In "The Sense of Beauty" of 1896, the Harvard philosopher George Santayana wrote:
"There are certain effects of colour that give all men pleasure, and others which jar, almost like a musical discord. A more general development of this sensibility would make possible a new abstract art, an art that should deal with colours as music does with sound."
The fledgling abstract painting movement in Europe was at first fascinated by musical notions of colour. By choosing music as a subject to paint, artists were free of representational constraints; they could employ any shapes and colours they pleased. When August Macke joined the Blue Rider movement in Munich, fellow painter Franz Marc encouraged him to search for things in nature "that are hidden behind the veil of appearance". Marc outlined the Blue Rider identity this way: "We look for and paint this inner, spiritual side of nature".
Both Marc and Wassily Kandinsky, co-founders of the group, had already developed symbolic uses for colour by 1911. In that same year, Kandinsky published his seminal text on abstraction, "On the Spiritual in Art", and the noted Theosophist composer, Alexander Scriabin, scored a work for his 'light keyboard'. One consequence was that occult visions of music came under serious scrutiny, from Scriabin's colour music to the mysterious and symbolic methods of Arnold Schoenberg, the Blue Rider's resident composer. Kandinsky's own rapport with music seemed to include a synaesthetic response to Wagner's "Lohengrin":
"I saw all my colours in my mind; they stood before my eyes.
Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me."
"What does the violet do? The violet is all nose. The violet perceives very precisely, for example, what streams forth from Mercury. And it builds up its scent-body accordingly. Thus each single being in the world of plants perceives what is to be smelled in the world of the planets. And so in reality, by means of the planets, the fragrances of the heavens come toward us."
To form a better understanding of colour, Kandinsky attended to Rudolf Steiner, and his spiritual and symbolic reinterpretation of Goethe's work on colours. The Theosophist's lectures of 1908 were to inspire him to paint the Ariel scene from Goethe's Faust, replete with rainbow motif. Steiner would often still describe the rainbow as the seven basic colours, which could be augmented by five others (variations on Goethe's purpur) to match the signs of the zodiac and the chromatic scale of music. Aromas could also be implicated, along with the planets, colours and music, in forming a grand, cosmic synaesthesia. The idea was not a new one.
The French utopian writer, Charles Fourier, had postulated a universal order in the early 19th century, where planets communicated with human kind largely through smells. (With the world and the stars in tune, the sea would turn to lemonade.) His future society, Harmony, would be based on the gratification of the basic senses, primarily those of smell, taste and sex. Disgusted by the stench and misery he encountered in the poor quarters of every European city, Fourier advocated a minimum wage and an early form of feminism. For these ideas, he was much appreciated by later revolutionary philosophers, such as Marx and Engels.
Kandinsky and the composer Schoenburg, fellow exhibitors with the Blue Riders in 1912, continued to refine the analogy between colour and music. They theorized that harmonies of simple colours represented a voice from a vanished age, like the music of Mozart. Instead, they preferred to emphasize the stresses and contradictions of modern life. Like Goethe, Kandinsky favoured qualitative comparisons of hues. Orthodox colour music, the mapping of colour according to the mathematics of musical pitch, was rejected. Instead, Kandinsky likened colours to the timbres of musical instruments; the sound of flutes was 'seen' as light blue, while the voices of cellos, double-basses and organs were progressively darker blues.
But things were rapidly changing: Steiner himself had broke with Theosophy to found Anthroposophy, his own Germanic, Christianized version of the occult movement. Then World War I broke out, and the Blue Rider movement was torn apart. Both Marc and Macke were killed at the front in 1914, and Kandinsky was forced to flee to Russia. By the time war was over, spiritual pursuits seemed less popular, more of a private concern. Kandinsky cautiously amended his book in 1922, removing the more overt references to occult sciences that had appeared in the original. The Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, while an ardent Theosophist, reduced his palette to red, yellow and blue, with black and white, to avoid the unreal, 'astral' colours of visionary reports. When the Belgian painter Vantongerloo reinvented the colour-music code in 1920 - he equated seven tones of music with seven rainbow colours, as De Maistre had done in 1919 - Mondrian scoffed that: "he hasn't the faintest idea of the difference between the manner of nature and the manner of art".
On the surface, Mondrian's paintings appear nothing if not the purest exercise in the 'manner of art', all form being reduced to intersecting, narrow lines and the rectangular spaces between them. But it is possible their formality held a deeper significance, as worldly metaphors of spiritual verities known only to the artist. When Alexander Calder, renown for his mobiles, remarked that the paintings would look even better if they moved, Mondrian replied that they were in fact very fast indeed. His riposte suggests the theosophical idea that the true nature of all movement is concealed from common understanding, as vibrations that united all matter and evoked coloured auras on higher planes. On these terms, the most static compositions might well indicate a great deal of movement; equally well, the grids on the paintings' surfaces could convey the rhythms and foot-movements of the foxtrot, which Mondrian practiced obsessively. Meanwhile, inspired by his visit to Mondrian's studio, Alexander Calder began to paint his mobiles in flat, primary colours.
The problems of painting music were simplified by Paul Klee, another erstwhile Blue Rider. In the monochrome "Fugue in Red" (1921), he showed the various fugal motifs as different shapes progressing across a dark ground from left to right, leaving trails of after-images like the repetitions of the themes. Klee's later works, though polychrome, still managed to condense musical representation so that large ideas could be shown, as distinct from the musical fragments of De Maistre's later works. Indeed, Klee's "Ad Parnassum" of 1932 depicted the nature of all fugues with a dappled grid of shifting colour, in an architectonic framework, representing fugal texture and procedure.
With fellow teachers at the Bauhaus, Klee and Kandinsky had explored the role of colour in music, dance and film. But it was their associate Johannes Itten who, as master of the preliminary course at the Weimar Bauhaus from 1919 to 1923, exerted the greatest influence on the students. He devised a colour wheel that was practicable, rational and could be understood by painters and public alike. Itten hoped to reconcile the spectrum of science to the craft of painting, where pigment colours were restricted and a more controlled palette was desired. Primaries of red, yellow and blue were chosen for the basis of his system, then mixed two at a time to create secondary colours of orange, green and purple (or violet). These six colours were arranged within a circle, in sequence, then supplemented by a further six hues between each primary and secondary – a blue-green between blue and green, for example.
De Maistre used the same colour order for a colour-music disk patented in 1925. Its twelve segments allowed him to assign individual colours to the twelve semitones of a musical scale. His previous code, of 1919, had been based on Newton's spectral progression of ROY G BIV, and De Maistre would revert to this technique in the 1930s. But there is little difference between the two methods; both manage to appear rainbow-like to the eye. (Perhaps the combination of primaries and secondaries in painters' wheels avoids a blue-violet bias, common in spectrally-based systems.) Itten, with this twelve-part system, hoped to manipulate fixed colours for aesthetic as well as practical purposes, to explore colour mixes, and to investigate some optical effects that had intrigued Goethe and Chevreul. By astute combination of up-to-date design ideas he devised an innovative educational program at the Bauhaus, which remains a model for art schools to the present day. Differing disciplines converged under general principles, as revealed by the 1922 curriculum:
"During the entire duration of study, practical harmonization classes on the common basis of sound, colour and form will be taught with the aim of creating a balance between the physical and mental properties of the individual."
Gertrud Grunow, Itten's able assistant, pressed the theoretical point further, with a twelve-part colour circle of her own, where each hue was assigned a musical note and a part of the body. The implied physical connection was reinforced by warm-up exercises of expressive movement, conducted before each class, for "the awakening and development of the creative individual in harmony with himself and the world." Her link between creativity and physicality owed much to the influence of E J Dalcroze, who had taught eurhythmics in Germany since 1910. His collaborator, Adolphe Appia, had laid the basis for modern stage design at the end of the 19th century. In pursuit of Wagner's ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk (a theatrical synthesis of all art forms), they rejected illusionistic stage settings in favour of neutral three-dimensional forms illuminated by a play of colour. In 1921, Appia would write "The Work of Living Art", a mystic exaltation of the body in space. The early stage works of Kandinsky, as well as later productions mounted at the Bauhaus, elucidated Appia's principles.
In a further effort to unify the arts, the composer Josef Hauer amalgamated colour and music. He advocated that all semitones be equally employed throughout a musical composition, and a colour wheel of twelve divisions seemed purpose-built to house each of the twelve semitones of a musical scale. Quoting copiously from Goethe’s “Theory of Colours” (newly edited by Rudolph Steiner), Hauer postulated that formal systems of colour and music were above nature; as man-made constructs, they form a world beyond all ideas and feelings. From this pinnacle one could create “a purely spiritual, supersensual music composed according to impersonal rules". Itten met Hauer in Vienna, when the composer was publishing his twelve-tone theory of atonal music in 1919 (slightly ahead of Kandinsky's collaborator, Arnold Schoenberg, who pioneered a similar method). Hauer conveyed his colour-music ideas to Itten with diagrams, and their musical implications can be sensed in Itten’s later writings on his colour system.
The circular scheme of twelve colours - primaries, secondaries and intermediate hues - was not new. It first appeared in 1708, as an insert to an artists’ manual on miniature painting. The same colour circle was espoused by the German Romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge, who expanded it to three dimensions in "Colour-Sphere", of 1810. Colours based on the primaries and secondaries flowed around the equator of his sphere; each colour graduating in tonal steps, lighter and darker, towards either pole of white or black. As well as rational reform, Runge hoped for a fundamental regeneration of religion through art. Inspired by the mystic Jakob Böhme, writing two centuries earlier, Runge attributed symbolic meaning to colour, such that primaries could represent the Holy Trinity and so on. Overtly occult tendencies became apparent in painting, in an upsurge of spiritualism toward the mid-19th century. A Miss Georgina Houghton, for one, claimed that spirits worked through her to choose colours according to their meanings. A catalogue of her exhibition of 1871 in London listed their meanings, starting with red, yellow and blue as Father, Son and Holy Ghost (though Runge would have had them in the order blue, red and yellow). She detailed many others - burnt sienna, for instance, represented Clearness of Judgement.
By 1916, Austin Osman Spare believed the mind should become a clear and transparent medium, allowing psychic phenomena to emerge as automatic drawing. His 'scribble of twisting and interlacing lines' were seen as a sort of handwriting, rid of stale formulae, which could tap the depths of memory and instinct. To free the hand, the practitioner had to enter a dream-like state, to liberate the germ of an idea from conscious constraint. That Spare moonlighted as a satanist in the Zos Kia Cultus, indicates his desire to conjure up more than automatic drawings. In this guise, he claimed, "he who transmutes the traditionally ugly into another aesthetic value has new pleasures beyond fear", a dictum he also applied to design.
The unrestrained transformation of libidinal energy was what Spare was after, from subconscious (or even superconscious) forms and ideas. Others were soon to join him: the Surrealists took up automatic methods, inspired by Freud's theories, dreams, madness and children's art. André Breton adopted the technique for writing in 1919, to allow unmediated, non-rational images to flow freely onto the page: painters like Miró carefully traced abstract, spontaneous sketches on their canvasses: Gordon Onslow-Ford described automatic drawing in the 1940s, for the benefit of his students, the abstract expressionists Pollock and Motherwell: and in 1955, Meret Oppenheim still maintained that works produced via psychic automatism "will always remain alive and will always be revolutionary...because they are in organic liaison with Nature".
Nearing the end of his life, Josef Hauer was writing music compositions largely determined by chance. He took the I Ching, the ancient wisdom book of the Chinese, as his guide. Steeped in the mysticism of Tao, he suspected his ‘twelve-tone games’ contained the functions of the Milky Way. By comparison, Johannes Itten reveals little of his mentor’s extreme spirituality in his writings, though something of his colour music remains. In “The Art of Colour”, Itten does acknowledge Adolf Hoelzel, his earlier teacher at the Stuttgart Academy. From 1913, Hoelzel had drummed the basics of colour science into his student. A trained violinist, Hoelzel naturally employed musical analogies: opposing colours created a counterpoint, resolving them was subject to harmonics. Musicians, after all, borrowed terminology from painting, he said. His pursuit of colour harmony became akin to a religious quest, aiming for the finest art expressing the divine. In circular and spiral diagrams, Hoelzel had analysed harmony and the spiritual waves it could evoke. He was able to turn away from academic realism with the aid of colour theory, to become one of the first abstract painters.
When Hoelzel left his teaching post in 1919, it was fitting that Paul Klee – another violinist and lover of J S Bach – should fill his position. But, within two years, the architect Walter Gropius enticed Klee away, to join Itten (and eventually Kandinsky) at the Bauhaus in Weimar. Itten ran the all-important foundation year there, teaching students to think broadly, beyond the traditions of academia and the Beaux-Arts. Basic knowledge of materials and the ways to handle them was required. To shore up lessons in colour theory, Itten exulted in Nature and evoked a high-flown colour symbolism. At times, he was as straightforwardly pious as Runge or Miss Houghton - the mix of red and blue that gave violet was equated with the combination of love and faith needed for piety. But Nature was often adored in obscure rhetoric and inflated language; his description of green is impossible to decipher, unless we are aware he was employing a metaphor for photosynthesis:
"When light comes to earth, and water and air release their elements, then incarnate sentience puts forth green."
Itten belonged to the Mazdaznan sect, a Zoroastrian-styled movement that was spreading across Germany. Its rituals - meditation, vegetarianism and other personal disciplines - gained currency as Itten, clad in monk-like garments, sought converts among his students. Mazdaznan principles of inner harmony began to influence formal studies at the Bauhaus. As the Bauhaus curriculum shifted towards industrial design, something had to give. Gropius recalls clashing with Itten, whose otherwise excellent teaching “was mixed up so very much with Mazdaznan beliefs”. Though Bauhaus staff members were usually given the utmost liberty in how they taught, Itten was forced to withdraw. Still, his reputation as a colour theorist lives on. Like many Bauhaus teachers, he is now better known than any of his students, and the institution is still renown for its innovative educational program.
For all his eccentricity and obscuration, Itten succeeded in developing a rational system to examine paint mixes, contrasting and complementary colours, and effects due to simultaneous contrasts and relative size of colour areas. His system, though based on a colour-music code and infused with mystic meaning, provided a painterly working method of considerable value. The theories of teachers such as Joseph Albers were partly grounded in Itten's work and many later painters were, directly or indirectly, indebted to Johannes Itten. Colour music made an important, if obscure, contribution to colour theory but had its most enduring value when mystical tendencies were subordinated to formal requirements - as was the case with Itten's useful colour system.
The rational strain of early twentieth-century European art had a lasting currency. Stress on formal values enabled artists to investigate new directions and to apply their results to architecture, painting and design. Exceptional circumstances at the Bauhaus between the two Wars promoted the style, which diversified and flourished, eventually to become an international movement. By 1929, modernism had arrived in Sydney at an exhibition in Burdiken House, showing interior designs both old and new. Roy De Maistre, who lived and worked in the building, convened the show, designing one of the display rooms himself (a 'gentleman's bedroom'). On its floor were contemporary rugs, imported from France, of many plain colours set within geometrical grids. (Their design can equally be compared to products coming from weaving workshop at the Bauhaus.) Similar designs would later appear in De Maistre's colour-music paintings - elongated rectangles of discrete colour, each shape bounded by ruled lines.
De Maistre painted and studied informally in Paris while on scholarship overseas, exhibiting there in mid-1924. He might have seen a one-man show Kupka held in October that year: it is even possible De Maistre was one of the young students to take advantage of the older artist's open-studio policy. There, he could have seen works similar to "Cathedral" (below right) which may have influenced his later colour music paintings. Certainly, the works are stylistically similar with their vertical and diagonal organizations. Thematically, the link seems more tenuous at first, with their different musical and architectural titles. But Kupka himself provided a connection between these different subjects in 1923:
"...the more rhythm there is in a plastic work, the more it can be likened to music...Architecture, whose proportions come closer to a symmetrical periodicity than those of painting or sculpture, is by turn a hymn, a sonata, a gavotte, a symphony, even at times a valse capricieuse..."
Though Kupka often expressed dissatisfaction with comparison of his work to music, he continually invoked the metaphor himself. It should also be noted that the painting shown is a variant on his Vertical Planes style, that had its origins in "Piano Keyboard/Lake" of 1909, based on Helmholtz's colour-music code. Very quickly, Kupka had abandoned the pitch-to-colour relations of the code. Early drawing of "Horsemen" and "Woman Picking Flowers", of 1909-10, showed segmented sequences of motion. Like the famous time-lapse photographs of Muybridge and Marey, their vertical divisions divide action into slivers of successive moments. Vertical planes dissolved the subjects in space and time, to produce semi-abstract images of kinetic movement, making Kupka something of a hero to Futurist painters. As Marcel Duchamp would later note (when discussing his famous "Nude Descending a Staircase" of 1912), "the whole idea of movement, of speed, was in the air".
The vertically-divided, horizontal time-sequence - whether of a piece of music or some other event - provides a formal similarity between the works of Kupka and De Maistre. But, while the latter employed the schema to dissect a fleeting moment in music, the former seemed just as inspired by the recent innovations in film. Kupka stressed the geometry of the planes in later paintings, rather than any suggested movement. As realistic motifs were gradually eliminated from Kupka's paintings, De Stijl artists praised them as precursors of their own Neoplastic style. They more and more resembled the architectural designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh or Walter Burley Griffin. Kupka still enjoyed his music, it is true; the pianist Walter Rummel often visited him to play Bach fugues, whose structure Kupka admired. In 1932, Kupka summed up his development in these terms:
"The concertos of Johann Sebastian, the music of abstract art, the constructions of the 'machinists', the Dorian column...Geometric plans, correct defining of frontiers, nothing else. The breakup of painting made new forms and new configurations possible."
De Maistre's biographer, Heather Johnson, noted there were no music manuscripts among the artist effects when he died. This suggests he may not have applied his colour-music code directly to a score, to translate music into painting. He could have analyzed the musical sources aurally - playing the same phrases over and over from the many discs he owned - and reconstituted them on canvas. But this is a far more difficult task. For one piece, De Maistre transcribed four hundred and more notes accurately, from several instruments playing simultaneously. This seems to indicate he had access to a written score at some time. Otherwise, we must credit him with special powers - a prodigious memory, the keen ear of a savant, or divine guidance.
If we were to believe De Maistre was clairvoyant, using the hidden but inevitably true colours of music that Theosophists describe, his colour-music code would be the only true one, above all rivals. Indeed, De Maistre treated the code as an article of faith, a universal theme uniting the realm of nature to a cosmic ideal. He was not doggedly faithful to any one scheme, however, and toyed with at least three different codes. It can be hard to track a coherent development due to the spasmodic nature of his colour-music work, as much as vagaries in applying any code and some abrupt changes of style. Still, De Maistre put great store in the endeavour. His later paintings, which treat music as colour and vice versa, come closest to the heart of his beliefs. A spiritual experience may have inspired them, although the artist never said so publicly. Apparently, he had visions that related to his work, and conveyed their import privately, to one Owen Williams:
"He told me categorically that a piece of music (and he mentioned Beethoven) at once created for him a visual image with both themes and harmonies appearing as coloured patterns in his mind's eye."
Instead of a description of mystical ecstasy, we have classic synaesthesia, with De Maistre experiencing identical visions each time the same music was played. But even these revelations are highly subjective, difficult to verify or disprove, rather than intellectual constructs. It is hard to credit an artificial colour-music code - an analogy of two disparate and highly objective systems - with any resemblance to visionary or synaesthetic experiences. Synaesthesia is particular for each individual, so no universal formulation, no code, could account for all persons' visions. Not even Liszt and Rachmaninov could agree on the colours of the musical keys, any more than supposed synaesthetes Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov. However, a colour-music code just might affect visions in a most personal way. If learnt by rote, could it become incorporated in the brain's functioning and, from there, contribute in the production of hallucinations?
The radical theory of Elkhanon Goldberg postulates a descriptive system within the brain, superimposed on the mutually exclusive functions of the fixed systems. He locates this facility in the left hemisphere, where it deals with familiar but complex rituals, detecting and handling coded patterns as a matter of routine. Visuo-spacial codes such as architects' plans, musical notation, mathematics, Morse code, games and some languages could all be processed here. Those with artistic skills and other expertise would deal with these codes as a matter of course. Others, with the common eye and the vulgar ear, would be more reliant upon right hemisphere functions to deal with them as concrete but novel experiences; lacking familiarity with the codes, they would not have developed the left-hemisphere capacity to process them automatically and efficiently.
Richard Cytowic found, by machine testing, that synaesthesia involved the left hemisphere alone. But instead of lighting up the brain with activity, metabolism in the cortex became depressed, to an extent that would indicate crippling brain lesions in normal people. Furthermore, he noted a preponderance of left-handers among synaesthetes. For them, the left-right polarities of the brain are somewhat reversed: the clever processing that happens on the left for right-handers, tends to shift to the right hemisphere. To add to the complexity, brain functioning is by no means static throughout the life of any individual.
For visual-logical thinking, it is suggested that there is a critical age of between ten and fourteen, beyond which it becomes more difficult to teach the brain new tricks (an example of this is the way children develop almost immediate mastery of video games, that many adults find extremely difficult). One study found a synaesthete had learnt the colours she experienced, with letters and numbers, during infancy - from a set of fridge magnets! Childhood training can enhance other capacities, like musical skill. But neuronic potential is limitless and develops or deteriorates according to demand. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of UCLA's Neuro-Psychiatric Institute, suggests in his recent book "Brain Lock", that even the most basic brain functions can be rerouted in later life, by act of personal will. Synaesthetes, though their special abilities are possibly inherent (through the X chromosome), are certainly known to exercise some degree of conscious control over their visions.
Many visual artists, who learnt music as children, have turned to musical principles to guide their mature careers. If the artist is also a synaesthete, personal visions, as much as vision, can become part of artistic practice. Because the triggers for synaesthesia are often cultural artefacts (the sound of music, the shapes of letters and numbers), its manifestations translate readily into art theory. Synaesthetes are perfectly able to give a significance - often of a mystical nature - to music, art and visionary experience.
The theoretical and autobiographical writings of the abstract painter Kandinsky frequently explored similarities between colour and music. Selective reading could support the assumption that he was synaesthetic though the overall tenor is as much characteristic of a high Romanticism, and a young man's reaction to the growing materialism of pre-revolutionary, Muscovite Marxism. Kandinsky's flair for self-publicity (often written retrospectively) suggests his image as a visionary was a self-conscious creation, to some extent. He certainly was aware of contemporary studies of colour-related synaesthesia and chromotherapy. Nor can the influence of his uncle be discounted: Victor Chrisanofovich Kandinsky was considered the father of Russian psychiatry. His researches into hallucinations and related psycho-phenomena could have supplied his young nephew with the language to express visionary yearnings.
Kandinsky was always an enthusiast and an eclectic. Whether as a teacher at the Bauhaus or an art official in post-revolutionary Russia, he included knowledge of medicine, physiology, chemistry, and the occult, in any study of colour. The sensory association of sound and colour was to be explored in monumental art, and Scriabin's work served as an example. The different media converged in the theatre, where together they could produce a state of ecstasy. But it is Kandinsky's distinctive non-objective paintings, executed in the decade preceding his move to the Bauhaus in 1922, on which his reputation chiefly rests. They resemble, at first glance, the automatic drawings of spiritualist artists - spontaneous lines and random patches of colour, produced in a trance-like state while acting as medium for a spirit guide. Kandinsky was fascinated by spiritualism and the occult and certainly knew of their otherworldly visions. He seems to have drawn on descriptions and illustrations of auras in Theosophical literature for some of his early subject matter.
Kandinsky's notes included a careful outline of meditations advocated by Rudolph Steiner. The artist seemed to think it possible, by following the techniques indicated, to arrive at a state that would suggest new subjects for art, and also induce synaesthesia. Any results would seem to lie outside the present clinical definition of the condition (the causes of which may be genetic). He seems to pine for experiences that, if he were a synaesthete, should have been regular and commonplace. Some elements within his paintings - recurring grids, or lattice maps - might suggest form constants, those visual experiences typical of synaesthesia. But they might readily have mundane origins, as free-hand renditions of graphic devices common to Russian Constructivists.
Kandinsky's pictures were carefully planned: a wealth of preparatory drawings attests to a painstaking development of symbols from recognizable subjects. One recurrent element was a ship, whether steamer or rowing boat. I would presume these were linked to the artist's youth, spent in Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea (otherwise he lived a landlocked life). It was in Odessa he had first learnt to play cello and piano. Kandinsky's writing on music might have expressed his nostalgic longing for that past, as did the recurrent boats in his paintings. One may surmise that music represented even more to Kandinsky: it embodied his creative urge as it awakened his capacity for self-expression.
Like De Maistre, Kandinsky turned to painting in his twenties, abandoning his academic studies to do so. Both artists sought, in music, a prototype for painting and a model of a formal approach. Painting sublimated music, to provide a raison d'être and, in De Maistre's use of a colour-music code, a working method. Visionary experiences, even synaesthesia, may have been pivotal for them, as well as for other artists, but their work cannot be interpreted from that perspective alone. Other personal considerations, their respective cultural milieus, and certain philosophical traditions that ascribe meaning to the mingling of the senses, all contributed to the creation of their artworks. Similar factors, of course, apply to each of us who attempts to extract a present meaning from the results of our endeavours.
Describing the role of synaesthesia is always problematic; proof of its very presence mostly depends on whatever disclosures synaesthetes care to make. Medical science usually requires more certain symptoms, and its theories tend to classify what may be highly variable, individual experiences in the manner of general syndromes. The term 'synaesthete' becomes over-scrupulous in the hands of neurologists, even redolent of mental illness and interventionist treatment. As a consequence, scientific definitions of mental states may have little general acceptance, as Lawrence Durrell succinctly pointed out:
"Where we cannot establish the aetiology of a disease or a course of human action - when, for example, the providing brain and the supporting nerves are out of whack - we can always slap a clinical term on it, give it a name even if the name is meaningless."
Diagnosis of synaesthesia is particularly difficult in dead men, such as Kandinsky or De Maistre, as it leaves no known pathological trace. Science is on surer ground with other celebrated artists, where Marfan's syndrome (Paganinni), Paget's disease (Beethoven) and mercury poisoning (Cellini) have been indicated. The work of Van Gogh has been scoured for evidence of absinth or digitalis poisoning, or both. But when such forensic evidence is reported, it can seem intrusive and irrelevant at best - sometimes it is met with howls of outrage, for trammelling the sacred preserve of the creative spirit.
Application of all these theories to Roy De Maistre could prove fascinating, failing the opportunity for brain surgery. He studied music at a time in history when the fusion of art forms was considered aesthetically valid. Perhaps prompted by synaesthesia, his amalgamation of painting with music theory was very much in line with trends of the day. His early spiritual style suggested he was subject to visions: clearly colour was a numinous experience for the new-born painter, who attempted to convey both creativity and personal vision via a code. Superimposed upon De Maistre's work like icing on a cake, the colour-music code seemed to progressively dominate an aspect of his work.
When his colour-music code was first unveiled, De Maistre was 25 years old - well beyond a formative age. Fifteen years elapsed before his colour-music code re-surfaced in England. Paintings done in the 1930s showed deliberately coded music, not an unaffected personal vision: the colour-music code appeared to have taken over. Is it possible that, over the years, De Maistre taught his brain the colour-music code he had devised? When he listened to music, did his mind automatically react to musical pitch according to the code for which he had re-programmed his brain? It seems unlikely, even unhealthy.
By the mid-1930s, De Maistre had evolved a universal method for painting music. Stylistically, it placed him somewhere between Mondrian's neoplasticism and the Orphism of the Delaunays. Painted surfaces were generally flat and patternistic, lacking the otherworldly sense of his earlier Australian style. Gone were the sweeping curves and arrangements of forms in space. Instead, the picture plane was divided into a number of vertical stripes, crossed by horizontal and oblique lines to form rows of rectangles and lozenges.
The compositional device seemed intended to clarify musical structure, to paraphrase the musical manuscript. Colour music paintings of the period show De Maistre relied on their drawn structure, as much as on the colour-music code itself. Now, he could depend on his musical training to pick apart a piece of music after repeated listening; it could be reassembled visually, using the colour-music code applied to a standardized grid. Far from being descriptions of visions or synaesthesia, De Maistre's later English works seem quite analytical studies, intended to depict musical ideas. Putting aside more subjective reactions, he arrived at an intentionally objective product whose cryptic air resulted from the elaborate methods used mapping an invisible subject matter.
De Maistre's final style was epitomized by a small number of colour music paintings in oil. Most of them originate from a lengthy sketch called "Colour Music", painted on a piano roll. The format emphasises the intimate nature of this definitive exercise - like a Chinese scroll, it must be unrolled for the whole seven meters of painting to be revealed. Time and music seem to progress from left to right, as would the holes in a normal piano roll, or the written notes on an elongated musical staff. That De Maistre painted on a piano roll reflects not only his subject matter, but also his poverty and lack of other artists' materials.
The brand he used was a Universal Music Roll, and the same company released Audiographic rolls in 1927, printed with photographs and biographies of the composer. Artists were occasionally asked to decorate the rolls, though I am unaware of any commission offered to De Maistre. It was unusual that he should have a blank, unperforated roll: perhaps it was imported to Australia in someone's personal luggage, or given to De Maistre later by one of several British artist - such as Eric Ravilious, Norman Janes, or Barbara Greg - who made engravings for piano rolls.
The humble piano roll has occasionally served as an artistic medium in its own right. Duncan Grant fitted a long paper collage (Illustration 12 below) to a roller mechanism in 1914. He intended to restrict the view of its length to a foot-square aperture, cut through a masking screen. Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto" was to play as the artwork scrolled by. Others would also utilize the mechanical principals of the pianola. In Sydney, Alexander Hector rigged control switches to its bellows, to regulate the coloured lights displayed as music played. Meanwhile, the American painter, Van Deering Perrine, was moving scrolls of painted tissue paper past a hole backlit by an electric globe. The light projected moving colours onto a screen, just as air blown through holes in a piano roll makes musical notes. In the early 1920s, Hindemith hand-punched a pattern of holes into a piano roll: with no score, he made mechanical music for Schlemmer's "Triadic Ballet", as performed at the Bauhaus. At the same time, Dada artists Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling were joining sheets of sketches into long scrolls; motifs repeated along their lengths were organized after the manner of Bach’s contrapuntal music. Eventually, their efforts produced the first animated abstract films. Meanwhile, at the Bauhaus, Paul Klee converted a Bach Sonata into a similar long shape, as a lesson on the different qualities of lines; it appears as a four-page foldout in his lecture notes, "The Thinking Eye".