Artist-Musicians, Musician-Artists

2 Abstraction as a means of communication

The shift away from the concept of the autonomy of the arts that has prevailed since the late nineteenth century and the denial of the illusionary nature of painting led to a rejection of traditional approaches and design principles and to a redefinition and reorganization of the esthetic material.

The main focus of modernist art was therefore on the basic elements (color, forms, tones, etc.) and the basic conditions (manner and place of presentation) of artistic production. The ensuing critical analysis of the limitations of established disciplines (painting, music, theater), but also new visual media (photographs and films) as well as the interest in universalism and synesthesia reinforced the trend toward interdisciplinary activity. In striving for a disengagement from the means and a disassociation from the object, the fine artists of the early twentieth century were seeking a new terminology of painting. They chose terms often drawn from music that they adjudicated per se as abstract in character. Thus, visual works at this time were frequently called composition, symphony, improvisation, or rhythm.

Such attempts to extend the boundaries on a conceptual level also have their roots in an actual dual activity, as practiced, for example, by Paul Klee. He earned his living until 1906 as a violinist for the Berne Music Society, but eventually decided to concentrate solely on a career as a fine artist. His painting was by no means unaffected by music — on the contrary: principles of musical form provided the background for Klee’s visual composition and for his pedagogical and theoretical writings. The shapes and structures formed by the superimposition and transfusion of different color surfaces in some of his pictures, such as Polyphon gefasstes Weiss (White Framed Polyphonically; 1930), reflect Klee’s conception of the segmented, composed surface as a multi-voiced, polyphonic form. As a musician-artist, he also to some extent transferred theme development, variation, and even fugue like procedures, as in Fuge in Rot (Fugue in Red; 1921), from musical to pictorial composition.

Close links between music and visual arts are not only to be observed in the works of musicians/artists trained in several disciplines. An interest in the respective other art form undoubtedly went hand in hand with the explicitly interdisciplinary questions that became increasingly frequent, in particular in the context of the emergence of abstraction in painting and later in film.

Wassily Kandinsky, fascinated by the phenomenon of synesthesia and universalistic ideas based in theosophy had close contacts with the prominent representative of musical abstraction, the twelve-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg. Kandinsky recognized a strong affinity between Schoenberg’s music and his abstract ambitions in painting.[2] The painting Impression III (Concert) (1911) was created under the direct influence of one of Schoenberg’s concerts, during which his Second String Quartet op. 10 (1907/1908) was performed. Vice versa, Schoenberg produced a broad oeuvre of paintings, some of which were shown in the first Blaue Reiter exhibition in December 1911 and of which the series Eindrücke und Fantasien (Impressions and Fantasies), in particular, shows an affinity to abstraction.[3]

The dadaist and founder of constructivist film, Hans Richter, was inspired to abstract composition by the composer Ferruccio Busoni, who recommended that he study counterpoint. Musical counterpoint inspired him in his graphic, painterly, and later filmic production — e.g., in his Rhythmus (Rhythm) films — which sought to realize the dynamic clash of dark and light areas as a visual counterpoint.[4]