de-mystifying De Maistre.



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Music portrayed with a rainbow of colours

(see also Plates 1 & 2)

Listening to music can invoke a sensual response comparable, in many accounts, to the pleasure of gazing at different colours. A real, if obscure, connection is sometimes suggested between the disparate senses of sight and hearing, which are consequently presumed to operate in similar ways. While there are some indications from neurological research that the senses are not quite as separate and distinct as previously thought, there is little evidence as yet as to how they may overlap for the majority of people. Still, their connection has been a preoccupation of Western thought, reaching back at least as far as ancient Greece. The idea of linking sight and sound often sparks a search for a link between colour and music in their pure, elemental states. Even when no meaningful relationship between them can be objectively measured, colour and music are presumed to obey consistent laws, proving the universe was created to a divine plan.

The impulse to restate the colour music case periodically embroils philosophy, religion, science and the arts in the significance of metaphysics. Many such beliefs presently shelter under the broad umbrella of the New Age movement where they find common expression in a variety of colour-music codes. An admixture of colour and music can prove so attractive that this kind of confection is promoted as an article of faith, a tenet of religion. Holistic mystics insist that sound and light concoctions can evince a godhead and they hold out the promise of greater understanding and personal well-being, to be obtained by following regimes based on reductionist formulae of colour music. While some sociologists may see colour music as a minor symptom of a more general malaise, a search for spirituality in a soulless society, the current interest is not unique to this age. Nearly a century ago, the colour music paintings of Roy De Maistre set an Australian precedent, of form and content, for the present outbreak and it is now timely to examine the origins and constructs of belief in the obscure, but influential genre of colour music.

In 1919, one of Australia's most controversial art exhibitions was held in Sydney. Called "Colour in Art", it attracted a crowd of 700 to the opening, an occasion of fervent debates by all accounts. The cause of the furore was the artists' use of colour. One of the two exhibitors, Roland Wakelin, was a student of Anthony Datillo Rubbo at the Royal Art Society, where colour studies formed an important part of the curriculum. The other was Roy De Maistre, a young musician-turned-painter, whose musical training was evident in the titles of many paintings on display. "The Boat Sheds, in Violet Red Key" was typical: while the subject was realistic the colours were chosen to harmonise like the notes in music. De Maistre hung colour charts at the back of the exhibition, to show how musical notes corresponded to different hues and formed a colour-music code. After De Maistre's death in 1968, the charts found their way to the Art Gallery of NSW, and so colour music gained a permanent place in Australian art history. Their importance had been guaranteed when, in 1959, the large painting "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor" surfaced at auction. Dated 1919, it was hailed as the first example of Australian abstraction, composed by De Maistre on colour-music principles. Heather Johnson's "Roy De Maistre: The Australian Years, 1894 to 1930" throws light on the artist's early work; her second volume, "Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968", emphasises the continued importance of colour music to this painter.

Rotating colour disk


De Maistre marketed his colour music ideas in 1926, in the form of a Colour Harmonising Chart. The commercial device was sold through Grace Brothers, and intended as a guide for interior decorators and students of colour harmony. The dark, outer mask could be rotated to reveal different colour combinations on the chart beneath. The holes in the above example are spaced in accord with the intervals of a harmonic minor scale (there was a corresponding mask for the major scale, with differently-spaced holes). The keynote is at the bottom left, positioned in this case over D and green, to give an overall key of D minor (or green minor) when read in an anti-clockwise direction.

De Maistre's colour chart took the form of a wheel. A flow of colour, like a rainbow, formed the rim. Spokes divided the wheel into twelve segments with different colours and notes allocated to each segment. The relationship between colours and notes followed a simple order: the seven white notes of the keyboard (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) were given to the seven rainbow colours of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (or ROY G BIV for short), and in that order. This made up a colour-music code, starting with red-equals-A at the bottom end. Musical pitch then increased note by note up the scale, paralleled by a similar movement of colour through the spectrum, ended with violet-equals-G. Scientifically, this created a linear sequence in which the frequencies, or vibrational rates, of both light and sound progressively increased.

After determining the basis of his own colour-music code, De Maistre had then to join the opposite ends of the spectrum to form a wheel. A non-spectral colour was added, blending the red and the violet of the spectrum's ends. This 'impure' red-violet was given the musical note of G sharp, halfway between the notes of A (red) and G (violet), so connecting the ends of the white-note scale. The black note, G sharp, is often added to the key of A natural minor as an accidental, individually marked each time it appears but not present in the overall key signature. A heightened musical effect is achieved by raising G to G sharp, immediately before the climactic keynote of A. The formal consequence is a change of key to A harmonic minor - the type of minor key that predominated in De Maistre's time, as it has for the last two hundred years.

The basic wheel was formed by the addition of an 'impure' red-violet and the 'accidental' G sharp in the twelfth segment. De Maistre's next task was to insert the remaining four black notes - C sharp, for example, was placed in a segment of yellow-green colour, between C at yellow and D at green. In this way, a graduated colour wheel was built up to represent the twelve notes of music, and De Maistre's colour-music code was formed. Travelling round and round the wheel mimicked the cycle of musical octaves (from A' to A and so on up the scale), all the while accompanied by a smooth flow of changing colour.

The ROY G BIV colour sequence had long been used as a shorthand expression for the colours of the rainbow. It was devised by Sir Isaac Newton to describe the artificial spectrum he first produced in 1666. When he split sunlight with a prism, Newton produced a continuum of pure colours - the spectrum. He initially noted eleven basic colours, later reducing his description to five broad hues. For the publication of "Opticks" in 1704, orange and indigo were added to create the seven-hued rainbow, ROY G BIV, which is commonplace today. This structure was an artifice, designed by Newton as a metaphor for a certain traditional musical mode. A triad of primary colours - red, yellow and blue - represented a tonic chord - the first, third, and fifth notes of the musical scale. Intervals of fifths (such as red and blue) were considered harmonious, as in music, while adjacent colours were held not to agree. And so a crude colour-music code was created: although the musical system has changed since Newton's time, the pursuit of esoteric relationships between light and sound has continued. Many reputable scientists have been intrigued by the analogy, allotting spectral colours to various scales of musical notes on a modern keyboard. Professor A W Rimington described his own method in 1895, prior to one of his famous colour-organ concerts in London:

"Starting from these remarkable physical analogies, I have divided the spectrum band into diatonic intervals or notes, on the same plan as that of the musical scale...The middle C having usually been the note selected for fixing the pitch of a keyed instrument, it would seem natural to take it as the first point of contact between the two scales (of music and colour)."

Isaac Newton had originally designed ROY G BIV to follow a scale beginning at the note D. The mathematician, Leonard Euler, had shifted colours down a tone in the 18th century, to align them to a more up-to-date musical system, and, by the end of the 19th century, Rimington and many others began their colour-music codes at the note C. From red, the spectral colours would ascend the scale of C major, spanning a full octave. De Maistre was to move all colours a further three semitones down the keyboard. His modified scheme was Newtonian, nevertheless; it still climbed the white notes, and used the traditional ROY G BIV colours. But rather than start on Newton's D, or the popular middle C, De Maistre began his colour-music code at A. During his lifetime, an A became the international standard of pitch at A440 cycles per second. As an artist who had both studied and performed music, he could not ignore its musical primacy. Although De Maistre played the viola, which has a bottom note of bass C, he did not construct his code with that instrument in mind. He turned instead to the piano he kept in his painting studio, for his visual cue. Its lowest note was A, which De Maistre assigned to red, the first colour visible at the low end of the spectrum. In one sketch, he outlined a full stretch of over seven octaves, colouring both 'white' and 'black' notes individually. At the centre of his painted keyboard, all colours were at full strength: they progressively lightened for higher octaves, and darkened as they fell away in the bass. Nevertheless, each octave was internally consistent - each began at the beginning with red, the first spectral colour, and A, the first-named note. They followed the scale of A natural minor, which, like its relative major C, has no sharps or flats in its key signature.

De Maistre's code is a rational construct, based on the physical realities of musical pitch, and of the colour spectrum. The musical scale, a linear sequence of seven notes, is a familiar structure. ROY G BIV sets out an equivalent scale of colours; it, too, is a finite and linear array, and is the only commonly known set of seven colour-names. When the red and violet ends of the spectrum are fixed to the notes A and G, and after all the sharps and flats are coloured in, the system allows for transpositions into any key, major or minor. C major, for example, is based on yellow, and De Maistre used that key to describe his colour-music code in 1919. Yellow stands out amongst the colours due to its intensity, leading some to believe the code started from middle C and yellow, the middle of the spectrum. Although the centre of the spectrum is in fact occupied by green, yellow is one possible starting point, and the other colours would automatically fall into place either side. This may well be the way De Maistre went about it - indeed, he was impressed by triumphant yellow, and thought C major, with its positive sound, to be a fitting match for the rainbow. While middle C is often the starting-point for simple tunes, its alignment to yellow is incidental. In the end, it is merely the third colour on the third note. Musical erudition and colour theory would both emphasise A and red, rather than C and yellow, as the foundation of De Maistre's code.

De Maistre's diagram


De Maistre clearly understood the relationship between C major and A minor, as shown by one of his sketches. The white notes of a keyboard were arranged in a circle, spaced a tone or a semitone apart to make an octave scale. The most important notes - the keynote C, the dominant G (5th), and the subdominant F (4th) - were labelled, and joined in a triangle. Its base is yellow, the colour of C. An extra note, the accidental G#, was added: when substituted for G, it will convert the key of C major to its relative minor, A. A triangle in red, the colour of A, bypassed G and pointed to G# instead.

Yellow came to the fore in 1925, when De Maistre took out a patent on the colour-music wheel (below). The design was substantially the same as the Grace Brothers chart, except the colours followed a different system. Instead of the Newtonian sequence of ROY G BIV aligned to a white-note scale, De Maistre employed the painter's colour wheel. Segmenting the disk into three primaries (yellow, blue and red), three secondaries (green, violet/purple and orange) and intermediate hues between these, he arrived at twelve colours. They were matched to the twelve semitones of a chromatic scale, contained within the musical octave. Only one fixed point was required to connect the music with colour. For this purpose, De Maistre stated "I have found that yellow is a colour which is associated with the note C".

A painter's colour wheel

Illustration 2B : ROY DE MAISTRE'S PATENT GB232,787, 1925‑8.

De Maistre's patented scheme resulted in primary and secondary colours being placed on the notes shown, at right. Moving anticlockwise from yellow at C, they are placed a tone apart. The uneven spacing of notes in musical scales - a mix of tones and semitones - is ignored. The colours, too, seem more or less evenly distributed. Compared to De Maistre's Newtonian scheme, there is one less colour between blue and red, and an extra orange-yellow is included on the note B. The result is a slight shift affecting about half the colours and notes. While the two competing systems are similar, visually, they are structurally different. Red, for example, which would form the foundation of the Grace Brothers chart, has been displaced from A to G# for the patent.

De Maistre's patent was the prototype for one of his painted disks. Its colours were labelled by musical notes paired to enigmatic symbols, but were otherwise unnamed. Anthony Springford has analysed its symbols and identified geometrically pure forms with the painter's primaries - yellow (C) has an underlined point, red (A#) a triangle, and blue (E) a circle. (Between them, the other colours and notes are given hybrid shapes.) Yellow, red and blue had been similarly allied to an array of notes and shapes by George Field, over a century before. More recently, Wassily Kandinsky was lecturing on the yellow triangle, the blue circle and the red square, at the Dessau Bauhaus. Kandinsky's predecessor, Johannes Itten, had emphasized their qualities of movement and repose, and developed the twelve-part painter's wheel as a pedagogical device.

The three primaries, red, yellow and blue, and their relevance to painters and dyers, became an important discussion in the 17th century. The painters' wheel would prove eminently adaptable to music: its three-fold nature became six-fold with the addition of secondary colours, and a further subdivision could yielded twelve hues - one for each semitone of an octave. The Newtonian system - ROY G BIV colours joined a white-note scale - was custom made for music. De Maistre tried out both varieties, but it was the Newtonian system that became the public face of his colour music. The two colour orders are both well known, so anyone seeking to colour musical notes will find the same alternatives emerge - the painters' wheel for a twelve-note chromatic scale, or ROY G BIV for a seven-note diatonic scale. As a result, colour-music codes can have a certain inevitability: independent creators are often surprised to find their codes are not original, and that many others have had the same idea.

While De Maistre unveiled his code at the "Colour in Art" exhibition, Alexander Hector was holding colour-music concerts in Sydney. In 1919, he flooded stage settings with coloured lights, to the sound of mechanical keyboards. The magazine "Sea, Land, and Air" reported he used a code identical to De Maistre's, to coordinate colours and music, so the note C provoked yellow light. But Hector linked sound and the spectrum more variously. While his colour-music code might start from either note, A or C, Hector typically allotted them red, rather than yellow. One scheme placed a dark red on middle C; from there, spectra ran both up and down the notes, to imitate the symmetry of a double rainbow. At the low threshold of vision, red was the logical beginning for all sequences of colour, but "this scale of ratios of the spectrum colours may be arranged over the various keys and octaves in several ways to suit different classes of music". Hector's sophisticated colour music was aimed at variety in performance, while De Maistre sought an aesthetic correspondence; yet others were simply content to investigate the theory.

Hermann von Helmholtz had compared wavelengths of colour and musical pitch in 1860. He arbitrarily equated yellow with a tenor C, but had little faith in the exercise of colour music - he was more interested in mixing yellow lights with blues, to produce an apparent white. Like any two complementary colours, chosen from opposite sides of an accurate colour circle, they could cancel each other's hue. For Helmholtz, the contrast of opposites was rather banal, though he thought all spectral colours were striking. He suggested that three colours, more evenly spaced - such as yellow with greenish blue and purple - would provide more stimulating combinations. De Maistre assumed correct colour relations had a musical basis, demonstrated on his Colour Harmonising Chart. Its yellow C was opposed by the indigo-violet of F#. Since the two notes would make an unpleasant tritone, the F and G on either side were better choices. Their indigo and violet formed the most important relationships - the musical consonances of fourth and fifth - with yellow C. More generally, De Maistre noted how these harmonic relationships gave near-complementaries in every key, to form a contrast of warm and cool colours. Closer harmonies could be achieved with colours selected with a chord, such as the yellow, blue and violet of a C major triad.

Comparison of frequencies


Division of the spectrum into eleven sections provides a check on De Maistre's code. In a best-fit situation, most notes and colours match up as they should. The chief discrepancy is at the top end, where G does not coincide with the violet De Maistre allotted to it, but has to be moved into the extra twelfth segment, outside the spectrum. This is an 'impure' red-violet, originally set aside for G sharp, which in turn must move to deep red.

One could suppose that De Maistre, at first, chose a palette according to a predetermined musical key; this was then employed on conventional subjects, modifying the local colours of still-lifes or landscapes, such as "Boat Sheds, Berry's Bay" (1919). Great scope for interpretation was available with such a wide range of colours, but artistic licence was limited by the need to balance the differing requirements of the colour-music code, recognisable local colour and pictorial composition. Particular difficulties would have arisen in differentiating between overall major and minor schemes. The semitone differences between the third and the sixth notes of the major and minor scales could result only in slight shifts of hue, involving but two of the seven colours. This would seem insufficient change to express the radical difference in musical mood, between positive major and mournful minor.

De Maistre's later colour-music code had a formal niceness, a serendipity to it, that other codes would be hard-pressed to match. But it, too, presented practical problems when applied to painting. The red-violet-blue section of his colour wheel took up six segments, or half the colour range. Three or four of these colours would automatically be included among the seven notes of any scale, giving his colour schemes a violet slant. Mary Eagle noted that De Maistre's palette tended towards violet in his early work. This may not be, as she supposed, just the result of a personal taste but rather an inevitable outcome of the colour-music code he used.

After his show with Wakelin, De Maistre seemed to relax a little. Stronger curves were introduced to his paintings, and the colour areas they bounded were more varied, less patternistic. In a rural landscape of 1920, for example, a grass embankment provided the focus; its swirling greens, blue-greys and lilacs contrasted with the rectilinear geometry of the building behind. Similar elements were expanded in the following work which (if the title is anything to go by) was a defining statement of De Maistre's early colour music. Through want of any other subject matter, it has been hailed as the first abstract painting produced in Australia.

Illustration 4 :
Roy De Maistre, 1919, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Yellow green, representing C sharp

Three codes with different structures

According to De Maistre's colour-music codes, particular ranges of colours would represent the scale of yellow green (or C sharp) minor. What these might be are shown bottom left, below the painting:

Template for keys

To explore the effects of the Newtonian colour-music scheme, De Maistre executed a set of preparatory exercises. He used a key diagram (right), a jigsaw of shapes numbered 1 to 8. The shapes represented successive notes of any musical octave; they were to be coloured by number, according to the scale represented. He reproduced the key diagram on a number of sheets, to test a variety of colourations. In the musical key of D, for instance, shape 1 was D, the first note of the scale. According to his colour-music code, it was coloured green, while shape 8 was a lighter green, to represent another D at the top end of the scale. The notes (and shapes) between were coloured, as well, from the fixed palette of the code. On other sheets, De Maistre filled out some other scales, from C to G, in ten of the twenty-four possible keys. While the range of colours differed only slightly from key to key, their distribution among shapes altered the appearance of each exercise. For several paintings of the 1930s, De Maistre turned to the task of transcribing music, for which his colour-music code seemed purpose-built. Fragments of music were painted as flat patterns of colour, moving from left to right as if the music manuscript had been encrypted in the colour-music code. Some tonal variety was introduced, along with enigmatic graphic elements; De Maistre created fairly complex designs to express only small amounts of music. His methods were tightly controlled, based on the orthodox colour-music principles he had established by 1926 - ROY G BIV colours ascended a white-note scale, from A to G

Ambiguities are present in any code attempting to translate music into colour. For instance, red might stand for the note A but this does not tell us which one of them, high or low: red might just as easily represent the scale, the key or the chord, all based on A. Later work suggested De Maistre was emphasizing a chord-based, as much as a note-based, application of his colour-music code. The august Classical and Romantic music he interpreted gave common combinations of chords, based on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale. When translated via the colour wheel, these would yield abrupt colour contrasts - a red key (A) would be augmented by green (D) and blue (E) chords. In a green key (D), violet (G) and red (A) might be expected; indeed, all are prominent in "Colour Composition Derived from Three Bars of Music in the Key of Green", of 1935. (Unfortunately, the painting was misnamed "Arrested Phrase from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Red Major" - the wrong colour key - at London's Marlborough Gallery in 1965: the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra has perpetuated the error.) With few chords in such short musical fragments, De Maistre's mature paintings have an inevitably brazen, heraldic coloration. Their appearance arises from the colour-music code, as much as from the music he purports to express. Ultimately, they depend on a quasi-scientific assumption - common to many schemes such as De Maistre's - that a mathematical relationship of frequencies, or vibrations, unites the physical phenomena of light and sound.

"...we have applied ourselves to a close study of the harmonious relation of these colors to one another. And, as a result of the incorporation of these colors into gamut-form, they convey the notion of 'time' in painting. They give the illusion that the canvas develops like music, in time..."
Geometric abstraction

Illustration 5 : "SYNCHROMY",
Morgan Russell, c 1914-16.

So wrote Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright in 1914, in the catalogue to their New York exhibition of Synchromist paintings. Both Wakelin and De Maistre seemed taken by the ideas of the American artists. Of the eleven paintings hung in their Sydney show, three bore the title of 'Syncromy'. De Maistre's two were in the keys of blue-green major and yellow-green minor - E flat and C sharp, respectively - and Wakelin's, orange-red (B flat). De Maistre's three schemes for interior decoration were also based on colour music, and, of the remaining six pictures, only two lacked colour-music titles. Russell and Macdonald-Wright had not been so specific, though the latter penned a diagram of a "saturated spectrum arrayed like notes on piano keyboard". His spectrum, however, was not Newton's ROY G BIV, but a twelve-part painter's disk, of primary and secondary colours with mixes in between. Macdonald-Wright concluded by isolating colours for a chord, with yellow as the tonic. blue on the third note, and red-violet at the fifth. But yellow was not given to any particular note, nor was it emphasized as the starting point for a colour-music code.

Similar concerns had preoccupied many artists overseas and news might have filtered through to the Australians of parallel developments in the field of colour music. When De Maistre attended recitals on the colour organ, by Alexander Hector in 1918, he may have been aware that the synaesthete, Alexander Scriabin, had scored "Prometheus: a Poem of Fire" to include a colour organ, in 1915. In both cases, arcs and waves of colour were projected onto overhead screens, in time to the music. Painters, too, were transferring musical ideas to canvas - Kupka, Van Doesburg, Russolo and the Delaunays on the Continent, and Klein, Rimington and Duncan Grant in England, had all treated musical subjects prior to the end of the First War. Because of, or apart from these influences, a brief moment in Australian art history emerged when colour music took centre stage, with Roy De Maistre as its chief exponent.

Painting named by music & colour

Illustration 6 : "FUGUE FOR TWO COLOURS",
Frantisek Kupka, 1912.

Frantisek Kupka, at once a spiritualist medium, a student of alchemy, an avid physicist and a renowned fin-de-siècle illustrator, spent two years refining a revolutionary painting style. "Fugue for Two Colours", considered in some quarters as the first truly abstract canvas, was the logical outcome of a painstaking process, stripping away all vestiges of natural subject matter for the sake of formal, pictorial values. The background device of overlapping discs was borrowed from his previous, Symbolist-like paintings on themes of cosmology, alchemy, oriental philosophy and rebirth. The central motif, a knotted skein of intersecting elliptical curves, can be traced, through some forty or so preparatory sketches, to one origin in a 1908 painting of a girl with a ball, another in Newton's discs, and possibly also in Theosophical diagrams of the seven planets, entwined in the evolutionary trajectories of the material world. The final version portrays movement, while evoking the interlocking linear themes of musical fugues. "Yes, fugues, where the sounds evolve like veritable physical entities, intertwine, come and go." The preoccupations of abstract art, to find pictorial expression for universal structures and rhythms of inner reality, were presaged in Kupka's work.

Exhibited at the 1912 Salon d'Automne in Paris, "Fugue for Two Colours" alarmed, puzzled and delighted the critics. Is it possible that descriptions of the painting, or even reproductions of it, were known in Sydney? Did Australian servicemen absorb the modern influence during World War I, returning to tell of the European aesthetic? What is known is that, by war's end, Roy De Maistre used a similar construction of criss-crossed, undulating lines, to divide the picture surface of "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow Green Minor" into a chequerboard of discrete colour patches. Kupka (through a laborious process of development) and De Maistre (with the aid of colour music theory) both attempted to return painting to a state of 'relative' innocence and purity. Their techniques are forms of sophisticated play, set at a great distance from the academic standards of their day. Their mature paintings are closer to what we might now expect of a child, colouring in a page of scribble - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Less of an abstractionist than Kupka, De Maistre retained traces of a naturalistic approach in "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor", though some visionary qualities were apparent. Depth recession and three-dimensional form were emphasized to convey some sense of other-worldly environment - like a rolling sea beneath a sky with at least one sun. These traits were even more marked in "A Painted Picture of the Universe", where series of shapes marched into the distance over billowing hills under a sky of concentric arcs. This painting seems to originate in De Maistre's early Australian period, though it was enigmatically dated l920 to 1934. (Later paintings were similarly double-dated - an apparent attempt to connect the Australian and British periods of his colour music work - though their style was quite distinct. Many of Kupka's works from the same era were also given multiple dates.)

Roy De Maistre, 1920-34, National Gallery of Victoria.

A cosmic theme

European and American interest in colour music had contributed to the development of abstraction, which eschewed subject-matter and emphasized formal values. As recently as 1992, the commonality of painting and music was acknowledged in an interview granted by the artist Bridget Riley to E H Gombrich:

"The common ground between music and painting seems to lie in the organisation of their abstract qualities. In music, it's very clear, such things as the accumulation of sound, the dispersal of sound, the ebb and flow, the rise and fall, the contrasts and harmonies are arranged according to certain principles. In picture-making, the masses, the open and closed spaces, the lines, tones and colours can be organised in a parallel way. It's as though these relationships are built up in all their complexity in order to provide a vehicle for all those things which cannot be objectively identified but which can nevertheless be expressed in this way. Music articulates this indefinable content and it seems to me that this also applies to abstract painting, or at least to the best of it."

De Maistre's colour music work was never truly abstract in this sense; whether portraying spiritual visions, personal hallucinations or musical structure, he always had a subject in mind, albeit an invisible one (his biographer quite rightly sees them as very far in spirit from abstraction). The nature of his subject matter is hardest to identify in the earlier paintings, "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor" and "A Painted Picture of the Universe", but the organisations of their picture planes are redolent of landscape compositions. This tendency was also evident in the works of Grace Cossington-Smith, and De Maistre was instrumental in procuring her a first show in 1926. Even her most abstracted canvasses, such as "Trees", were clearly landscapes, in obedience to Cossington-Smith's dictum of painting what she saw. Her paintings shared many of the same techniques as De Maistre's - criss-crossing lines that separated flattened planes of discrete and differing colours, often arranged in chromatic sequences - while her palette was at times indistinguishable from those of De Maistre and Wakelin. The arced sky of "A Painted Picture of the Universe" was paraphrased in Cossington-Smith's "Eastern Road, Turramurra" even if the over-riding geometry and formal adherence to a colour-music code were missing in her art.

Illustration 8 : "EASTERN ROAD, TURRAMURRA",
Grace Cossington-Smith, 1926, Australian National Gallery.

Rural suburbia

There is still an Eastern Road in Turramurra, although Cossington-Smith's rural landscape sunk long ago, beneath Sydney's urban sprawl. Even so, the spirit of colour music bobbed to the surface there, in the 1980s. At his nearby home, Ralph Pridmore demonstrated the sound-to-light transducer. Coloured lights flashed across a metre-square screen to the sound of music, reacting to its volume, pitch and rhythm. (Beatles' music was said to give a particularly colourful performance.) The machine picked up subtle overtones of a solo instrument, and the separate notes of chords, as well as responding to a massed orchestra. Behind the screen, Pridmore had wired 76 coloured bulbs in a pattern, not unlike De Maistre's colour wheel. Six rings of lights represented six octaves of pitch, and spiralled towards the highest notes in the centre. Twelve spectral colours ran around the rim, representing the semitones of the bass octave; each colour converged in a wedge to the centre of the spiral.

Instead of following ROY G BIV, Pridmore reduced the wavelengths of notes mathematically, until they matched the minute vibrations of colours. (Thomas Young had tried - and rejected - the same technique early in the 19th century, when he pioneered the wave theory of light. Helmholtz was to do the same.) The outcome was a scale that began at G with deep crimson, with orange at A, green and blue on C and D, and violet and purple aligned to E and F. In performance, Pridmore detected a bias towards the red-blues: the physics might need adjusting to spread the colours more evenly. He suggested the so-called psychological primaries - red, yellow, green and blue - spaced three semitones apart, as the basis for future colour music. Like De Maistre before him, Pridmore saw a role for colour music in therapies for convalescents and mental patients. He also hoped it could be a tool to teach music appreciation to the deaf, though he noted performances lost much of their emotional impact for the hearing, when the volume was turned down. As it was, musicians and health professionals showed some interest in his apparatus, but the project stalled through lack of funds.

In Australia, as elsewhere, colour music fluctuated in popularity; Roy De Maistre managed to exploit the passing fad. By catching the wave of occult interest, he was able to cross over from one art form to another, from music to painting. De Maistre used the principles of colour music to facilitate the change and to kick-start his new career. Failing any development to abstraction, in parallel to Europe, colour music's appeal to painters waned, though De Maistre could not be held entirely responsible for a falling-away of enthusiasm. He had posited an Australian proto-abstraction that, though highly codified and rarefied, remained representational. Australia's insularity and conservatism made it more comfortable for local artists to stick to a recognizable, accepted style, epitomised by Max Meldrum's tonal realism; De Maistre himself soon became an adherent of this new manner and historians must look elsewhere for the origins of a seminal school of Australian abstract painting.


Illustration 9 : "THE ORGANIST"

A musical performance

Roy De Maistre, 1943.