If music be the food of love, play on Give me excess of it.

(William Shakespeare)

It is generally accepted that music is, indeed, the food of love, and possibly the food of art, too. It is also largely agreed that music and visual arts are strongly related through the traditional concept of mimesis (imitation, similarity).

"Music is no more the art of combining sounds to please the ear than painting is the art of combining colours to please the eye." Wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his Essay.

People who can hear colour, or taste melodies, or feel the spatial relationship of numbers are described as synesthetes. I think of them as poets, transcribing emotions into words; or painters, setting sounds and feelings onto canvas, or composers, who make us hear the colour and movement they see. Synaesthesia is a human – and if not general, at least widely experienced – perceptual phenomenon: stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to experiencing in another sensory or cognitive pathway.

Painting, architecture, poetry and music enjoy an intimate relationship with each other. Harmony, rhythm, colour and line have emotional value beyond the reality they represent. Accordingly, a painting can be described in words, or musical phrases, a piece of music transcribed on canvas, and so on. The reinterpretation of a work of art into another form creates a more vivid expression, deepens the emotion experienced.

Music is, and has always been, a fundamental constituent of human life. In Greek mythology, music and instruments are of divine origins, and the art of music is a gift from the gods. One can hardly disagree.

Biblical culture would have been filled with music; the psalms are the poetry most set to music in Western civilisation. David is often seen playing the harp in paintings and mosaics. Throughout the centuries, art everywhere featured musical instruments, performance, musical symbols and allegories.

Music and painting often followed parallel paths in their development. More significantly, during Renaissance the classical triangle became the predominant composition on canvas, just as the tonic triad centred the musical composition. Musical instruments were painted as props to illustrate wealth and refine taste, or being played by men, women and angels, with or without an audience. Lute and viola da gamba seem favourites, but also flute, clavichord and bagpipe. In Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1490) vision of hell, there is a music corner comprising of a harp, a lute and a book of sheet music. More music is tattooed on the naked backside of one of the sinners.

From the salons of the aristocracy to the open-air concerts and the harvest festivals, music was a universal form of entertainment; paintings and engravings document this aspect of social life with varying degrees of objectivity (Goya, Rembrandt, Renoir, Velásquez).

The word ‘Impressionism’ is usually connected to painting, in particular to Monet and the 1874 salon. It started as a derogatory term and it was used as such to describe the first impressionist musical composition: Debussy’s Printemps. The impressionist theories on the representation of light were seamlessly applied to music; with Fauré and Ravel, Degas and Manet, art and music forged a new, even stronger bond.

Modern rhythms

From then on, painters became more interested in using rhythm, tones and structures in their work. Like music, paintings began to convey aesthetic messages without the use of representational signifiers. Visual arts got closer to the goal of obliterating the distinction between matter and form.

When James McNeill Whistler painted a portrait of his mother as an Arrangement in Grey and Black (1871), he was accused of reducing a portrait (a clear signifier of a real subject) to an arrangement of basic formal elements. Whistler’s flat, abstract Nocturnes, shocked Victorian viewers even more and changed the way contemporary painters and art lovers related to art. The Nocturnes displayed more affinity with Chopin’s piano compositions than with the visual depiction of a dark night.

Around the turn of the 20th century, musical theories of composition and expression were adopted as a means to the advancement of visual arts.

“All art constantly aspires to the condition of music” is Walter Pater often quoted aphorism; and apparently many modern painters aspired to be musicians. According to Pater, the difference lies in the fact that painting is mimetic, while music is not. This argument is no longer valid when analysing abstract art. Painters abandoned the notion of a subject in favour of pure form. The aesthetic message is more important than using representational, recognisable signifiers with equivalent in the ‘real’ world.

The union between poetry and visual arts has always been significant, as is the relationship between painting and music (Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition springs to mind).

Famously Kandinsky in painting and August Endell in architecture explored the possibilities of abstract visual expression created by music. For Kandinsky, colours resonated with each other to produce chords, harmony for the soul. He felt that, in abstraction, he had uncovered a powerful parallel reality, independent of the ‘real’ world. With titles like Compositions, Improvisations, Impressions, The Yellow Sound (his theatre piece) Kandinsky’s paintings are music on canvas.

“More and more parallels between music and graphic art force themselves upon my consciousness” wrote Paul Klee in 1905, years after abandoning a promising musical career and dedicating himself to painting. Music never actually left him, as he studied the connection with visual arts in his exploration of colour and colour theory. Some titles In the Manner of Bach (1919), Harmony in Blue-Orange (1923), Polyphony (1932) refer directly to music, while others express musical concepts through tiny bright dots (counterpoint) on colour blocks background (chords).

Following Kandinsky, Malevich and Mondrian created compositions that moved away from Cubism towards the rendering of emotion through colours and lines, and the way they met on the canvas. Like in music, form and content become not just joint together in a tight embrace, but the same. Looking at their paintings, one can hear the music. And dance.

All that jazz

I like to imagine Mondrian in New York, swirling around the floor with Peggy Guggenheim at a great Gatsby party. Although apparently not a very accomplished dancer, the intoxicating rhythm of Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942) betrays a painter with music on his mind.

Matisse, who couldn’t dance either following illness, was inspired by the spontaneous, improvisational nature of the genre to produce paper cut compositions and a book titled Jazz (1947).

Modern artists now had a wealth of musical ideas to inherit, and they did listen. But came the 60s, the tables turned. The creative revolution that was Pop Art, shook the world of art and inspired every aspect of culture, including music. The synergy was magic.