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Creative Life News Blog

More Music-Art Connections

Following right on the heels of the previous issue of Creative Life News, here are some delicious tidbits about inter-connections of music and visual arts and performers.

Joni Mitchell's self portrait. cover of Turbulent Indigo album

Art Begets Art

Why do so many renowned musicians paint and vice-versa? Nowadays we hear and see more about what once may have been more private cross-overs among artists in the different art forms. But it's hardly a new phenomenon. Whether the genre is literary, visual, or musical, art has always begotten more art. That's one of its wonders: creativity sparks more, and sometimes unexpected creativity. It crosses boundaries and given categories.

The visual arts are the earliest and most innovative invention known to the human race (see The Greatest Innovation in History here). Scientists consider the earliest known visual markings and "art" on caves and rocks to be evidence for the origins of symbolic development in humans -- a huge brain shift permitting language and related forms of intelligent development. Music must have been present too, though it left few traces in these earliest times. Art not only begets art but also may have fostered developments in other forms of creative thinking and problem solving.

The "Uber-Art" Idea

Given that one form of art sparks other forms, it's silly to argue for any hierarchical order among the different genres. Still, music holds a central spot in work written about the relationships among the arts. Oft-quoted is the comment by influential 19th C English writer-critic, Walter Pater, that "all art aspires to the condition of music." Music conveys its message without words or visual representational symbols and defines itself as itself, via notes and tonalities produced. In contrast, form and content are separate considerations in other art forms -- at least before the 20th C. Pater pointed out that visual art was mimetic, aiming to copy or represent subject matter (typically external reality) by manipulating very different materials (canvas, paint, brushes, sculpting).

With the 20th century's move to non-representational and abstraction, visual art was freed from mimetic ties. Perhaps more like music, the division of form and content in visual art was lessened or erased. Paintings became more about what was in them (paint quality, colour, shapes, placements, etc.) than about references to anything outside the work itself. Perhaps also like music, it's worth stating that all art is about something, conveys a message, even if the content is abstract, emotional, and nonliteral.

There's intrigue in what I'll call the "uber-art idea" that different types of artistic expression, like visual art and music, may spring from a common source. Many artists were and are captured by this lofty idea. Whether or not we agree with it and staying closer to the ground, it's notable how many formidable talents have inter-related music and visual art.

Although art and music use very different instruments and procedures (paint marks versus notes), we in the western world tend to use analogous terms for factors inherent to both visual art and music: terms like composition key, texture, tonal values, harmony, rhythm, sharpness, etc. Even our basic "chromatic scale" is based on 12 notes in music and 12 hues in painting.

Musicians with Paint and Artists with Music

At least as early in Western history as Pythagoras in Ancient Greece, we've entertained the possibility that some formal elements or principles may underly both music and visual art. Pythagoras, who studied both in ancient times and proposed shared structural links between these arts, has been followed by many others with similar (if less mathematically articulated) views. Many artists, including those inclined to have no theories whatsoever, have linked several forms of art in their work practice. Some selected examples follow .

Felix Mendelssohn

was a child musical prodigy who showed interest and skill as a painter from an early age. He created many drawings and paintings during his rather brief lifetime. Living at a time when displaying his artwork on the strength of his early established musical renown would have been unthinkable, his painting abilities are still evident in his surviving art works Here is one of his delicate and carefully observed works depicting Lake Lucerne.

James McNeill Whistler

was strongly influenced by music in his painting. He deliberately titled artworks using musical terms like "symphony " or "harmony" in order to emphasize the compositional and tonal qualities and to de-emphasize the narrative content. His series of "Nocturne" paintings (one shown from 1874) relate more to Chopin's musical compositions of the same name than to any external landscape. Whistler used musical terms to title a number of paintings, with nocturnes reflecting a "dreamy, pensive, mood."

Vincent Van Gogh

was influenced by music from an early age. He believed music to be the ultimate form of artistic expression. By emulating music, he thought painting could impart deep and emotional moments of truth. He described this painting, as "a symphony in blue and yellow."

Paul Klee

was a gifted musician, who studied at the Stuttgart Conservatory. His knowledge of music animates virtually all his major work. He made direct reference to music in titles of his paintings, as did other artists. But Klee, with his musician's training, sought to do more than make paintings that were musically inspired. He attempted to construct visual artworks musically, using visual analogues to music's structural forms. He referred to his paints as a "keyboard of colours." In his painting Polyphony (1932, a tribute to his love for the polyphonic music of J.S.Bach), Klee explored musical texture using tonal blocks, with the background colour simulating the base chords of a musical composition and, superimposed on the surface, tiny dots of different luminous hues acting as counterpoint.

Henri Matisse

was inspired by music, reportedly played the violin daily, and used music to evoke movement, rhythm, rest, and different moods in his artwork. Like other artists, he applied musical terms, such as vibrato ", " chord " or " orchestration " to painting. Musical themes and instruments appear repeatedly in his paintings, including those of his family all playing musical instruments, and an art exhibition in his later life was specifically titled "Jazz."

Marc Chagall

transposed his love of many kinds of music, from klezmer to classical and jazz, into visual artworks for opera and musical stage across continents. Music was a constant source of inspiration, and a theme for many of his famous works for the Paris Opera and New York Opera. Chagall portrayed folk ensembles and formal orchestras as well as musical figures and images in much of his work. Familiar elements in his musical iconography include floating violins and cellos, human and animal fiddlers, Orpheus' lyre, King David's harp, and trumpeting angels.

George Gershwin

could really swing the paint brush too! His painterly technique was skillful and expressive. Below is a photo of Gershwin with a portrait he painted of his friend, Arnold Schoenberg and his self-portrait (1936) beside it. Gershwin was also one of the foremost collectors of modern art in his day.

Arnold Schoenberg

was an avant-garde music composer and beacon to subsequent musicians, like John Cage, who would push music into new forms of expression. Friends with both Wassily Kandinsky, the artist, and George Gershwin, the musician, Schoenberg shared his interests in both music and painting with both men. As a painter, Schoenberg remained fairly unschooled, his interest being personal: to use painting as a means of expressing his subconscious. His painting, "The Red Gaze" (1910) shows a rather fierce and haunted self(?)-portrait.

Miles Davis,

the highly inventive composer and jazz musician, was also a painter in a comparable style of Abstract-Expressionism. Like others mentioned in this column, music and art were intimately connected in Davis's creative output.

John Lennon

was a visual artist before publishing his first song. He attended the well-regarded Liverpool Art Academy and stated that art was his first love. His preference was for creating quickly expressive line drawings of his daily life. A collection of his drawings is held by New York's Museum of Modern Art. Below are two of Lennon's characteristically quick and playful drawings. (Yoko Ono had established herself as an avant-garde visual and performance artist before meeting John.)

David Bowie,

like a few other rockers of his generation, had attended art school before turning to a career in music. He maintained his interest in art throughout his life, was an avid and notably well-informed art collector and appreciated art history while remaining in touch with contemporary movements. In his own words: "Art was, seriously, the only thing I'd ever wanted to own. It has always been for me a stable nourishment. I use it." (NYTimes, 1998). HIs own paintings (created for himself) tend to be emotionally expressive, often bit dark and moody. Here's one of his paintings from 1977 of a child in Berlin.

Tony Bennett

is another admired musician with visual art accomplishments. He attended art school in New York in his youth and continued his keen interests in visual art during his extensive musical career. He has been recognized as an accomplished painter. Below is his 1998 painting of Central Park, donated to the Smithsonian.

Joni Mitchell

has described herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance.” Many of her music album covers are from her own artwork, with her various self-portraits being favoured across time (see painting at top of this issue.) A talented and prolific painter, Mitchell has produced an impressive range of works of varied style and content. Shown below is her large painting "Dog Eat Dog" (1985), an abstract composition seen from a distance but with many canine figures visible at closer view.


This overview has necessarily been selective and brief. But sufficient, I hope, to show how effectively music and visual arts can and do interact in lively, productive, and sometimes meaningful ways.

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