Pallant House Gallery, Chichester,
30 June – 16 September 2007
Pallant House's current exhibition celebrates the way in which music sustained and inspired abstract art in the early 20th century. From Bach to Debussy, Shönberg, and Messiaen, musicians showed a way beyond figurative or decorative modes of art for many painters and sculptors including Klee, Kandinsky, Kupka, Mondrian and Paolozzi.
Thematically, the show is divided into five sections: harmony, dissonance, tones and colours, rhythm and time, dance and jazz. 'Harmony' opens with two works by František Kupka, studies for his first purely abstract paintings exhibited in Paris in 1912. The overlapping shapes of Study for 'Fugue' (1911-12) echo and harmonise with each other, freed from the need for a subject matter. Baroque music's intricate polyphony also proved a fruitful source for Paul Klee, whose Still Life with Little Box (1931) features groups of dots and larger shapes arranged to allow a simultaneous visual experience of independent 'themes'. Later still, during the 50s and 60s, Ceri Richards responded to Claude Debussy with a series of paintings based on La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910); two of them are shown here.
Whilst some of the first abstract artists drew inspiration from the music of the past, others were engaged with the new, dissonant music of their contemporaries. One portion of the show focuses on the close relationship between Arnold Shönberg and Wassily Kandinsky and, by extension, the Blaue Reiter group. Simon Shaw-Miller has contributed an enlightening essay to the catalogue1 which compares the two men's attempts to bring new means of expression to their respective arts, and the aesthetic theories they developed to do so. He mentions in passing the dramas that both were working on when they met, which attempted to fuse music and colour into spectacular 'total artworks'. Two sketches by Shönberg give an indication of the strange illuminations he intended. Nearby, Kandinsky's painting Cossacks (1910-11) shows the artist in transition from figuration to abstraction.
The next two themes take a closer look at the way artists have integrated features of music into their work. 'Tones and colours' highlights painters who developed theories of colour correspondence with sound, emotion and even spiritual states. To differing degrees Kandinsky, Kupka, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Johannes Itten, and Robert Arthur Wilson devised or adopted such theories. Whether one embraces this metaphysical systematising or regards it with skepticism, its application enabled these painters to produce some spectacular work, from Wilson's densely coloured miniatures such as La Lumière (1917) to the controlled explosion of Henry Vallenci's Green Symphony (1935).
Klee's Abstract Colour Harmony in Squares with Vermillion Accents (1924) and Kandinsky's lithograph Violet (1923) sit side by side, demonstrating the accomplishment with which both artists applied musical ideas to visual forms. In Klee's painting, the brighter reds and yellows in the chessboard pattern rise gently from more reserved chromatic tones, creating a structured harmony, whilst in Kandinsky's print, the angular zipping energy of the lines is balanced by patches of colour. In particular, a long black stroke, extending from the bottom left to the top right, is grounded in a block of violet and two concentric circles through which it passes.
By this time, Kandinsky had elaborated a vocabulary of form as well as colour, giving his works their impressive dynamism. This possibility of movement, and therefore of time and temporality, was another musical element that many artists sought in their works. The exhibition shows a number of approaches to this challenge, from Kandinsky's abstract geometries which lead the eye around the painting, to Duncan Grant's long scroll that was intended to be rolled past the viewer's gaze. Two studies by Eduardo Paolozzi, one for an homage to Bruckner, the other for a panel in Cleish Castle, Kinross, prove that sculptors, as well as painters, were moved by these musical currents.
The last section of the exhibition, 'dance and jazz', makes room for work by artists who responded to the energy (and musical complexity) of new forms of popular and classical dance. Kupka surfaces yet again, with his Jazz Hot no. 1 (1935), a work in which the fugal variations of earlier paintings have been transposed into intricately interlocking and lively shapes. David Bomberg's Russian Ballet Lithographs (1919) chart a Vorticist response to Diaghilev's productions in London, which included in 1913 Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. His small abstract prints explode with tightly trapped energy. Meanwhile, Alan Davie's Jazz by Moonlight no. 3 (1966) and the pages from Matisse's book Jazz (c.1947) both revel in improvisatory colour. Dance's rhythms were also inspirational, with ragtime and boogie-woogie appealing to artists like Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, who saw in them a counterpart to their projects to simplify art to its rhythmic essence.
This exhibition charts an engaging course through a vast and rich topic, and is accompanied by a promising summer programme of talks, musical performances, and film screenings.
1. Frances Guy, Simon Shaw-Miller, and Michael Tucker, Eye-Music: Kandinsky, Klee and all that Jazz, (Chichester: Pallant House Gallery, 2007)