How Music Motivated Artists from Matisse to Kandinsky to Reinvent Painting

Jackson Arn
May 30, 2019 5:15PM

Stuart Davis, Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors — 7th Avenue Style , 1940. © 2019 Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The modern artists wanted to be musicians. So it seems, at least, judging from the titles of their paintings. The “Nocturnes” painted by James McNeill Whistler toward the end of the 19th century have as much, if not more, to do with Chopin’s solo piano compositions of the same name than with the night time scenes they depict. Paul Klee’s geometric abstraction, Polyphony (1932), bespeaks a boundless passion for Bach’s polyphonic choral works. Later avant-garde masterpieces gloried in the popular jazz music of the day, from Stuart Davis’s Swing Landscape (1938) to Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942–43) to Henri Matisse’s Jazz Suite (1947). A list of modern-art milestones almost reads like a timeline of Western music.

The visual arts have always been influenced by music, and vice versa. From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, however, Western artists sought something more than the usual symbiosis between art forms. They strained to evoke music’s rhythms, structures, and tones in their work—in short, to transform oneart form into another. If the avant-garde project of merging painting with music never quite achieved its goals or made complete sense to begin with, so much the better—few quixotic quests have failed so interestingly.

Henri Matisse
Gerrish Fine Art

You can’t talk about music and modernism without mentioning Walter Pater, the prolific 19th-century man of letters who is largely remembered for a single sentence he wrote in 1877: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” One interpretation of Pater’s observation is that music is the only art whose form and content are not just inseparable, but the same. This makes music fundamentally different from traditional Western painting, in which the same content can take hundreds of forms. The reason painting and music differ, Pater went on to argue, is that painting is mimetic (i.e., it tries to approximate the appearance of the physical world), and music is not.

Pater was writing at the dawn of the modern art revolution when literal representation was being purged from art and literature like pests from an old, dirty house. Abstract painters, abandoning the notion of a subject in favor of pure form, needed some rationale for their experiments. Small wonder so many of them looked to music.

Piet Mondrian
Broadway Boogie-Woogie, 1957

To study the modern canon closely is to discover a host of ingenious solutions to an unsolvable problem: how to recreate visually what music does sonically. Swiss-born Paul Klee had been a violin prodigy before he turned to paint, but his knowledge of music animates virtually all of his best work. A dense, kinetic composition like May Picture (1925) feels like the oil-on-cardboard version of a Baroque counterpoint, with Klee’s bright squares providing the same a-ha! moment as the voices of a chorus sliding above and below one another.

In the 1910s, Klee was a loyal member of The Blue Rider, a group that also included Franz Marc, Albert Bloch, and Wassily Kandinsky. Though Kandinsky did not coin the word “synesthesia,” he helped popularize it by arguing—passionately, if not always coherently—that the greatest art should foster an overwhelming, multisensory experience in the viewer.

Kandinsky’s body of work represents the most ambitious, the most literal, and, perhaps, the nuttiest attempt to merge art and music. Where the Victorian Pater’s notion of the relationship between painting and music was hierarchical, Kandinsky’s was downright anarchistic: nothing less audacious than a completely new language, with music, literature, and art dissolving into a big, glorious mess. His unrealized theater piece wasn’t called “The Yellow Sound” for nothing.

Kandinsky’s search for a new language of painting was inspired by one of his friends, the great Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg. Though Schoenberg’s atonal pieces were widely dismissed as babble, they were actually rigorously controlled. His greatest innovation was with the 12-tone method of composition, whereby no note could be reused until the other 11 had been played. In paintings like Composition 8 (1923), Kandinsky offers something akin to the epiphany provoked by Schoenberg’s works: the slow realization that seemingly random colors and shapes are, in fact, tightly connected.

Modernist painters plundered popular American music, as well as the European avant-garde. It’s striking, indeed, to consider how thoroughly the melodies of the African diaspora—everything from bluegrass and the blues to jazz, swing, and bop—pervade the art of white Americans and Europeans. From the way Stuart Davis described his Hot Still-Scape for Six Colors—7th Avenue Style (1940), you’d think he was talking about a jazz sextet instead of a painting: “[The six colors] are used as the instruments in a musical composition might be, where the tone-color variety results from the simultaneous juxtaposition of different instrument groups.”

You can—and should—fault Davis for misreading and misappropriating jazz here, interpreting it in strictly aesthetic terms and ignoring the social oppression that inspired it in the first place. The same goes for many of the modernist painters who incorporated African-American music into their work. But at least Davis, Mondrian, Matisse, et al. were humble enough to acknowledge the truth: the lofty aesthetic goals they held for their paintings had already been achieved by virtuosic black musicians.

When Davis wanted to convey the vibrancy of mid-century Manhattan, for instance, he didn’t turn to the Old Masters or Kandinsky or Schoenberg. He turned to jazz, and then named his painting after a synesthetic jazz term: hot.

Jackson Arn