de-mystifying De Maistre.

6:  Colour-music paintings by ROY DE MAISTRE


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Roy De Maistre, 1918-33.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

(from "Australian Modern Painting Between the Wars, 1914 to 1939", Mary Eagle.
There, and in the NGV, this work is entitled "Arrested Movement from a Trio".)


Plate 2 : "ARRESTED MOVEMENT FROM A TRIO", Roy De Maistre, 1934.
Private Collection.

(from "Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968", Heather Johnson, Plate 33.
There, it is misnamed "Colour Composition derived from Three Bars of Music In the Key of Green".)

When I first saw these two paintings illustrated in books, I noticed the compositions were very similar. Their ruled structures differ little. Here, they are aligned one above the other, so common regions can easily be compared. Both works appear to be based on the same musical subject, as hinted at by their titles, and the top version seems to precede the more elaborate one below. It would seem they were collectively known as "Arrested Movement from a Trio" for most of their lives. However, when De Maistre exhibited them together in his 1960 retrospective at Whitechapel Gallery in London, he supplied a more precise title for the earlier work. Three bars of music were stipulated, in the key of orange-red. According to De Maistre's colour-music code, orange-red would signify the key of B flat. (By convention, a major key would be assumed, since the word 'minor' is missing.) On the pictures' surfaces, musical pitch seems to be represented by height, while time is marked out in horizontal intervals. The twenty-four vertical stripes of equal width could be considered as quavers; eight of them combine for four beats, in each of the three bars, giving a common time signature. The paintings are out of sync by half a bar, with Plate 2 starting two beats before Plate 1 - exactly on a bar line, as it later turned out.

The middle bar seems to be the focus of De Maistre's attention; a descending figure of crotchets is repeated every two beats in the bass, while a scale or arpeggio of eight quavers ascends in the treble. The quavers appear as a run of deep blue, red, orange-red and a (greenish) yellow, which occurs twice in succession. According to De Maistre's colour-music code, these colours could be F, A, B flat and C sharp. They would not supply the smooth rise in pitch intimated by the gradual slope of their ascent. While theIr coloration is fairly consistent across both Plates 1 and 2, any musical reading remains ambiguous. Elsewhere, the blues might be anything from D to F sharp; tertiary colours (browns and ochres) are even more indeterminate - indeed, even De Maistre's commercial colour charts failed to distinguish them clearly. Add to this the inconsistency of De Maistre's own hand-made colour charts, the non-spectral nature of paint pigments, and the artist's tendency to vary colour for effect, and it becomes difficult to discover the musical source from the paintings.

Nevertheless, on the basis of the pictures, I reconstructed what music I could. (Eventually, a piece called "Fragments" was composed for the exhibition "Sight & Sound", at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, in 2010.) More musical material came from a sketch painted on a piano roll, kept at the Art Gallery of NSW (Illustration 1). On it, De Maistre depicted some twelve bars of music - almost three times the length shown below - from which the subjects for the easel paintings were chosen. The geometrical grid was adjusted according to each picture's size: three bars were taken from the "Piano Roll", and narrowed proportionately, to make the compositions for Plates 1 and 2. After examining the "Piano Roll" in its entirety, I was able to identify the source music in 2012. It is Haydn's "Trio in B flat", for keyboard, violin and cello (Hoboken XV:20); the first line appears in Illustration 2, below. (A more detailed analysis of this discovery is available in my catalogue essay for "Sydney Moderns", at the Art Gallery of NSW, 2013.)

Illustration 1 : "COLOUR MUSIC / PIANO ROLL", Roy De Maistre, 1930s.

A long painting of almost a full page of music

Illustration 2 : "TRIO IN B FLAT" (Hob.XV:20), Joseph Haydn, 1794.

The first line of Haydn's Trio, Hoboken XV:20

On comparing the "Piano Roll" with Haydn's manuscript, major visual features can be identified immediately. On close inspection, most colours are found to match their notes, as dictated by De Maistre's colour music code. Occasionally, visual patterns on the painting are barely apparent in the written score, but emerge clearly when the music is heard. Such is the case with central arpeggios of Plates 1 and 2. The notes - F, A, B flat and D (as it turns out) - sound as one discrete unit, immediately echoed by the same notes an octave higher. Thus the second set of notes is a paler version of the first, in accordance with De Maistre's system, whereby lighter colours indicate higher octaves. The notes recurred as a motif used throughout the piece; Haydn extracted them from the middle of a more uneven arpeggio in the first bar, as shown in colours on the score above. In placing these arpeggios at the centres of his paintings, De Maistre was exercising a fine musical discernment.

In Plate 2, De Maistre used graphic elaborations to enhance the sense of musical realism. The first F of the arpeggio is marked by two disjunct semicircles, a sign De Maistre appointed to that note on his colour wheel. Before it, to the left, similar symbols decorate long strips of rich blue. They indicate that Haydn's music had modulated to F major (or indigo) by the end of bar two. With the arpeggios at the start of bar three, the music reverted to the native key of B flat: De Maistre confirmed the change by an Indian red inscribed with the appropriate chevrons. (Likewise, semicircular symbols mark green G and the blue-green of E flat, to the right.) Apparently satisfied with his final picture, the artist propped it on an easel and painted its portrait: it stands at the focus of an undated work, "Studio Interior", at present in a private collection. (see FRONTISPIECE)

Roy De Maistre, 1919-1935,

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra (where it is misnamed
"Arrested Phrase from a Haydn Trio in Orange-Red Minor").

A single bar of Haydn's music

De Maistre had based another work (Plate 3) on Haydn's Trio, but took only the fourth bar as its subject. (Here, the thematic statements of the first line ended, before the music launched into the pyrotechnics of bar five, with quick-fire notes racing up a double octave.) The painting is almost identical to the equivalent section on the "Piano Roll", in both composition and colour. De Maistre has simply scaled up his original, with no geometrical distortion. This simplicity of approach suggests it was the first of De Maistre's pictures based on Hayden's Trio. His later, more expansive paintings, of three bars each, encompassed bar four as well. So the same design can be discovered in both Plates 1 and 2, on the right, although the shapes are all stretched vertically there. Within a strict geometry, and via a rather literal colour-music code, De Maistre elaborated a single musical idea. The three paintings, along with the "Piano Roll", demonstrate the artist's fascination with colour music, an interest that began in Sydney in 1919.

De Maistre's paintings are no spontaneous reactions to music, but more contrived, and meant to be appreciated primarily for their visual merit. The preliminary works (Plates 1 and 3) are rather understated, compared to the final version (Plate 2). The latter's enriched colour adds to a florid effect common to many of De Maistre's later paintings, while tonality is used to throw separate musical voices into relief. The resultant chiaroscuro achieves a limited three-dimensional effect, compared to the flatter patterning and more abstract spirit of earlier versions. There was some bending of the rules, too, as colours drifted away from the colour-music code. The indigo of F, in a prominent vertical stripe towards the left, was modulated with greens - although no D note, chord or key is there to justify it. As for the Ds in the middle background, their greens are heightened almost to gold, providing a foil to the arpeggios that run across them.

De Maistre was not always so cavalier with the colour-music code. After the fifth bar on the "Piano Roll", colours became increasingly accurate - the notes A to G more truly presented a spectrum, the Newtonian array of ROY G BIV. Even so, the recovery of the musical origin from De Maistre's painted interpretation was a painstaking task, with over four hundred notes represented - each with its own patch of coded colour. The artist was also rather cryptic in the titles he gave his work, never fully revealing his source: it is small wonder the paintings' identities have become confused over the years. Plate 3, for example, was considered to be in the key of orange-red minor by 1965, when exhibited as such at the Marlborough Gallery. The painting may look sufficiently sombre to justify the appellation 'minor', but no such key (or even chord) is depicted. The subject is really in orange-red major, and to suggest otherwise is misleading. After all, it would be futile to call a landscape a seascape, when what we saw were clearly mountains, not waves.

Plate 4 :

Roy De Maistre, 1918-1934.

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
(where it is misnamed "Arrested Phrase from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Red Major").

A selective rendering from Beethoven's music

From Beethoven's final symphony

Illustratiion 3 : from "SYMPHONY No 9 IN D MINOR, Opus 125", 4th Movement,
by Ludwig van Beethoven, 1824.

De Maistre made one other easel painting of music (above), in which his use of the colour-music code was most particular and consistent. But this composition has no resemblance to any part of the "Piano Roll", nor does its music, when reconstructed, appear in the score of the Haydn Trio. The official title stipulates Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as its source. At first, I could find no precise match for the painted music within the score. (My early efforts are described in the Symposium Papers to the "Colour in Art" exhibition at the Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 2008.) A brief passage - near the end of the "Ode to Joy" in the fourth movement - came very close, but was not exactly right. In 2013, I re-examined Beethoven's monumental work (of almost 1000 bars); the musical source for De Maistre's painting finally emerged, scarcely two or three bars away from where I had looked already. A simplified version of the score is shown in Illustration 3, aligned approximately with the painting. Coloured notes readily correspond to painted areas, showing how fluent De Maistre had become in the execution of colour music.

The central scale, for instance, passes through an even spectrum of colour as it ascends from deep red to the paler red an octave above. The patches of yellow-green and indigo-violet are slightly raised, to interrupt the smooth transition. They indicate notes that are raised a semitone in pitch, to C# and F# respectively. The result is a D major scale that begins and ends on A. Despite the large red shapes above, the music portrayed is in the key of green (D), not the key of red (A). A preparatory study, slightly smaller but very similar in appearance, supports an attribution of D major; names of notes can be discerned by eye in many places, where pencil marks are visible beneath the paint layers. (Similar marks emerged on the "Piano Roll" after infra-red scans were taken in Sydney, confirming Haydn's "Trio in B flat" as the subject for the other three paintings.) The colours have an accuracy, according to his code, matched only by the final bars painted on the "Piano Roll".

On the occasion of his Whitechapel retrospective in 1960, De Maistre exhibited this painting, as well as that in Plate 1. They were both listed as Colour Compositions, and shown alongside various colour disks and scales dated 1917-18. Both pictures were aptly double-dated, connecting De Maistre's earlier colour-music paraphernalia with the English paintings. Five years on, the work in Plate 4 was exhibited again, at a group show in the Marlborough Gallery. It was shown with one of the Haydn paintings (Plate 3), and for the first time the musical sources were named. Unfortunately, inappropriate colour keys were given, based more on visual appearances than musical content. It is easy to understand how the central dominant red in the Beethoven painting could mislead a catalogue compiler. (Or why the sombre tones of the Haydn work might suggest a minor, rather than a major mood.) Still, I prefer the titles given at Whitechapel; at least they give the correct key and number of bars. The more prescriptive names, though clumsy, made a succinct statement about the principles and practice of colour music.

Unlike the pictures of Haydn's Trio, where every note is represented more or less as written, the Beethoven work takes certain liberties with the music over all. The first half of the woodwind line (shown as grey notes) is barely suggested, while the sustained vocal note in the central bar is broken up into component beats, to give the rhythm of large red shapes along the top. De Maistre elaborated only these three bars, plucked from Beethoven's vast opus; they last for a scant few seconds within a total running time of one-and-a-quarter hours. What most concerned him - besides the rendering of the music - was the integrity of the text. His selected bars neatly frame the words "Freude, schöner Götterfunken!" (or "Joy, beautiful spark of the divinity" according to Wikipedia). It is the first line of Schiller's poem, iterated for the penultimate time, during the ecstatic climax of Beethoven's final symphony.

Niels Hutchison, Melbourne, 1996-2024.


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