PURE POINTS, PURE MUSIC IN KANDINSKY?
In this paper I’ll examine the curious bridge which Wassily Kandinsky had tried to
build between visual art and music, especially in his book Point and Line to Plane (Punkt und Linie zu Fläche) from the year 1926. I’ll concentrate on Kandinsky’s task to describe music with points – the effort which was as utopic as it was “supernatural”. From the start he seemed to forget that already typical score included same kind of points – in a staff.
The relationship he illustrates between music and visual units is far from a self-evident or a straight connection. He thinks that there might be a kind of straightforward way to visualize music and that he can describe it visually better than a typical (visual) score does (Point and Line…) Interestingly enough he used to speak of “the material notes” of Wagner and preferred the “immaterial notes” in Debussy’s music (Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1912). From the point of view of our day he does not recognize or acknowledge the sign function of a visual score which describes music as visually as his points do. Kandinsky really thought that his points are more abstract because they are simpler and have no conventional connection to a typical score. In this way Kandinsky writes a kind of competing visual score without making this parallelism conscious.
So, he took as his starting point the score of the Beethoven’s Fifth symphony and wanted to purify the representation of music by representing musical sounds as dots in different spatial level. He didn’t sense or recognize the Beethoven’s score to be as visual a system as his own musical points were. He must have thought that his dots could be more visually present than the notation of Beethoven, more present as a self-sufficient work of art which could purify the notation and make that compete with the sounds of music by representing music with pure, separate and free points.
Actually Kandinsky has drawn the basic idea of the score a new, only a bit freer. However, his dots do not describe music better than the exact score. Kandinsky’s dots are no more visual than Beethoven’s visual notation – which in fact is more abstract than Kandinsky’s innocent dots which tried to search for the expressionist “innere Klang”.
Kandinsky had an idea of a pure visuality which could “artify” the score and make it abstract and in that way come closer to music. When Kandinsky thought that there is a fundamental difference between these two graphic representations, he couldn’t see that the score itself was more abstract and especially more accurate to represent music than his points.
Kandinsky’s idea behind the dots was of course bold. But there was an interesting danger to mix the wood for the trees, signs for the dots. And it happened: In the first English translation of the book Point and Line on Plane from the year 1947 (translated by H. Dearstyne and H. Rebay), Kandinsky’s word “Dasselbe” was translated as “music”: “The above music translated into points.” This is an error in category; and it really is typical of the age: the signs of the visual score present itself as “music”. Looking for cut-and-dried analogy led easily to neglect the sign function of a score and helped to rush and catch the easiest reductive phantasy.
When the Complete Writings of Kandinsky came out in 1982, translator had noticed the heavy categorical mistake and made a correction: They replaced “above music” with the word “the same”, “Dasselbe…”
Kandinsky and his contemporaries wanted to see the music-painting -analogy as transparent – without noticing the mediator: the long ekphrasis-tradition which has used verbal criticism to unite these two art-forms. There was a utopic tendency to hasten towards the complete unity of these two art forms.
In the art of painting colour became a key concept after the creation of the modern system of the arts. In this new situation the path was open to the influence of scientific colour theories. And finally the idea of colour vibrations was the synesthetic machine which wanted to unite music and painting, to create this happy synthetic utopia, without tears.
The idea of the modern unity of all arts was created in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, at that time people really thought that music was the highest condition of all the arts and the model for the ideal structure for the painting – that which Kandinsky called a Compositional painting.