October 2023

Music and Art, Art and Music

Philip Gerstein



"White, therefore, has this harmony of silence,

which works upon us negatively,

like many pauses in music that break temporarily the melody.

It is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities... ."

~Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art


In an academically-oriented town like Boston, the new exhibition season rolls in in the Fall, in reluctant harmony with its relentless academic calendar.


My own exhibition season this year begins with a pair of group shows, the most notable of which concerns a subject that is bound to make a color abstractionist's heart beat more rhythmically. It's entitled:

Harmony: Art and Music

This show takes place, fittingly, in a historic building of a former piano factory in the South End of Boston. I am told that once upon a time, before the massive project of filling in part of the Charles River basin in the 19th century, this factory sat on the very shore, so the freight barges could sail right up to the building to pick up baby grands and uprights and grand concert pianos made of exotic woods, to deliver their fancy delicate loads to any destination.


But back to the exhibition, which features three of my paintings. They were created within a year of each other, on birchwood panels of the same size, with shared spatial concerns and compositional preoccupations. The distinctions, however, are also telling: the comparative starkness and greater textural complexity in "The Minstrel Show (Intermission)" underscores the "softer" focus and freer coloristic expressiveness of the other two panels.


"The Minstrel Show (Intermission)",  40 x 30 in. (102 x 76 cm),
Acrylic & mixed media on wood panel, 2020


"The Day of Singing",  40 x 30 in. (102 x 76 cm),
Oil stick, acrylic & & mixed media on wood panel,  2020



In the Epigraph quote above, Kandinsky speaks of the many pauses that create a musical composition. Finding and staying with that distinguishing rhythm is what makes each of these paintings unique.


"Lightness of Being",  40 x 30 in. (102 x 76 cm),
Acrylic & mixed media on wood panel, 2021


The musical titles that go with these paintings are hardly accidental; rather, they are revelatory of the vibratory language in which these paintings are 'written'. (In fact, in some languages, such as Russian, "to paint a painting" is literally "to write a painting" -- "napisat' kartinu"!) The visual analogy to a sheet of musical notation perhaps is not coincidental either. The pattern thus created underscores the interval-based nature of organized information and, broadly, of any deliberate creation.


You may have heard Walter Pater's deservedly famous dictum: "All art constantly aspires to the condition of music." What you may not have been given a chance to see, is the following full quotation in his original article of 1877*, where Pater fleshes out this elegant proposition:

"All art constantly aspires to the condition of music. … It is the art of music which most completely realizes this artistic ideal, this perfect identification of form and matter. In its ideal, consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they inhere in and completely saturate each other… ." Pater then sets an interesting task -- and a high bar -- for aesthetic criticism, as he continues:

"Music then, and not poetry, as is so often supposed, is the true type or measure of perfected art. …[T]he arts may be represented as continually struggling after the law and principle of music, to a condition which music alone completely realizes; and one of the chief functions of aesthetic criticism… is to estimate the degree in which each of those products approaches, in this sense, to musical law."


Yes, by the time Kandinsky was tackling music's ecstatic role in his own art, Music has long been "in the air" as inspiration and aspiration for the Art of Painting.



*Walter Horatio Pater (1839–94), Essay on "The School of Giorgione", Fortnightly Review, 1877.


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Born and raised in Moscow, Russia, Philip Gerstein began exhibiting his work in the 1980's, while pursuing a PhD in Art History at Harvard University. He studied painting at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Japanese calligraphy with Toshu Ogawa. Gerstein exhibits in NYC, Provincetown MA, and extensively in the Boston area, as well as organizing and curating painting and photography shows. For his paintings – extensively reviewed and widely collected see www.PhilipGerstein.com. For his other work in Scene4, check the Archives

©2023 Philip Gerstein
©2023 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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