‘The sound of colours is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with base notes or dark lake with treble…generally speaking, colour directly influences the soul. Colour 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.’
This quotation is one of my favourite artist quotes of all time, and one that lead me to start Painting Music!
It comes from Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning The Spiritual in Art a pioneering work that is one of the most important documents in the history of modern art.
In this blog post, let’s dive into the fascinating relationship between art and music in the work of Kandinsky with an analysis of his incredible ‘Fugue’ painting from 1914.
Who was Wassily Kandinsky?
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), was one of the founding fathers of Abstract Art.
Kandinsky grew up in the Russian city of Odessa where he enjoyed music and learned to play the piano and the cello. As we will explore in this post, both music and colours would have a huge impact on Kandinsky in his art later in life.
Some of Kandinsky’s earliest paintings were landscapes that were heavily influenced by the Impressionist movement as well as Pointillism and Fauvism.
The most famous of his early works is Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) which he painted in 1903.
Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), 1903
Oil on cardboard
21.7 × 25.6″ (55.0 × 65.0 cm)
Location: Zurich. The private collection
From 1909 Kandinsky experimented with the idea that painting didn’t need a particular subject, and that shapes and colours alone could be art. This method became to be Abstract Art.
In Concerning The Spiritual in Art published in 1912, this work explains Kandinsky’s own theory of painting and the ideas that were influencing many other modern artists of the period.
In this work, you can clearly understand how Kandinsky felt that he could express feelings and music through colours and shapes in his paintings.
For example, Kandinsky believed that yellow had ‘the crisp sound of a brass trumpet’ and that certain colours placed together could harmonise like chords on a piano.
In terms of shapes, Kandinsky was most interested in the circle, triangle, and the square. Kandinsky thought the triangle would cause ‘aggressive feelings’, the square ‘calm feelings’, and the circle ‘spiritual feelings’.
Along with Kandinsky’s own revolutionary paintings, Concerning The Spiritual in Art had a huge impact on the development of modern art.
The twentieth century gave rise to a group of artists who used a visual language of form, colour and line to create a composition, which may exist with a degree of independence from visual references in the world.
Wassily Kandinsky is credited with being the father of abstract art and was deeply influenced by music. Kandinsky’s infatuation with music took many guises.
Let’s look at how music comes to life in Fuga:
Music in Kandinsky’s Art: An Analysis of Fuga
In Fuga (Fugue) from 1914, Kandinsky uses a musical term for the title of the painting.
What is a Fugue?
Firstly, let’s look at what a Fugue is.
I found this wonderful video on Youtube to explain what the musical definition of a Fugue is:
In summary, in music, a Fugue is a contrapuntal compositional technique that involves two or more voices, built on a subject (theme) that is introduced at the beginning in imitation (repetition at different pitches) and recurs frequently in the course of the composition.
The ‘Fugue’ originated from Latin, also fuga, which is itself related to both fugere (“to flee”) and fugare (“to chase”).
Here’s a Fugue you might already know. Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by J.S Bach (one of the most famous composers from the Baroque period).
So now we understand the definition of what a Fugue is, let us look at Kandinsky’s Fuga painting with this knowledge and understanding.
Kandinsky’s Fuga Painting Analysis
If we think of a Fugue in terms of a subject which is taken up by a single instrument, or a voice, and is then complemented and extended by other instruments or voices, we begin to understand how this also works in terms of colour in Fuga.
Let’s work with the idea of a musical Fugue, that begins with the exposition of its subject sounding in one of the voices alone in the tonic key.
The subject of the Fugue in Kandinsky’s painting is yellow, the most prominent colour which appears in many guises with variations of opacity, translucence, brightness, dullness, saturation and intensity. This reflects the numerous ways the subject is modified throughout the fugue.
Now let’s look again, and we can see that the subject is followed by an answer, transposed to a closely
In this painting yellow ‘transposes’ to the dominant key, blue, the second most prominent colour. The colour blue is closely related to yellow through it being a primary colour. This mirrors that the tonic and dominant keys are related in music.
Looking again at Fuga we can see that the answer blue appears in many manifestations like yellow; from a cool greenish tint through to the warmer blues of cobalt and ultramarine. Again, this reflects the ways it is modified throughout.
Now let’s move onto the countersubjects of the painting from the musical understanding.
Countersubjects serve as counterpoint to subjects (or answers) sounding simultaneously in a different voice.
In Kandinsky’s Fuga, these countersubjects can be seen as the greens, reds, violets, adding extra definition with touches of black and white, which weave their way between the subject and answer, yellow and blue, like counterpoint would in a piece of music.
From an analysis of the colours let’s move onto the shapes found in Fuga, as this also reflects the musical concept of a fugue.
For example, the overlapping, repeated shapes reflect the modification of the subject through inversion, augmentation and diminution. The use of lines we can see crossing over one another, particularly in the centre, reflect many ideas leading to polyphony.
So it seems that here, Kandinsky uses colours and shapes to reflect the manner in which a musician would use a change of key, or different chords in a passage of music.
To appreciate this all it would seem that time is a primary concern in this painting.
Kandinsky would approve of this leisurely approach since he wrote, ‘music has at its disposal the duration of time, while painting can present to the spectator the whole content of its message at one moment.’
In conclusion, we can so clearly see in Fuga how Kandinsky’s belief that the viewer is affected by colour and its connection with music.
This includes Kandinsky’s aim of using a harmonious arrangement of colours and forms to arouse emotions and bring out the ‘inner sound’ of his paintings, rather than simply ‘painting music’.
In fact, I believe Kandinsky used music as a catalyst with which to fulfil his commitment to abstraction.
What do you think of Kandinsky’s Fuga painting? Can you follow the structure of a musical fugue into this painting? Do you think the way Kandinsky choses the colours on his palette, is similar to the same way a composer uses the instruments of the orchestra in a composition?
Painting Music Yourself: Create your own Fuga
Let’s bring everything we have learned in this post and bring it to life through a ‘sound of colours’ just like Kandinsky.
Exercise: Listen to the above Fugue example by Bach. On a big sheet of paper or canvas take paints and other colours to bring the music to life. Try to listen for all the different elements of the fugue and take that into your painting.
Bibliography and recommended reading:
Dabrowski, Compositions, the Museum of Modern Art