1: PAINTING BY NUMBERS
DE MAISTRE AND HIS COLOUR MUSIC
(see also Plates 1 & 2)
In 1919, one of Australia's most controversial art exhibitions was held in Sydney. Called "Colour in Art", it attracted a crowd of 700 to the opening, an occasion of fervent debates by all accounts. The cause of the furore was the artists' use of colour. One of the two exhibitors, Roland Wakelin, was a student of Anthony Datillo Rubbo at the Royal Art Society, where colour studies formed an important part of the curriculum. The other was Roy De Maistre, a young musician-turned-painter, whose musical training was evident in the titles of many paintings on display. "The Boat Sheds, in Violet Red Key" was typical: while the subject was realistic the colours were chosen to harmonise like the notes in music. De Maistre hung colour charts at the back of the exhibition, to show how musical notes corresponded to different hues and formed a colour-music code. After De Maistre's death in 1968, the charts found their way to the Art Gallery of NSW, and so colour music gained a permanent place in Australian art history. Their importance had been guaranteed when, in 1959, the large painting "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor" surfaced at auction. Dated 1919, it was hailed as the first example of Australian abstraction, composed by De Maistre on colour-music principles. Heather Johnson's "Roy De Maistre: The Australian Years, 1894 to 1930" throws light on the artist's early work; her second volume, "Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968", emphasises the continued importance of colour music to this painter.
De Maistre's colour chart took the form of a wheel. A flow of colour, like a rainbow, formed the rim. Spokes divided the wheel into twelve segments with different colours and notes allocated to each segment. The relationship between colours and notes followed a simple order: the seven white notes of the keyboard (A, B, C, D, E, F and G) were given to the seven rainbow colours of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (or ROY G BIV for short), and in that order. This made up a colour-music code, starting with red-equals-A at the bottom end. Musical pitch then increased note by note up the scale, paralleled by a similar movement of colour through the spectrum, ended with violet-equals-G. Scientifically, this created a linear sequence in which the frequencies, or vibrational rates, of both light and sound progressively increased.
After determining the basis of his own colour-music code, De Maistre had then to join the opposite ends of the spectrum to form a wheel. A non-spectral colour was added, blending the red and the violet of the spectrum's ends. This 'impure' red-violet was given the musical note of G sharp, half-way between the notes of A (red) and G (violet), so connecting the ends of the white-note scale. The black note, G sharp, is often added to the key of A natural minor as an accidental, individually marked each time it appears but not present in the overall key signature. A heightened musical effect is achieved by raising G to G sharp, immediately before the climactic keynote of A. The formal consequence is a change of key to A harmonic minor - the type of minor key that predominated in De Maistre's time, as it has for the last two hundred years.
The basic wheel was formed by the addition of an 'impure' red-violet and the 'accidental' G sharp in the twelfth segment. De Maistre's next task was to insert the remaining four black notes - C sharp, for example, was placed in a segment of yellow-green colour, between C at yellow and D at green. In this way, a graduated colour wheel was built up to represent the twelve notes of music, and De Maistre's colour-music code was formed. Travelling round and round the wheel mimicked the cycle of musical octaves (from A' to A and so on up the scale), all the while accompanied by a smooth flow of changing colour.
The ROY G BIV colour sequence had long been used as a shorthand expression for the colours of the rainbow. It was devised by Sir Isaac Newton to describe the artificial spectrum he first produced in 1666. When he split sunlight with a prism, Newton produced a continuum of pure colours - the spectrum. He initially noted eleven basic colours, later reducing his description to five broad hues. For the publication of "Opticks" in 1704, orange and indigo were added to create the seven-hued rainbow, ROY G BIV, that is commonplace today. This structure was an artifice, designed by Newton as a metaphor for a certain traditional musical mode. Its fundamental chord - of the first, third, and fifth notes - was represented by the triad of primary colours, red, yellow and blue. Intervals of fifths (such as red and blue) were considered harmonious, as in music, while adjacent colours were held not to agree. And so a crude colour-music code was created: although the musical system has changed since Newton's time, the pursuit of esoteric relationships between light and sound has continued. Many reputable scientists have been intrigued by the analogy, allotting spectral colours to various scales of musical notes on a modern keyboard. Professor A W Rimington described his own method in 1895, prior to one of his famous colour-organ concerts in London:
Illustration 2 : RELATIVE MAJOR AND MINOR KEYS.
De Maistre clearly understood the relationship between C major and A minor, as shown by one of his sketches. The white notes of a keyboard were arranged in a circle, spaced a tone or a semitone apart to make an octave scale. The most important notes - the keynote C, the dominant G (5th), and the subdominant F (4th) - were labelled, and joined in a triangle. Its base is yellow, the colour of C. An extra note, the accidental G#, was added: when substituted for G, it will convert the key of C major to its relative minor, A. A triangle in red, the colour of A, bypassed G and pointed to G# instead. While De Maistre unveiled his code at the "Colour in Art" exhibition, Alexander Hector was holding colour-music concerts in Sydney. In 1919, he flooded stage settings with coloured lights, to the sound of mechanical keyboards. The magazine "Sea, Land, and Air" reported he used a code identical to De Maistre's, to coordinate colours and music, so the note C provoked yellow light. But Hector linked sound and the spectrum more variously. While his colour-music code might start from either note, A or C, Hector typically allotted them red, rather than yellow. One scheme placed a dark red on middle C; from there, spectra ran both up and down the notes, to imitate the symmetry of a double rainbow. At the low threshold of vision, red was the logical beginning for all sequences of colour, but "this scale of ratios of the spectrum colours may be arranged over the various keys and octaves in several ways to suit different classes of music". Hector's sophisticated colour music was aimed at variety in performance, while De Maistre sought an aesthetic correspondence; yet others were content to investigate the theory. Hermann von Helmholtz had compared wavelengths of colour and musical pitch in 1860. He arbitrarily equated yellow with a tenor C, but had little faith in the exercise of colour music - he was more interested in mixing yellow lights with blues, to produce an apparent white. Like any two complementary colours, chosen from opposite sides of an accurate colour circle, they could cancel each other's hue. For Helmholtz, the contrast of opposites was rather banal, though he thought all spectral colours were striking. He suggested that three colours, more evenly spaced - such as yellow with greenish blue and purple - would provide more stimulating combinations. De Maistre assumed correct colour relations had a musical basis, demonstrated on his Colour Harmonizing Chart. Its yellow C was opposed by the indigo-violet of F#. Since the two notes would make an unpleasant tritone, the F and G on either side were better choices. Their indigo and violet formed the most important relationships - the musical consonances of fourth and fifth - with yellow C. More generally, De Maistre noted how harmonic relationships gave near-complementaries in every key, to form a contrast of warm and cool colours.
ROY DE MAISTRE'S COLOUR MUSIC CODE.
Illustration 4 : "RHYTHMIC COMPOSITION IN YELLOW GREEN MINOR",
Roy De Maistre, 1919, Art Gallery of New South Wales.
In mature paintings, De Maistre turned to the task of transcribing music, for which his colour-music code seemed purpose-built. Fragments of music were painted as flat patterns of colour, moving from left to right as if the music manuscript had been encrypted in the colour-music code. Some tonal variety was introduced, along with enigmatic graphic elements; De Maistre created fairly complex designs to express only small amounts of music. His methods were tightly controlled, based on the orthodox colour-music principles he had established by 1926 - ROY G BIV colours ascended a white-note scale, from A to G. In one set of preparatory exercises, De Maistre used a key diagram, a jigsaw of shapes numbered 1 to 8. The shapes represented successive notes of any musical octave; they were to be coloured by number, according to the scale represented. He reproduced the key diagram on a number of sheets, to test a variety of colourations. In the musical key of D, for instance, shape 1 was D, the first note of the scale. According to his colour-music code, it was coloured green, while shape 8 was a lighter green, to represent another D at the top end of the scale. The notes (and shapes) between were coloured, as well, from the fixed palette of the code. On other sheets, De Maistre filled out other scales: while the range of colours differed only slightly from key to key, their distribution among shapes altered the appearance of each exercise.
Ambiguities are present in any code attempting to translate music into colour. For instance, red might stand for the note A but this does not tell us which one of them, high or low: red might just as easily represent the scale, the key or the chord, all based on A. Later work suggested De Maistre was emphasizing a chord-based, as much as a note-based, application of his colour-music code. The august Classical and Romantic music he interpreted gave common combinations of chords, based on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale. When translated via the colour wheel, these would yield abrupt colour contrasts - a red key (A) would be augmented by green (D) and blue (E) chords. All are prominent in "Arrested Phrase from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Red Major", of 1935. But closer examination reveals the painting to be in the green key of D, where the same colours might also occur. (Indeed, the Beethoven piece is mostly in D major and minor.) With few chords in such short musical fragments, De Maistre's mature paintings an inevitably brazen, heraldic coloration. Their appearance arises from the colour-music code, as much as from the music he purports to express. Ultimately, they depend on a quasi-scientific assumption - common to many schemes such as De Maistre's - that a mathematical relationship of frequencies, or vibrations, unites the physical phenomena of light and sound.
Illustration 5 : "SYNCHROMY", Morgan Russell, c 1914-16.
Kupka, at once a spiritualist medium, a student of alchemy, an avid physicist and a renown fin-de-siecle illustrator, spent two years refining a revolutionary painting style. "Fugue for Two Colours", considered in some quarters as the first truly abstract canvas, was the logical outcome of a painstaking process, stripping away all vestiges of natural subject matter for the sake of formal, pictorial values. The background device of overlapping discs was borrowed from his previous, Symbolist-like paintings on themes of cosmology, alchemy, oriental philosophy and rebirth. The central motif, a knotted skein of intersecting elliptical curves, can be traced, through some forty or so preparatory sketches, to one origin in a 1908 painting of a girl with a ball, another in Newton's discs, and possibly also in Theosophical diagrams of the seven planets, entwined in the evolutionary trajectories of the material world. The final version portrays movement, while evoking the interlocking linear themes of musical fugues. "Yes, fugues, where the sounds evolve like veritable physical entities, intertwine, come and go." The preoccupations of abstract art, to find pictorial expression for universal structures and rhythms of inner reality, were presaged in Kupka's work.
Exhibited at the 1912 Salon d'Automne in Paris, "Fugue for Two Colours" alarmed, puzzled and delighted the critics. Is it possible that descriptions of the painting, or even reproductions of it, were known in Sydney? Did Australian servicemen absorb the modern influence during World War I, returning to tell of the European aesthetic? What is known is that, by war's end, Roy De Maistre used a similar construction of criss-crossed, undulating lines, to divide the picture surface of "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow Green Minor" into a chequerboard of discrete colour patches. Kupka (through a laborious process of development) and De Maistre (with the aid of colour music theory) both attempted to return painting to a state of 'relative' innocence and purity. Their techniques are forms of sophisticated play, set at a great distance from the academic standards of their day. Their mature paintings are closer to what we might now expect of a child, colouring in a page of scribble - and there is nothing wrong with that.
Less of an abstractionist than Kupka, De Maistre retained traces of a naturalistic approach in "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor", though some visionary qualities were apparent. Depth recession and three-dimensional form were emphasized to convey some sense of other-worldly environment - like a rolling sea beneath a sky with at least one sun. These traits were even more marked in "A Painted Picture of the Universe", where series of shapes marched into the distance over billowing hills under a sky of concentric arcs. This painting seems to originate in De Maistre's early Australian period, though it was enigmatically dated l920 to 1934. (Later paintings were similarly double-dated - an apparent attempt to connect the Australian and British periods of his colour music work - though their style was quite distinct. Many of Kupka's works from the same era were also given multiple dates.)
European and American interest in colour music had contributed to the development of abstraction, which eschewed subject-matter and emphasized formal values. As recently as 1992, the commonality of painting and music was acknowledged in an interview granted by the artist Bridget Riley to E H Gombrich:
There is still an Eastern Road in Turramurra, although Cossington-Smith's rural landscape sunk long ago, beneath Sydney's urban sprawl. Even so, the spirit of colour music bobbed to the surface there, in the 1980s. At his nearby home, Ralph Pridmore demonstrated the sound-to-light transducer. Coloured lights flashed across a metre-square screen to the sound of music, reacting to its volume, pitch and rhythm. (Beatles' music was said to give a particularly colourful performance.) The machine picked up subtle overtones of a solo instrument, and the separate notes of chords, as well as responding to a massed orchestra. Behind the screen, Pridmore had wired 76 coloured bulbs in a pattern, not unlike De Maistre's colour wheel. Six rings of lights represented six octaves of pitch, and spiralled towards the highest notes in the centre. Twelve spectral colours ran around the rim, representing the semitones of the bass octave; each colour converged in a wedge to the centre of the spiral.
Instead of following ROY G BIV, Pridmore reduced the wavelengths of notes mathematically, until they matched the minute vibrations of colours. (Thomas Young had tried - and rejected - the same technique early in the 19th century, when he pioneered the wave theory of light. Helmholtz was to do the same.) The outcome was a scale that began at G with deep crimson, with orange at A, green and blue on C and D, and violet and purple aligned to E and F. In performance, Pridmore detected a bias towards the red-blues: the physics might need adjusting to spread the colours more evenly. He suggested the so-called psychological primaries - red, yellow, green and blue - spaced three semitones apart, as the basis for future colour music. Like De Maistre before him, Pridmore saw a role for colour music in therapies for convalescents and mental patients. He also hoped it could be a tool to teach music appreciation to the deaf, though he noted performances lost much of their emotional impact for the hearing, when the volume was turned down. As it was, musicians and health professionals showed some interest in his apparatus, but the project stalled through lack of funds.
In Australia, as elsewhere, colour music fluctuated in popularity, Roy De Maistre managed to exploit the passing fad. By catching the wave of occult interest, he was able to cross over from one art form to another, from music to painting. De Maistre used the principles of colour music to facilitate the change and to kick-start his new career. Failing any development to abstraction, in parallel to Europe, colour music's appeal to painters waned, though De Maistre could not be held entirely responsible for a falling-away of enthusiasm. He had posited an Australian proto-abstraction that, though highly codified and rarefied, remained representational. Australia's insularity and conservatism made it more comfortable for local artists to stick to a recognizable, accepted style, epitomised by Max Meldrum's tonal realism; De Maistre himself soon became an adherent of this new manner and historians must look elsewhere for the origins of a seminal school of Australian abstract painting.
Roy De Maistre, 1943.