Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sight and Sound: A Harmony of Arts

Art comes in many different forms and mediums. They are distinct from one another in their own right but have profoundly impacted one another throughout art history— whether it be Michelangelo’s sculpturally rendered figures painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or the influence of ballet on the form of Degas’ paintings of dancers, or even negatively in Clement Greenberg’s theory of specifically resisting any of the natural inclinations to reference form outside paint’s two-dimensionality. 
Music has influenced visual art for centuries. This exhibit represents a theme of musical influence evident in artwork from the eighteenth century to the twentieth throughout a transition in understanding and developing different kinds of representation as abstraction increased in popularity.
   Dr. Arabella Tenniswood-Harvey, specializing in the study of the interrelation of art and music developed a framework for understanding musical elements evident in art like the works in this exhibit. The framework consists, first, in the “expressive manipulation of pictorial elements” employing “rhythm, harmony, accent, graphic and coloristic counterpoint, and cadence.” Color is the main vehicle by which these elements are expressed, moving away from a necessity for illusion in art towards a primary emphasis on technique. Secondly, the visual design of a piece uses parallel paths within the work to create a place for the eye to follow just as the ear follows voicing in music. Third, an artwork is organized in such a way that a viewer must spend time looking in order to fully take it in, just as a piece of music requires time. Fourth, there is a disguised format to the work that visually references the layout of a musical score. Fifth, the idea of a series of paintings follows a musical model. Take time to look and listen for this theme in the artworks displayed.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1875 
Oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts #: 46.3091871

In his famous Ten O’Clock Lecture, Whistler states that,“Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music. But the artist is born to pick, and choose, and group with science, these elements, that the result may be beautiful—as the musician gathers his notes, and forms his chords, until he bring forth from chaos glorious harmony.” This Nocturne is one of his most daring applications of this idea. The English critic, John Ruskin, voiced the majority of the public’s initial opinion when he denied that it even was art—Whistler took him to court over this matter and won. The Falling Rocket can be seen as a gateway into abstraction in art rather than naturalistic illusion. It reflects the musical nocturnes popular at his time with its dark, dreamy colors and brush strokes referencing an underlying theme, lightly dotted with brighter colors like twinkling higher notes.
Nocturne Example Audio: Chopin Nocturne op. 9 no. 2

City Night, Norman Lewis, 1949 
Oil on wood, MoMa #:549.2010

Norman Lewis lived and worked in Harlem, New York, initially practicing as a social realist painter, but later transitioning to expressive abstraction for the sake of removing himself from a racial category. This piece is an outworking of the establishment of abstraction as formal art, following Whistler’s Nocturne, The Falling Rocket, by nearly seventy-five years. City Night alludes to a nocturne as a night scene, and compositionally agrees with Whistler’s idea of the artist’s role of picking and choosing colors and forms in nature and organizing them in such a way that he finds most pleasing or most expressive of himself or his idea.

Phantasy II, Norman Lewis, September 23, 1946 
Oil on canvas, MoMa #: 528.1998

This painting is an example of the influence of jazz music on Lewis’ work. When he broke away from the traditional, illusionistic style of artwork, he became focused on expressing concepts through line and color. Like an improvisational jazz piece, he establishes structure with strong lines and within this structure draws from his understanding of color to compose an interesting and vibrant variation with creative and surprising details, as a pianist might improvise within a certain key.

Nocturne: Blue and Silver—Chelsea, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1871 
Oil paint on wood, Tate Gallery #: T01571

This artwork is the first of Whistler’s series of Nocturnes. He adopted the term from Fredrick Leyland’s descriptive use of it for Whistler’s night scenes. Though he denied any other association to the word than that of a nocturnal image, he indicated that ,“a nocturne is an arrangement of line, form and color first.” This artwork depicts a recognizable scene (on the Themes river)but resists an illusionistic style in favor of color harmony and consistent horizontal line that suggests movement. Whistler does not seek to “paint music,” rather his method is one in which the form of the work comes before the subject matter, which is counter to artistic standards prior to him and congruent with the musical tradition of his time.

Improvisation. Deluge, Kandinsky, 1913 
Oil on canvas, Lenbachhaus Gallery in Munich, Germany (no ascension #)

Kandinsky is one of several artists at his time that took an interest in synaesthesia—a correspondence between colors and particular musical notes that some people experience—and sought to employ it in his work. It is possible that Kandinsky may have had synaesthesia, and thereby designed his artwork in a way that was sensationally pleasing to his eyes and ears. Improvisation, like in the work of Norman Lewis, references music that is spontaneously composed within a key. Kandinsky’s work in his Improvisations is composed without prior planning and in a short amount of time, with emotional and spiritual impulses determining his color palette, line, and forms.

Sentimental Music, Arthur Dove, 1913 
Pastel on paper, Alfred Stieglitz Collection #:49.70.77

Arthur Dove shared an interest in synaesthesia with Kandinsky, believing that certain color combinations, line, and compositional forms could elicit the same emotional and physical responses as harmonies in music. This particular piece works with line arrangement of black and varying shades of gray and beige to create a piece that is rich with movement. Like other works in this exhibit, it is impossible to focus on just one point in the piece. The viewer’s eyes must follow the lines and are drawn to the dynamic contrasts of dark and light shades, finding rest in complimentary gradations of grays and beiges.

Composition V, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911 
Oil on canvas, (Private Collection, according to MoMa—no ascension #)

Kandinsky’s Compositions were some of his most complicated works. Unlike his Improvisations, he carefully planned and created them over a long period of time. Kandinsky intended both the creation and the viewing of his works to take time, as one would in composing and listening to a piece of music. Whether he had synaesthesia or not, he certainly desired his works to be a multi-sensory experience that affected emotions the way music affected him. The strong line and the suggestion of a kind of depth, or vanishing point, in the top right corner imply movement and destination, just as a formally composed work of music carries a theme to its resolution at the end. 

Me and the Moon, Arthur Dove, 1937 
Wax emulsion on canvas, Phillips Collection since 1939 (no ascension #)

This artwork is part of a series Arthur Dove created called From the Radio. This piece is named after Hal Kemp Orchestra’s hit song. Dove loved the swing and jazz popular at his time and is known to have often listened to the radio while he worked. He created this piece while his wife, Helen (Reds) Torr, was separated from him for several months. The song reflects his emotions and he suggests both its particular subject matter (the moon), and visually expresses the same sentiments felt and elicited by the sound of the song in his artwork. The lyrics are as follows: 
Me and the Moon are wondering where you can be
Me and the Moon are lonely for your company
I’ve asked the Moon to find you
Somewhere behind a star
I want him to remind you
How dear to me you are
Me and the Moon are gazing through a hazy light
All too soon I lost you on a somber night
I’m afraid of the dawn cause you and the Moon will both be gone
There’s Me and the Moon and pretty soon it’ll just be me.
Audio: Me and the Moon

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