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art: Audio Visual

Throughout the ages, music and the visual arts have reflected one another.



For example, in the 11th and 12th centuries, during the great building campaign of Christian Romanesque churches all over Europe, cathedrals were designed with deep stone-barrel vaults, rather than wooden roofs, to improve the acoustics of Gregorian chants, an integral part of the liturgy. Similarly, the playful, pastel paintings and graceful, delicate, sinuous interiors of the 17th-century rococo style coordinate with the classical music of Vivaldi, Haydn and Mozart, delicate form equating the intricate voices of a Bach fugue.

It can be argued that in the 20th century, art aligned even more closely with music, directly influencing how many visual artists perceived their world. Vasily Kandinsky, the Russian expressionist painter, who is credited as the first contemporary abstract painter in the early part of the century, consistently related his art to music. With works composed of ecstatic bursts of color and painterly dashes of form, Kandinsky entitled most of his works as "Compositions" or "Improvisations." Like improvisational music, he approached the canvas with no preconceived themes, but allowed the colors to come as they would, prompted by subconscious feelings. These paintings hint at a subject rather than blatantly state it. Kandinsky noted in his book, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art": "Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul."

On a recent visit to the Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries of Modern Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, I was reminded again of how closely the visual and the lyrical are interconnected. The museum's small Jackson Pollock painting, "Number 15," from 1948, reveals the artist's revolutionary approach to the canvas. By placing the canvas on the floor rather than on an easel and by replacing brushes with paint directly poured from the can, Pollock focused his attention on the action of the work as well as the rhythmic, intricate patterns spun across the painting's surface. The raw, energetic, spontaneous image that resulted reflected the paint's power as not passive but a storehouse of pent-up forces.

Many criticized these early abstract expressionist works, but Pollock's paintings can be more clearly understood in the context of contemporary music — especially improvisational jazz. Musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played spontaneously, freely and expressively; criticizing Pollock's art for not having a subject is like criticizing free-association jazz for not following a tune.

While Pollock's works were personal and subjective, the pop artists of the 1950s and '60s sought to create a popular art, understood and liked by the masses. The museum's collection of pop art, from Andy Warhol's Brillo soap-pad boxes to Roy Lichtenstein's "Gullscape," disclose easy-to-like, familiar subjects, bright shiny colors and snappy, hard-edged designs. Rock 'n' roll emerged simultaneous with pop art with its most successful artists — Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, for example — performing catchy songs about love, personal freedom and other issues that were extremely popular to mass culture, especially teen-agers.

"In My Room" (1974) by Patrick Caulfield is a large acrylic-on-canvas painting that features a 1970s modern interior painted entirely in pink and magenta. With bold sharp lines and bubble-gum color, it attracts the viewer as plainly as the Beach Boys' song of its title: "There's a world where I can go and tell my secrets to, In my room, In my room…" Flattened and simple, yet strangely mesmerizing, the canvas reflects the very crooning, hypnotic nature of the song itself.

Alliances between music and art continue at the end of the 20th century and into our contemporary realm. From the avant-garde compositions of John Cage and their influence on performance and conceptual art to the explorations in electronica and techno beats and their connection to video and computer art, in both music and the arts, the brush and the beat steadily go on. S

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