The influence of jazz upon the visual arts is only one aspect of the broad relationship between music and the visual arts. In particular, as music is the most abstract of the arts, many visual artists, engaged in the pursuit of abstraction within their own work, have examined its qualities.

In the nineteenth century, Baudelaire specifically associated elements within music and the visual arts when he stated: “sounds assume a colour and colours contain music”. The profound impact on the arts of his theory of correspondence is well known.

In February 1912, Apollinaire wrote “We are moving towards an eminently new art, an art which will be, in respect to painting as it has been regarded up till now, what music is to literature.” (1)

He was referring obliquely to Kandinsky’s ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’, the key book of abstract art which had been published in German a month earlier. (Apollinaire read German perfectly.)

Kandinsky was influenced greatly by the philosophies of Schoppenhauer whose book ‘The World as Will and Representation’ was published in 1818.

Schoppenhauer considered music the ‘highest’ of the arts and the best medium with which to express metaphysical truth. He argued that music was not bound by function, the way painting was by its function of representation for example. Nor was music bound to material things as painting is to paint and canvas. He also thought that paintings which depicted objects with excessive fidelity to nature were likely to reinforce man’s ‘Will’-ful manner of viewing the world, rather than elevating him to the realm of ‘Will’-less contemplation.

Kandinsky wrote:

“For the creative artist who wants to – and must – express his ‘inner world’ the imitation of the elements of nature… cannot be an objective in itself. His ambition is to conquer the same freedom as is usually attained by music… Thus it may be understood why the artist turns his eyes to this art and endeavours to apply similar procedures to his own. Hence the contemporary quest in painting for rhythm, for mathematical, abstract construction, and also for the value attributed today to the seriation of coloured tones and dynamism of colour.” (2)

A French artist, Francis Picabia, also evolved in the direction of abstraction, with Fauvism as a starting point, by establishing a parallel between music and painting. Picabia visited New York in 1913, at which time his work was causing controversy in The Armory Show, along with the work of many other European artists.

There he executed a series of gouaches on themes of New York, Harlem, jazz and dance.

Picabia Negro Song 1 1913

Fig 5.1 Picabia ‘Negro Song 1′ 1913

One could relate the notion of correspondence to Picabia’s assertion that he experienced purple as “the inevitable and dominant hue” when he listened to a black singer in Harlem. This experience led him to produce two paintings called ‘Chanson Negre’.

Picabia Negro Song 2 1913

Fig 5.2 Picabia ‘Negro Song 2′ 1913

Also at this time, an American avant-garde artist called Arthur Dove was producing abstract works into which he incorporated specific allusions to music. His particular interest was ‘synaesthesia’ which means ‘the subjective interaction of sensory perceptions’. In 1927, his long-standing interest in musical analogy and his enthusiasm for contemporary American popular music came together as a series of works inspired by jazz.

“Dove was so interested in relating line to music that he worked out his own method of recording musical sound in a long vertical form similar to ticker-tape. This was a score for written music… not a painted interpretation of it. The linear paintings were related to these musical transcriptions and had linear patterns similar to Kandinsky.” (3)

Dove asserted that line in painting could attain an improvisational autonomy closely akin to musical melody. He executed a painting and a collage inspired and named after Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, an arranged work commissioned by Paul Whiteman in a much publicised attempt to ‘elevate’ jazz to concert hall status. Dove was clearly interested by the association of music with colour in the title of the piece.

Dove Rhapsody In Blue 1927

Fig 5.3 Arthur Dove ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ 1927

In stark contrast with Dove, Romare Bearden grew up in Harlem during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Fats Waller and Duke Ellington were among his first collectors and at one point he composed music, including a hit song for Dizzie Gillespie and Billy Eckstein, in order to make money. During the 1930s, he recognised the expressive potential of the theme of black life in America. He also studied composition and later acknowledged the influence of the formal characteristics of jazz on his painting.

Apparently he,
“developed his style of working with the separations between colours and the different values of a given colour by studying the expressive use of interval in the piano style of Earl Hines”.

In 1946, he exhibited alongside such contemporaries as Carl Holty, Byron Crowne, Adolphe Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell in the show at the Koots Gallery entitled ‘Homage To Jazz’ though jazz did not emerge as an enduring theme for the other participants. Bearden however continued to draw upon jazz, producing in particular a series of collages called ‘Of The Blues’ in 1974 and a further series called ‘Jazz’ in 1980.

Jazz was also an enduring theme for Bearden’s contemporary Stuart Davis. In 1913, The Armory Show had a profound effect upon Davis as it did upon many native American painters:
“Here indeed was the vindication of the anti-academy position of the Henri school, with developments in undreamed of directions”.
“In Gaughin, van Gogh and Matisse… I sensed an objective order which was lacking in my own work and which was present here without relation to any particular subject matter. It gave me the same excitement I got from the numerical precision of the Negro piano players in the Newark saloons.”

Here Davis refers to his discovery of abstract compositional structure existing within painting and immediately relates it to the underlying mathematical elements within musical structure, the familiarity with which allows a jazz musician to improvise comfortably without written music or indeed any knowledge of musical notation whatsoever.

In 1922, Davis wrote that in a painting an element will dominate and
“make lack of order seem orderly in other elements, just as in a jazz band the powerful rhythm holds together the most unrelated excursions of the individual pieces.” (6)

Stuart Davis 'Swing Landscape' 1938

Stuart Davis ‘Swing Landscape’ 1938

He referred elsewhere to the corresponding abstraction and mood of music, but basically it was the structure of jazz that interested him and that finds most reflection in his work.

A European artist of immense influence who was obsessed by structure, namely Mondrian, also became very interested in jazz, particularly during the last years of his life which he spent in America. In 1941, his friend Sidney Janis wrote:

“In reply to my comment that he had made changes in his first New York picture since I had previously seen it, he said, ‘Yes, now it has more boogie woogie’.” (7)

A phonograph was one of the few accessories Mondrian acquired for his New York studio and he often spent time at such well known jazz clubs as Café Society Downtown where he heard great boogie woogie pianists such as Al Ammons and Mead ‘Lux’ Lewis.

Piet Mondrian 'New York 1' 1942

Piet Mondrian ‘New York 1′ 1942

Boogie Woogie originated in Chicago but was very popular in New York in the early 1940s and would have struck Mondrian as being expressive of the rhythm of life there.
‘New York City 1’ completed in 1942, was based upon a rectilinear grid derived from Mondrian’s earlier compositions. The grid is also reminiscent of the city’s street system, however, and the slight ‘flicker’ caused by colour juxtapositions at intersections imparts to the viewer a sensation of irregular rhythm which can be compared to the syncopation of jazz.

Piet Mondrian 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' 1942

Piet Mondrian ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ 1942

Perhaps some inspiration for ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ could be traced to the neon signs of Broadway. Robert Welsh suggests, however, that Mondrian’s main aim was to create a pictorial structure analogous to musical form.

The most obvious departure from ‘New York City 1’ is the appearance of colour blocks lying over the yellow grid or placed independently on the white background in various combinations.

“Because of the greater variety of colour and structural oppositions, the sense of movement is both con piu tempo and yet less fluid, – that is to say, more syncopated than in New York City 1.” (8)

Welsh also notes with reference to photographs of the work in progress that Mondrian’s experiments with these new stylistic developments seem to bring and improvised quality to his working procedure.

I, personally, see a strong parallel between Mondrian’s improvising with coloured blocks over a predetermined grid and a boogie woogie pianist’s improvising with musical notes over the predetermined ‘eight to the bar’ rhythm of a twelve bar blues structure.

‘Victory Boogie Woogie’ was also begun with a regular grid as its basis. However, Mondrian’s unfinished painting and a related drawing reveal a tendency towards
“dismemberment of the grid in favour of freer juxtapositions of line and colour planes”. (9)

Piet Mondrian 'Victory Boogie Woogie' 1943-44

Piet Mondrian ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’ 1943-44

White no longer dominated and had been used as if it were a colour, incorporated into a pattern of equal-sized squares or occasionally superimposed upon larger areas of other hues. These tendencies towards destruction of the grid and adoption of all-over colour and pattern went some way to anticipate the direction which Jackson Pollock’s work took in the late 1940s.

Mondrian’s late paintings reflected the structural nature of boogie woogie which was popular and current in the early 1940s. Pollock’s work reflected the concerns of the progressive be-bop movement which emerged during the same decade and culminated in such albums as Ornette Coleman’s ‘Free Jazz’ of 1960.

Be-bop musicians pushed back the limitations of structure as far as they could in favour of free improvisation. Similarly Pollock rejected the basic Renaissance principles of order and proportion and

“was the first to go beyond grid composition with his convincing demonstration that high, ambitious painting, even heroic, monumental painting, could be produced by straight improvisation.” (10)

Jackson Pollock 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)' 1950

Jackson Pollock ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’ 1950

Kagan proposes that basic qualities in Pollock’s paintings from 1947 to 1950 derived from a ‘jazz aesthetic’, namely improvisation, directness and elements of chance.

Mandeles refers to the homogenous form of Pollock’s paintings in the late 1940s and early 1950s and suggests that this bears a strong resemblance to the forms of compositions by many contemporary jazz players, for example David Murry of the World Saxophone Quartet:

“Murray activates silence, providing it with a force of its own: the tacits, infused with rhythmic tension, make the listener acutely aware of the musical potentialities of silence itself. Indeed the alternating pattern of tones and rests conveys an almost graphic sense of homogeneity, of both texture and density.” (11)

Thus silence becomes sound (just as white became a colour in Mondrian’s ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’) and ‘background’ ceases to exist. Similarly Michael Fried suggests that Pollock’s all-over paintings do not
“give rise to positive and negative areas: we are not made to feel that one part of the canvas demands to be read as figure, whether abstract or representation, against another part of the canvas read as ground”. (12)

Here, again, ‘background’ ceases to be.

In this chapter, I have traced the way in which the relationship between jazz and the visual arts has developed as a facet of the relationship between music and visual abstraction by referring to the work of abstract artists who appear to have been directly influenced by jazz music.

Some artists have created abstract art while listening and responding to jazz music. Others have studied the specific structure of certain types of jazz and have applied similar structural principles to their own work. A further quality of jazz which has fascinated artists is its improvisational nature.

As the emphasis upon improvisation increased within the work of certain artists and musicians, compositional structure was challenged and became fragmented, more complex and harder to define. This lent an organic quality to some work which reflected the intuitive organic nature of improvisation itself.

I will examine the relationship between jazz improvisation and visual improvisation in a further chapter. Here it is sufficient to conclude that various abstract artists have openly acknowledged the influence of the mood and structure of jazz music upon their work. Meanwhile, particularly towards the mid-twentieth century, the work of jazz musicians and fine artists influenced by jazz revealed a concern for process over product which was widely echoed throughout the arts.

1. Borras, M L Picabia E T London, 1985 p.90
2. Borras, M L loc. cit.
3. Zilczer, J ‘Synaesthesia and Popular Culture. Arthur Dove, George Gershwin and the Rhapsody in Blue.’ Art Journal Vol. 44 Winter 1984 p.363
4. Hadler, M ‘Jazz and the Visual Arts’ Arts Magazine Vol. 57 June 1983 p.98
5. Johnson Sweeney, J ‘Stuart Davis’ New York 1945 in Three American Modernist Painters: Weber, Sterne, Davis’ New York, 1965
6. Hadler, M ibid p.99
7. Welsh, R ‘Landscape Into Music’ Arts Magazine Vol. 40 February 1966 p.33
8. Welsh, R ibid p.37
9. Welsh, R loc. cit.
10. Kagan, A ‘Improvisations: Notes on Jackson Pollock and the Black Contribution to American High Culture.’ Arts Magazine Vol. 53 March 1979 p.97
11. Mandeles, C ‘Jackson Pollock and Jazz: Structural Parallels’ Arts Magazine Vol. 56 October 1987 p.139
12. Fried, M Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella. New York, 1965 p.14