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  • James Stewart

Art and Music

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

In a previous article I wrote about Art and Poetry and how each can influence the other and vice versa. The same of course is true with music and art, as has been recognised for hundreds of years. In this article we look at examples of music inspired by paintings (Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky), and vice versa (Kandinsky, Whistler and Hockney) and then we provide some relevant contemporary examples using established artists we show at Zimmer Stewart Gallery (Anthony Frost and Felix Anaut). Plato wrote of the Pythagoreans in 600AD  "The eyes are made for astronomy, the ears for harmony, and these are sister sciences." [from "The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts" by G. S. Kirk, J. E. Raven, M. Schofield]

Music inspired by paintings

In this section we look at composers who have been inspired by paintings in the creation of their music.

Most people have heard of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" a suite in ten movements written in 1874 in honour of his friend artists and architect Viktor Hartmann who died young at the age of just 39.

See Hartmann's 'Il vecchio castello' (The Old Castle left).

Following Hartmann's death, a group of his supporters arranged an exhibition of 400 of Hartmann's works at the Academy of Fine Arts in St Petersburg. Mussorgsky lent several of his own works for the exhibition, and was so moved by it that he composed the suite in just six weeks.

A further example is Rachmaninov's "Isle of the Dead" inspired by Arnold Rocklin's painting of the same name (see left).

Also, Stravinsky's 1951 opera "The Rakes Progress" inspired by Hogarth's eight paintings and engravings with the same title. 

The story concerns the decline and fall of one Tom Rakewell, who deserts Anne Trulove for the delights of London in the company of Nick Shadow, who turns out to be the devil. After several misadventures, all initiated by the devious Shadow, Tom ends up in Bedlam, a hospital for the 'insane' at that time situated in the City of London. The moral of the tale is: "For idle hearts and hands and minds the Devil finds work to do."

The circle was completed for the Rake' progress when David Hockney designed sets and costumes for the 1975 Glyndebourne production of the opera. In these examples the music created attempts to evoke the same imagery and emotions in the visuals set out in the paintings.

Paintings inspired by Music

Many painters are similarly influenced by music in the creation of visual art.

Wassily Kandinsky was inspired by a performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the artist used colors and shapes to evoke sounds and named his paintings as if they were musical pieces, such as Composition 8  (in the Guggenheim Museum’s permanent collection). His other musically inspired works have titles such as "Improvisations" and "Impressions".

These works do not attempt to represent the "subjects" of the music but to actually visually recreate the music itself, with shapes and colours creating tension and tempo from the original. In the Tate Modern's exhibition catalogue for "Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction 1908-1922", the German artist Bruno Haas speaks of the clarity of Kandinsky's painterly "syntax" and describes how Kandinsky's families of colours resonate with one another to produce visual "chords".

James McNeill Whistler, like many artists, went through musical periods in his painting career.

In the 1860's he started working on what he called "Harmonies", then experimented with "Nocturnes" in the early 70s and eventually moved on to "Symphonies".

Two such works, 'Harmony in Pink and Grey: Portrait of Lady Meux', and 'Symphony in Flesh Colour and Pink: Portrait of Mrs France'  hang as bookends in The Frick Collection.

Also in New York, we can see works by Marc Chagall. His whimsical style came partially from years of creating sets and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

He designed ballet productions in New York for Leonide Massine and operas in NYC and Paris. His love for music in all forms manifests in two large murals framing the Metropolitan Opera (Lincoln Center Plaza, Broadway at 64th St.): The Triumph of Music and The Source of Music. 

Contemporary Examples

At the Zimmer Stewart Gallery we work with two artists whose work is influenced by the music they listen to their studios. Each with their own language, structures to represent the different musical styles they hear.

The first is Penzance artist, Anthony Frost. He listens to current alternative rock/punk music - loud and often discordant, with vocals that are more like poetry vocalisations than singing. Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and The Fall are key bands, but others are included too. Anthony Frost titles his works after song titles and sees works in an exhibition as tracks on an album.

The works are abstract expressionist and if you have heard the music, you can also see how the works evoke the sounds. See "Blue Jeans and Moonbeams", mixed media on canvas above after the 9th album by Captain Beefheart released in 1974.

The second artist is Spanish abstract expressionist, Felix Anaut. For some years now he has been developing his own "Visual Music" inspired by the Baroque music he listens to in the studio. Like Kandisnky his works have titles such as "Nocturne" and "Harmony" (see Anaut's 'Blue Line Chord'). 

These abstractions have led to recent exhibitions in London, and "The Zaragoza Symphony", a large scale public exhibition in homage to his birth city, and which included a musical symphony inspired from Anaut's work, composed by the Spanish composer Gonzalo Alonso, with an aria (words written by Anaut) sung by the international soprano, Marta Almajano.

In 2010 Zimmer Stewart Gallery presented "A prelude for a London Symphony", the first exhibition of Felix Anaut's Visual Music paintings in London.

Over the last couple of years, in parallel to his painting, Felix Anaut has also been developing his work with sculptural ceramics, painting very large scale one off pieces. For this he collaborates with Ceramicas Abio, in Huesca, Northern Spain. In 2015 at the Arundel Festival at Zimmer Stewart Gallery, he will launch ceramic ‘editions’ - large chargers in small editions featuring his Visual Music artwork.

In August 2015, coinciding with the annual Arundel Arts Festival, visitors to our gallery in Arundel will be able to see 'Festival Music' by Felix Anaut an exhibition of new works, including both large and small Visual Music paintings and ceramics.

At the opening of the exhibition Richard Mackenize in conjunction with the Hanover Band, played a selection of baroque music on the Lute.

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