Musical paintings or Temperament paintings.The idea of founding a theory of painting after the model of music theory, was famously suggested by Goethe in 1807, and gained much regard among the avant-garde artists of 1920s, the Weimar culture period, like Paul Klee.


The interest in synesthesia is at least as old as Greek philosophy. One of the questions that the classic philosophers asked was if color (chroia, what we now call timbre) of music was a physical quality that could be quantified (Campen 2007, Gage 1994, Ferwerda & Struycken 2001, Jewanski 1999). The first known experiment to test correspondences between sound and color was conducted by the Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo at the end of the sixteenth century. He consulted with a musician at the court of Rudolph II in Prague to create a new experiment that sought to show the colors that accompany music. He decided to place different colored strips of painted paper on the gravicembalo, a keyboard instrument (Gage, 1994). The problem of finding a mathematical system to explain the connection between music and color has both inspired and frustrated artists and scientists throughout the ages. The seventeenth-century physicist Isaac Newton tried to solve the problem by assuming that musical tones and color tones have frequencies in common. He attempted to link sound oscillations to respective light waves. According to Newton, the distribution of white light in a spectrum of colors is analogous to the musical distribution of tones in an octave. So, he identified seven discrete light entities, that he then matched to the seven discrete notes of an octave (Campen 2007, Peacock 1988).

From Goethe to Kandinsky and Klee

Goethe famously said in 1807 that painting "lacks any established, accepted theory as exists in music".

In the second half the nineteenth century, a tradition of musical paintings began to appear that influenced symbolist painters (Campen 2007, Van Uitert 1978). In the first decades of the twentieth century, a German artist group called The Blue Rider (Der Blaue Reiter) executed synesthetic experiments that involved a composite group of painters, composers, dancers and theater producers. The group focused on the unification of the arts by means of Total Works of Art (Gesamtkunstwerke) (Von Maur 2001, Hahl-Koch 1985, Ione 2004). Wassily Kandinsky theory of synesthesia, as formulated in booklet On the Spiritual in Art (1910), helped to shape the ground for these experiments. He described synesthesia as a phenomenon of transposition of experience from one sense modality to another, as in unisonous musical tones (Kandinsky 1910, Düchting 1996). Kandinsky was not the only artist at this time with an interest in synesthetic perception. A study of the art at the turn of the century reveals in the work of almost every progressive or avant-garde artist an interest in the correspondences of music and visual art. Modern artists experimented with multi-sensory perception like the simultaneous perception of movement in music and film (Von Maur 2001, Heyrman 2003).

Kandinsky's Musical interpretations

File:Kandinsky WWI.jpg

Composition VII—according to Kandinsky, the most complex piece he ever painted (1913)

Writing that "music is the ultimate teacher," Kandinsky embarked upon the first seven of his ten Compositions. The first three survive only in black-and-white photographs taken by fellow artist and friend Gabriele Münter. While studies, sketches, and improvisations exist (particularly of Composition II), a Nazi raid on the Bauhaus in the 1930s resulted in the confiscation of Kandinsky's first three Compositions. They were displayed in the State-sponsored exhibit "Degenerate Art", and then destroyed (along with works by Paul Klee, Franz Marc and other modern artists).

Kandinsky's analyses on forms and colours result not from simple, arbitrary idea-associations but from the painter's inner experience. He spent years creating abstract, sensorially rich paintings, working with form and colour, tirelessly observing his own paintings and those of other artists, noting their effects on his sense of colour. This subjective experience is something that anyone can do—not scientific, objective observations but inner, subjective ones, what French philosopher Michel Henry calls "absolute subjectivity" or the "absolute phenomenological life".

Paul Klee's Musical interpretations

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Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, Switzerland, designed by Renzo Piano

Unlike his taste for adventurous modern experiment in painting, Klee, though musically talented, was attracted to older traditions of music; he neither appreciated composers of the late 19th century, such as Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler, nor contemporary music. Bach and Mozart were for him the greatest composers; he most enjoyed playing the works by the latter.

Klee's work has influenced composer including Argentinian Roberto García Morillo in 1943, with Tres pinturas de Paul Klee, and the American artist David Hammond in 1958, with the four-part Opus Welt von Paul Klee (World of Paul Klee) Gunther Schuller with Sieben Studien über Klee'sche Bilder (Seven Studies about Klee Pictures) in the years 1959/60, and the Spanish composer Benet Casablancas with Alter Klang, Impromptu for Orchestra after Klee (2006); Casablancas is author also of the Retablo on texts by Paul Klee, Cantata da Camera for Soprano, Mezzo and Piano (2007). Other works are Abstraktes Terzett (Abstract Trio), Little Blue Devil, Zwitscher-Maschine (Twittering Machine), Arab Village, Ein unheimlicher Moment (An Eerie Moment) and Pastorale. In 1950, Giselher Klebe performed his orchestral work Die Zwitschermaschine with the subtitle Metamorphosen über das Bild von Paul Klee at the Donaueschinger Musiktage. 8 Pieces on Paul Klee is the title of the debut album by the Ensemble Sortisatio, recorded February and March 2002 in Leipzig and August 2002 in Luzern, Switzerland. The composition "Wie der Klee vierblättrig wurde" (How the clover became four-leaved) was inspired by the watercolour painting Hat Kopf, Hand, Fuss und Herz (1930), Angelus Novus and Hauptweg und Nebenwege.

In 1968, a jazz group called The National Gallery featuring composer Chuck Mangione released the album Performing Musical Interpretations of the Paintings of Paul Klee. In 1995 the Greek experimental filmmaker, Kostas Sfikas, created a film based entirely on Paul Klee's paintings. The film is entitled "Paul Klee's Prophetic Bird of Sorrows", and draws its title from Klee's Landscape with Yellow Birds. It was made using portions and cutouts from Paul Klee's paintings.

See also

  • Early life of Sir Isaac Newton
  • Goethe's Theory of Colours
  • Cretien van Campen
  • Synesthesia in art
  • Theory of painting
  • Musica universalis
  • Music theory
  • Pitch space
  • Der Blaue Reiter
  • Visual music


  • Lerdahl, Fred (2001). Tonal Pitch Space, pp. 42–43. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505834-8.
  • Kandinsky [1911] Concerning the Spiritual in Art, chapter The language of form and colour pp. 27–45
  • Campen, Cretien van (2007). The Hidden Sense. Synesthesia in Art and Science. Cambridge: MIT Press.