press release

A Musical Interlude Frances Guy, Curator of Eye-Music

The summer exhibition 'Eye-Music: Kandinsky, Klee and all that Jazz' is an exploration of the particular correspondence between visual art and music at the beginning of the 20th century. Kupka, Klee and others turned to Bach to provide a model for an abstract visual language, and Kandinsky felt an affinity between the new musical system Schönberg was developing and his own rejection of figurative art.

It's not often that you are asked to curate an exhibition of your own choice. Curators more often than not inherit projects from their predecessors and are rarely afforded the privilege of indulging their own interests. But when the opportunity arose to propose an exhibition for inclusion in the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation's Regional Museums Initiative, I was given free reign.

Since having to make a choice at 'O' Level between art or music and Latin or home economics, I've always been torn between the two disciplines (art and music, that is). On that occasion art won and, despite pleading with the school to let me take both, my musical studies remained with the Associated Board. If it were not for youth and university orchestras, my life as a musician might have ended after Grade 8 oboe but I was able to continue to enjoy music as a performer, and still do today.

On my art foundation course, I tried to visualise music in various projects, none of them successful but each enabling me to understand a little better the similarities and differences between the art forms. Perhaps the most telling experience was my attempt to develop a set design for 'The Rite of Spring', which highlighted that any motif of ritual sacrifice I could imagine fell far short of the raw expression of Stravinsky's music.

These aborted attempts to create my own visual language persuaded me to study the history of art instead. Subjects included medieval art and architecture, Gothic cathedrals being of particular appeal as the ultimate synthesis of all the art forms. A trip to the South of France introduced me to a more contemporary version in the form of Matisse's chapel at Vence. And my tastes expanded to encompass experimental theatre and film, fuelled by magical productions in my university city of Manchester where boundaries were blurred and art forms fused into energetic and exciting new wholes.

Fast-forward to 2002 and the start of my research for this exhibition. My first problem was to produce a synopsis to present to the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. I decided to focus on the early 20th century when many early forays into abstract art were stimulated by a desire to emulate music because of its ability to evoke an emotional and spiritual response unfettered by the material world. In the same period there was also a particular correspondence between the arts as each discipline underwent parallel transformations in the hands of innovators such as Kandinsky and Schönberg. Finally the arrival of jazz in Europe saw artists revelling in the energising and syncopated rhythms of this new style of music, many recognising that improvisation was a technique that could be reproduced in painting.

My choice of title, often one of the most problematic issues at the start of a project, derives from Wordsworth's poem of 1842, Airey-Force Valley. Wordsworth describes the action of a breeze on trees, that creates "A soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs/Powerful almost as vocal harmony/To stay the wanderer's steps and soothe his thoughts."

When Esmée Fairbairn awarded the Gallery a most generous grant to bring 'Eye-Music' to realisation, I started a journey that was to take me to Edinburgh, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Prague in order to track down and negotiate loans of artworks. As is peculiarly often the case, there was suddenly a rash of exhibitions on the same subject in Europe, the best being 'Sons et Lumières' at the Centre Pompidou in 2004. An exhibition of such scope and stature, which dealt not only with music but also sound in 20th century art, was obviously beyond the remit of what could be achieved at Pallant House Gallery. However I wanted to make the subject more relevant for our audience by introducing British artists, many represented in the Gallery's collection. With a few exceptions, British artists' affinity with music was mostly a post-World War II phenomenon, many being inspired by jazz such as John Tunnard and Alan Davie, both accomplished jazz musicians in their own right.

What also became important was to make a selection based on artists who were explicit in their own theories or writings about the role that music played in the development of their visual language, rather than art that has been written about in terms of musical analogy, often a resort for critics when faced with interpreting abstract art for the first time. I also wanted to show why that was so, that music could be seen as a useful analogy for explaining the sometimes incomprehensible content of non-figurative art but, likewise, that art can be a useful tool when it comes to understanding the jarring sounds and complexities of atonal music.

Through my research I came across the work of the Czech artist František Kupka (1871-1957), previously unknown to me, one of the pioneers of abstract art whose 'Amorpha, Fugue in Two Colours' was in part inspired by the music of J. S. Bach. 'Amorpha' was the first purely abstract painting to be exhibited in Paris in the Salon d'Automne of 1912, pre-empting Kandinsky's fully-fledged abstract style that culminated in 1913 and Malevich's 'Black Suprematist Square' exhibited in St Petersburg in 1915.

I also got to know the music of Charles Ives (1874-1954), the American insurance agent and exact contemporary of Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) who, quite independently of the European avant-garde, developed a radical approach to composition that incorporated popular tunes, folk music and marching songs within the symphonic tradition. This 'collage' technique was particularly admired by Eduardo Paolozzi who, in the 1970s, dedicated a series of nine screenprints to Ives named after his orchestral work 'Calcium Light Night' (c. 1906).

The fully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition investigates these and other relationships further. It contains illuminating essays by Dr. Simon Shaw-Miller and Professor Michael Tucker, both experts in the field who are not only contributing to the publication and the gallery talks programme but, together with Professor Peter Vergo, have been most generous with their time and knowledge during the progress of this project.

The accompanying programme of events is an important part of 'Eye-Music' in order to open up the subject for further exploration. As well as talks there is a series of concerts, the first to be scheduled in the Lecture Room following the Gallery's reopening. There was no shortage of interesting suggestions of performers and pieces to programme over the summer and the selection of Talkestra, Chroma and the Coull Quartet should provide a stimulating listening experience.

Another integral part of the exhibition will be a programme of archival film, curated by Ben Rivers of Cinematheque in Brighton and featuring artists who were pioneers in early abstract filmmaking such as Viking Eggeling and Len Lye. This will alternate with a programme of work by contemporary filmmakers also generated in response to music or sound.

In addition to the main exhibition, the Prints Room contains an exhibition of musical notation that features some influential scores from the history of 20th century music where the visual experience of reading the music becomes an important part of its interpretation. Scores of compositions by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Tom Phillips and others will be on display. This has been curated by Dr. Shaw-Miller on behalf of the Gallery, who has written extensively about the visual spectacle of music. Also the exhibition of Ivon Hitchens' work from the Gallery's collections has been timed to coincide with 'Eye-Music' since the artist was concerned that many of his landscapes should be regarded as "pictures painted to be 'listened' to."

Finally, Thor McIntyre-Burnie, an artist from Brighton, will be master-minding 'Orchitecture' with members of the New London Orchestra, an all-day event at the Gallery that aims to deconstruct a familiar piece of music and recreate it through audience participation. This will also form part of an event where filmmaker Bob Jaroc will work with the audio material produced from this event to reinvent it as a visual experience. Thor will also transform the Gallery's lift into a colour-organ for the duration of the exhibition.

It promises to be a summer of interesting sensory experiences at Pallant House Gallery, following on most aptly from an exhibition exploring the links between visual art and poetry. Preparing 'Eye-Music' has been a wonderful opportunity to research a subject close to my heart and, as you can probably tell from this article, it has been more than an academic exercise.

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Kurator: Frances Guy

mit Alan Davie, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Frantisek Kupka, Piet Mondrian, Eduardo Paolozzi, Arnold Schönberg ...