Eurythmic Light- The Sound of Color
Updated: Feb 28
An essay on the sonorities of painting by Brian Keeler
The term “eurythmic” embodies a fascinating concept that alludes to the underlying structure and interest in harmonic relations of form, light and composition. Eurythmic has ancient Greek origins and suggests an appreciation for the balance and concord of proportions. Eurythmic is also cognate with euphoria and suggests the pleasure and rewards of appreciating nature and art. We think of the beauty inherent in the architecture of the Parthenon or in the flow and contrapposto in ancient statuary like the Discobolus or Michelangelo’s David and the geometry of Fibonacci’s golden ratio.
The idea of equating color and sound has been around for a long time, having been explored in depth for centuries in all kinds of ways. Here, my goal is more applicable, as I would just like to inspire a curiosity for the cross currents between the arts that may add to our appreciation and perhaps inform our own expressions. If our color could dance, if our drawings would vibrate with the passion of jazz, if our prose could evoke the harmonies of an orchestra, if our architecture could rhyme, and if poems could have the sonorous balance of a symphony- then there would be some really interesting cross fertilizations. If these musical harmonies could be the result of authentic impressions or feelings and genuinely observed and studied inspirations, then all the better.
As I have been dancing socially and performing with a couple of dance troupes over the years it brings some of this comparison of the arts into relevance. Our gypsy swing combo, Zingology brings the music element into the mix as well.
I titled my art instruction book “Dramatic Color in the Landscape” and this suggests the theatrical aspect. I like to consider paintings as stage presentations. Regarding a given painting as a stage with actors, lighting, props and choreography enriches the creative process. It also adds to the idea of controlling, orchestrating and directing the painting – and this renders the process more of a creative endeavor, rather than a servile duplicative one.
When I was director of the Blue Heron Gallery, the community art gallery in my hometown, we had numerous exhibits that combined art, music, dance along with a catalog of the art with poems by regional poets.
There is a term for individuals who endeavor to hear colors- a synaesthete. In John Cage’s book, “Color and Culture” he brings this to the fore. In his chapter on the sound of color, Cage mentions the fascination in the 19th century between psychology and sound. Here is Cage on this:
“…from the earliest times it had also been felt by synaesthetes as a function of music, and musical examples were often discussed in the growing literature on the subject around 1900. In the Theory of Colours Goethe had drawn attention to a pamphlet on colour-harmony by J.L. Hoffman, in which setting the palette had been compared to tuning the instruments of the orchestra and these instruments to individual colors.”
Is this a false analogy or stretching the corollary too far? It could be said that this penchant for developing the analogous relations has perhaps been misguided, but is still engaging. Some of this engagement goes to Newton and his belief in perceived harmonies of sound and color that could be related to the ancient belief in universal harmony. One result of this, perhaps the most famous, was Louis Bertrand Castel, the French Jesuit, who began working on an ocular harpsichord in the1720’s. There have been many more, but the results seem rather checkered at best. I view these endeavors as fascinating, but similar to the obsession by ancients of trying to square the circle. This eventually proved undoable.
Some naysayers and critics may claim the entire pursuit to be just academic humbug and even taking the magic away by unweaving the rainbow through excessive analysis. It could be a dead end in other words and produce questionable results.
Still, the consideration and contemplation of the relation of correspondences between the arts is not without merit. I think just having fun with the analogies is a creative and rewarding endeavor. As mentioned above, I like the idea of considering paintings as arrangements, as did the painter James McNeil Whistler. His famous portrait of his mother seated in profile is titled “Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 ” with the purpose of underscoring the formal elements of picture making.
The jazz age brings the art and music relations to quite a unique expression. Modrian and the De Stijl group are part of this movement. Modrian the painter, was also an enthusiastic modern dancer with an interest in the Theosophical Society as well, which added the mix. His abstract canvases with an underlying visual rhythm often had titles derived from music like “Broadway Boogie Woogie.”
In a more pragmatic vein and less scientific way as well, we might consider the sound encompassed in any given painting. This idea was covered in a blog essay on the Oil Painters of America web site recently. The idea was to consider a painting by looking at the various depictions within and entertaining how it would sound to be there. A cityscape would have a wide range of auditory input that may be abrasive and annoying. Or the sound of rain and swooshing of car tires could be part of the mix. Walt Whitman has a poem which mentions the cacophony of the city and it is referred to by him as the “blab of the pave.” A seascape may have the sound of waves, seagulls, and perhaps boats, fishermen or tourist walking on the beach. A painting of a mountain stream would have the attending babble of the water as it flowed over rocks.
I have made a point of painting at some of the same places that Corot painted in Italy in the 19th Century. I have been to several of the same locations in Italy that Turner painted and some of Sargent’s too. Seated in front of these motifs with my easel, for example the ancient Ponte Fabricio along the Tiber in Rome, I've wondered what Corot would have been hearing in 1820. Perhaps the clop of horse hoofs instead of the traffic noise we hear.
Even to expand the mixing of arts and sensations, Scriabin’s Opus 60 of 1920 was his last effort at combining color with music, but at the time of his death he was even planning on an olfactory experiment called Mysterium along with colored lights. Maybe some things are best left undone, as we think of raunchy foray into such areas with the movies of the transgender (?) or in drag actor, Divine and smell-o-vision. We wont go there.
Intervals, however is a concept worth looking at. I have a slide lecture on the essential concepts of painting and I stress that intervals are the key to understanding composing and articulating how the elements of a painting work together. And understanding intervals, of course, is also a fundamental aspect of music with timing and rhythm and even how the fret board of a guitar or the keys of a piano are related. Sheet music is divided up into measures and further divided with various notes with variations of duration and pitch. Poetry too has mathmatical intervals, such as iambic pentameter or terza rima. Leonardo Da Vinci is pertinent here. The Renaissance artists often made correlations between art and music by regarding paintings as a sort of frozen music. Paintings could be thought of as a section of a musical score that has been taken out of the performance, so that we may marvel at its structure as long as we like.
In Kenneth Clark’s book on Leonardo Da Vinci he shows that Leonardo believed that a painter needed to create a harmonic proportion of the parts to the whole. This idea sums up the idea of eurhythmia, which is a proportional harmony. Here is a quote from Clark’s book:
“ Here Leonardo shows himself touched by the predominant Platonism of his time for the idea that the visual arts were a sort of frozen music was familiar to many theorists of the Renaissance, and had been given superb expression by Leon Battista Alberti.”
Leonardo was reputed to be equally gifted at playing the lute and lyre, as well as composing and singing. When he lived in Milan his main activity, aside from painting and sculpting, was preparing dramatic performances.
One of the most famous borrowings between the arts is Claude Debussy’s tone poem, " Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," first performed in Paris in 1894. (See the painting at the end of this article as visual expression of Debussy's work.) Debussy took a poem of Stephane Mallarme that depicts the erotic desires of a faun on a warm afternoon as he unsuccessfully persued nymphs and naiads. This episode in arts has an unusual twist as Mallarme was initially unhappy with the appropriation. He believed that it was close to criminal to juxtapose the two art forms even if the music was exceptional. It all turned out well after hearing the performance. Here is a quote from Mallarme writing to Debussy:
"I have just come out of the concert, deeply moved. The marvel! Your illustration of the Afternoon of a Faun, which presents no dissonance with my text, but goes much further, really, into nostalgia and into light, with finesse, with sensuality, with richness. I press your hand admiringly, Debussy. Yours, Mallarmé."
So to conclude, I will leave with the idea of color chords. The concept is to combine several colors or at least two with the corollary of a musical chord. The visual representation should also work together to produce a relation of harmony. We can also think of some of the wonderful paintings from history of musicians and dancers. These depictions, like Degas’ dancers and musicians or the famous work of Henry Ossawa Tanner of the elderly black man instructing his grandson on the banjo all evoke our admiration. These color compositions portraying the act of music and dance invite our own admirations for chords played or chords viewed. We can also imagine single notes soaring or in a visual fugue, as with "The Lark Ascending " by Ralph Vaughan Williams.