THE CONNECTIONS BETWEEN visual art and sonic art as creative expressions have long sparked ambitious theories. Listen to an artist even describe the act of laying down an ink line, and the sense of it can sound like the act of playing a musical line.
A friend of mine, Economist and Baltimore Sun political cartoonist Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher, even draws a clear parallel, telling Johns Hopkins researcher (and accomplished jazz saxophonist) Charles Limb that when he draws caricatures, he feels “like a jazz pianist, riffing on a theme.” In his studies on creativity, Limb is fascinated by “the brain on improvisation” — how musicians and graphic artists function when practicing their talent.
Imagine if he could have studied Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky, as an Expressionist painter, is considered a father of abstract art. But that description barely scratches the canvas surface of his restlessly creative brain, as his studies in multiple disciplines — including music and spirituality — fueled his passion for redrawing the lines of the possible and the known.
Kandinsky was born on this day 148 years ago in Moscow, to a musical family, and learned to play the piano and cello. He would study law and economics, even lecturing at the Moscow Faculty of Law, but as he approached age 30, the twin fires of music and visual art stoked his imagination and sent him lighting off to Munich to study art. One of those creative sparks was seeing a Moscow performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”; the other was viewing a touring exhibition of French Impressionists, at which he was thunderstruck by Monet’s “Haystacks at Giverny.” Kandinsky would recollect: “It was from the catalog I learned this was a haystack. I was upset I had not recognized it. I also thought the painter had no right to paint in such an imprecise fashion. Dimly I was aware too that the object did not appear in the picture. …”
Thus, Kandinsky’s life — and art history — would be forever changed. The Impressionists may have pioneered abstraction, but Kandinsky soon hurtled to the fore. It was this creative trinity of painting, music and spirituality that set him ablaze artistically — even as, after 1903, his convention-challenging work would continually stoke controversy. “I applied streaks and blobs of colors onto the canvas with a palette knife and I made them sing with all the intensity I could,” he would recall, again invoking the language of music.
Galloping on a creativity unconstrained, Kandinsky helped start several influential avant-garde movements of the era, including Munich’s Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter). As a painter, he moved from the fluid to the geometric, naming his paintings ever musically as Compositions and Improvisations.
It is some of these mid-20s geometric works — such as “Composition VIII” and “On White II” — that seem to have most inspired the artists today at Google, which features a home-page homage Tuesday to celebrate the anniversary of Kandinsky’s birth.
Team Google Doodle clearly appreciates that to Kandinsky, music and painting were of a piece, entwined in their shared DNA as artistic expression. As a bold art theorist, Kandinsky embraced the idea of visual-to-sonic translation: saturation of color equaled volume of sound, for instance, and tone was the corollary of timbre.
Kandinsky was a citizen of Europe and yet was forced several times to seek a new home in a new land, especially amid the Nazis’ rise to power. By the mid-’30s, he was living in France, where he would die in 1944.
Today, his posthumous perch in art history secure, Kandinsky’s musically imbued pieces sell to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.
He was bold. He was influential. And he was a brilliant mind who often painted to his own drummer.
Color us beguiled still.