Since the Renaissance, high painting and high music have been dominated by the concept of harmonious and ordered composition. Though both forms retained ideals of freshness, vitality and spontaneity, pure improvisation was effectively excluded from the Renaissance high art tradition. However, in the twentieth century there was a great upsurge of interest in improvised forms.

This is made particularly evident by the popularity of jazz music and the work of various jazz musicians and fine artists. The rejection of classical structural values can be said to reflect a widespread spiritual crisis resulting from great lack of confidence in the ordering systems of both religion and science.

Without referring to Nietzsche, Kandinsky wrote in ‘On the Spriritual in Art’
“Heaven is empty. God is dead.”

This notion had troubled the minds of nineteenth century poets especially in France and Germany. It reached the stage of open discussion in the twentieth century and was expressed through the arts. Confidence in science was also waning. Kandinsky wrote:

“In my mind, the collapse of the atom was the collapse of the whole world… Science seemed to have been annihilated. It seemed as if I saw art steadily disengaging itself from nature.” (1)

Progress had caused revolutionary changes in the concept of reality, for an alien irrational reality emerged from behind the reality of the ‘natural’ world governed by the laws of classical physics. In response to the threat of impending chaos many artists seemed to embrace elements within their own chaotic natures; the unconscious areas of their own personalities. Many became interested in improvisation because of the part played by such a process by chance and the unconscious. Some appeared to take the fascination with the unconscious to extremes. Klee wrote:
“It is the artist’s mission to penetrate as far as may be towards that secret ground where primal law feeds growth.” (2)

In this context, many artists became fascinated with jazz as a result of its improvisational qualities.

The text of ‘Jazz’ (1948) reiterates one of Matisse’s fundamental beliefs:

“that the act of creation results from a synthesis of instinct and intellect guided by discipline.” (3)

Henri Matisse 'Jazz' 1947

Fig 6.1 Henri Matisse ‘Jazz’ 1947

He favoured a combination of conscious and unconscious elements within his art. In my limited experience, improvisation within art or music contains both conscious and unconscious elements: one allows oneself to respond intuitively to stimuli (images, the music of other musicians, etc) but one usually needs an ‘anchor’ or underlying structure of some kind (subject matter of a drawing, or the rhythm of music) so that one retains the capacity to make conscious decisions in response to stimuli as well as unconscious ones. (Conscious and unconscious decisions are best used together because neither are permanently sustainable and therefore one can compensate for the other if it should ‘dry up’.) One may also make decisions about the finished piece which are part conscious and part intuitive.

Carl Jung believed that

“Only in the interply of consciousness and the unconscious can the unconscious prove its value.” (4)

Andre Breton, who was familiar with the ideas of Freud, appeared to echo this notion when he stated

“I believe that the apparent antagonism between dream and reality will be resolved in a kind of absolute reality – surreality.” (5)

He experimented with free association and automatic writing. These processes may provide access to the stream of unconscious images but neither really reconciles consciousness with unconsciousness. It is surprising that the early Surrealists showed so little interest in jazz but as there were no composers or musicians in the original group it is possible that their attention was not drawn to its improvisational possibilities. Also, Breton was apparently hostile to music describing it as “the most deeply confusing of all forms.” (6)

The poet Leiris enthused about other qualities which he perceived in jazz and described it as “an orgiastic banner to the colours of the moment” (7)and Man Ray used Django Reinhardt recordings to accompany his film ‘Emak Bakia’ in which he created cinematic rhythms and juxta-posed them with the rhythm of the music.

However it was not until the 1940s and the emergence of be-bop jazz that the Surrealists were alerted to the potential of jazz to express the unconscious. Victor Brauner executed two exalted symbolic portraits fo Thelonius Monk and, in 1946, Breton wrote an article entitled ‘Silence is Golden’ in which he compared the aim of Surrealist poetry to reveal the ‘inner word’ with the revelation of ‘inner music’ in jazz.

Victor Brauner 'Thelonius Monk' 1948

Fig 6.2 Victor Brauner ‘Thelonius Monk’ 1948

That this recognition has not been without reciprocation is suggested by the collaboration on ‘Arsenal’ by suh musicians as Cecil Taylor and Joseph Jarman.

Jean Debuffet was close to Breton and the Surrealists, although he was not actually a member of their group. He too wanted to create an art that expressed ‘our inner voices’ but he regarded painting as a more immediate and direct vehicle than language: “much closer to the cry; or to the dance”. (8)

Jean Dubuffet 'Grand Jazz Band (New Orleans)' 1944

Fig 6.3 Jean Dubuffet ‘Grand Jazz Band (New Orleans)’ 1944

He himself played jazz piano and in 1943 and 1944 produced several drawings on the subject of jazz: ‘Jazz Band (Dirty Style Blues)’, ‘Grand Jazz Band (New Orleans)’ and ‘Jazz Band (Black Chicago)’. All these titles refer to styles of jazz that involve collective improvisation. Debuffet thought of his art as a duet between himself and his medium. He also favoured jazz as an art of the people. In keeping with the ‘anti-cultural’ art he advocated, the style of these paintings is characterised by two-dimensional space, flattened forms and stick figures.

Jean Debuffet 'Jazz Band (Dirty Style Blues)' 1944

Fig 6.4 Jean Debuffet ‘Jazz Band (Dirty Style Blues)’ 1944

Certain artists in New York, whose artistic roots were in Surrealism, were also inspired by jazz. Jimmy Ernst clearly expressed the link between jazz and automatism in paintings of 1944 such as ‘Blues from Chicago’ and ‘Echo-Plasm’ (Fig. 6.5).

He began such paintings as ‘sifflage’ which involved blowing on thin oil paint until it spread in web-like patterns. He wrote at the time:
“Sounds and voices, bearing witnesses to multi-million epochs are encased within the crevices of ‘Echo-Plasm’. A given pitch will release all sounds, re-echoing history from the thunder of the falling walls of Jericho to the wail of Benny Goodman’s swing.” (9)

Like Matta’s painting, the shapes in ‘Echo-Plasm’ suggest germination of organic forms. (A comparison of many abstract paintings show that utter abstraction of imaginative art often reflects naturalistic subject matter.) For Ernst automatism and jazz reflected unconscious life force.

Seymore Lipton has called jazz “ancestral voices” and says he has been drawn to it on a “subliminal level” considering it to reflect the “deeper currents of life”. His feeling for the music inspired three wood sculptures ‘Blues Player’ (Fig. 6.6), ‘Swing Low’ and ‘Spriritual’ all executed in 1942. Lipton explained:
“A deep sympathy for primitive art affected my formal conceptions, a schematised anatomy of the partial figure. Metaphor and Surrealist preoccupations enter the imagery.”

Of one piece he says:
“I did not see the forms… in the wood before I started. All I had was a hazy mood of cured forms and sad music. Gradually the finished piece crystallised.” (10)

Direct carving was an important aspect of academic and modern sculpture during the first half of the twentieth century. The artist “discovered” the subject and the forms which emerged from the block as he or she carved.

As the 1940s progressed, certain artists and jazz musicians sought to allow the unconscious to play a far more dominant role in their improvisations than the conscious. In ‘My Painting’ Jackson Pollock revealed that he painted in a kind of trance:

“When I am in a painting I am not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about… the painting has a life of its own.
…It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”

Jackson Pollock 'White Light' 1954

Jackson Pollock ‘White Light’ 1954

Pollock’s pictures are charged with great emotional vehemence. They appear almost chaotic and can be regarded as parallel with what the alchemists called the ‘massa confusa’ or the ‘prima materia’. Thus they represent the nothing that is everything – the unconscious itself. Kagan stated that Pollock’s great innovation consisted of having created high art through pure direct improvisation and proposed that basic qualities in Pollock’s paintings from about 1947 to 1950 – improvisation, directness, elements of chance and accident – were derived from a ‘jazz aesthetic’. Mandeles pointed out that Pollock’s work of the early 1940s closely paralleled the be-bop idiom in that
“be-bop players distanced themselves from the limited chord progressions and rhythms of swing, placing greater emphasis upon solo improvisation and accelerated rhythm. At the same time they retained a repertoire of popular songs…” (12)

Just as recognisable imagery continued to nourish Pollock’s paintings, for example ‘She-wolf’ and ‘Moon Woman Cuts the Circle’ of 1941. Both Pollock’s work and be-bop jazz encompassed the
“transformation of recognisable motives”.

Both Pollock and progressive jazz musicians finally became so absorbed by process that they moved towards free improvisation.
“This improvisatory style was nurtured by Pollock’s reliance on the creative act, or rather his insistence on the pre-eminence of gesture over object”. (13)

Ornette Coleman’s recording session for the 1960 album ‘Free Jazz’ joined two quartets for thirty-eight minutes in an unrehearsed improvisation without a harmonically structured design or premeditated form. The cover of ‘Free Jazz’ carried a reproduction of Pollock’s ‘White Light (1954). (Fig. 6.8) Coleman recognised Pollock as someone
“in the same state I was in – doing what I was doing.” (14)

Ornette Coleman 'Free Jazz' 1960

Ornette Coleman ‘Free Jazz’ 1960

Whereas some artists, for example Matisse, appeared to combine unconscious and conscious creativity in a fairly balanced way, others, for example Pollock, seemed to submerge themselves in their unconscious natures to an almost frightening degree. Ernst associated jazz improvisation with biological beginnings; Brauner, Debuffet and Pollock linked it with psychological beginnings. For many artists, jazz improvisation would appear to have represented a kind of ‘primitivism’ which they themselves sought to emulate: a release from classical values; a pilgrimage to the creative source; a journey inwards and backwards into the unconscious.

1. Jaffe, A ‘Symbolism in the Visual Arts’ Jung, C (ed). Man And His Symbols. London 1964 p.306
2. Jaffe, A ibid p.307
3. Cowart, J et al Henri Matisse Cut-Outs. New York, 1977 p.45
4. Jaffe, A ibid p.297
5. Breton, A Manifestoes of Surrealism (1924-42). Michegan, 1969 p.96
6. Hadler, M ‘Jazz and the Visual Arts’, Arts Magazine. Vol. 57. June 1983. P.96
7. Hadler, M. loc. cit
8. Dubuffet, J ‘Anticultural Positions’ (1951) ‘Towards An Alternative Reality’ Glimcher, M (ed) New York, 1987 p.127
9. Hadler, M ibid. p.97
10. Tarbell, R ‘Seymore Lipton’s Carvings: A New Anthropology for Sculpture’. Arts Magazine. Vol. 54. October, 1979 p.83
11. Jaffe, A ibid p.308
12. Mandeles, C ‘Jackson Pollock and Jazz: Structural Parallels’. Arts Magazine. Vol. 56 October 1981 p.140
13. Mandeles, C loc. cit.
14. Mandeles, C loc. cit.