together in a specific sequence to create, if everything goes right, a complex whole.
The painterly image, however, is revealed in an instant. We might roam the surface, focusing on a detail here, a texture or color there, and relate them back to the whole, but the sequence of that roaming and relating doesn’t change the image one bit. Change the sequence of words in a poem, and you have a new poem.
But surrealism doesn’t care about narratives. It cares about images. It is an image-making, metaphor-making technique—a way of bringing disparate things together to create a new, strange one. In fact, its disregard for narrative is one of its defining characteristics. It is a form of play, of imagistic exploration.
We see this same tension in the work of the poet Frank O’Hara. Scholars of O’Hara’s work have long argued that he is a painterly poet. His poems are like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings—all push-pull, all surface. Hogwash. Even O’Hara himself recognized essential differences between the two arts. Apologies for rehashing some old material here, but in my book on O’Hara, I take a closer look at his poem “Why I Am Not a Painter” to prove this. Most critics think the title is ironic. It’s not:
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