Visual Music traces an alternative history of abstract art of the past century. Rather than follow the progression of movements and styles by which modern and contemporary art have come to be defined, this exhibition and publication present successive explorations of an idea.
The history traced by “Visual Music” includes paintings, photographs, color organs, films, light shows, installations, and digital media. Traditionally, each of these has been studied and exhibited separately, emphasizing their particular and independent history. “Visual Music” presents them instead as manifestations of the successive unfolding of an idea – indeed some of today’s electronic installations may be seen to realize aspirations expressed by paintings made almost one hundred years ago.
Animating such physically, geographically, and chronologically disparate works is the idea of synaesthesia: the unity of the senses and, by extension, the arts.
According to the principle of synaesthesia, sensory perception of one kind may manifest itself as sensory experience of another – one example being the phenomenon of seeing color when one hears certain sounds. Throughout the nineteenth century, synaesthesia proved a staple first of Romantic, then of Symbolist thought. Synaesthesia associations were thought to result from a heightened state of aesthetic awareness in the perceiving subject. Artists, writers, and musicians, in turn, sought to create works that would generate such associations for their audiences.
While synaesthesia might mingle any or all of the five senses, music held a special place as the referent or inspiration for such heightened states. That holds true, for example, in one of the most famous literary evocations of the synaesthetic ideals J.K Huysman’s novel A revours(Against nature). The literary synaesthesia of Huysmans is, in a sense, precisely literal, comprising one to one associations in which a single sensation stands in for another – one taste with the sound of one musical instrument.And yet, a crucial aspect of music’s attraction for partisans of synaesthesia involved claims made for its status as a pure of abstract paintings as Wassily Kandinsky and Frantisek Kupka asserted that the formal abstract structures of musical composition pointed the way towards a new art, while music’s direct and emotional appeal indicated a condition to which art should aspire.