Is Picasso Like Gershwin?

On the Parallels Between Painters and Composers

/ by Boštjan Jurečič

Doesn't Rembrandt look somewhat like Beethoven sounds? Doesn't Velazquez look somewhat like Mozart sounds? Monet is the original Impressionist painter, while Debussy is the original impressionist composer…

There have always been parallels between art and music. But how could we establish such parallels in order to give them solidity and credibility? What should be the parameters that would determine such parallels?

In a nutshell, the parallels between visual arts and music, in order for such parallels to have any worth, should be conceptual and morphological in essence. Less formal linkages are, of course, always welcome, too.

At the same time, it is worth pointing out that, while some people demand proofs of mathematical solidity, precision and rigor for claims in the field of arts, mathematics cannot be used to prove anything of significance in arts. Proofs in arts can only be epistemological: What we know and how we arrived at the knowledge. Therefore, we will assume that, by keeping with the said demands, the parallels between art and music can only be more or less accurate.

A curious time gap between visual arts and music is observable: The most commonly-observed gap is 20 years, in which composers catch up with painters, but it could also be more or less. Why this is so is up for debate. We notice the first such gap even in the Renaissance. Referring to this time gap, let's just quickly point at the example of Monet and Debussy: Monet painted his first Impressionist painting in 1872, while Debussy composed his first “impressionist” piece of music some 20 years later.

So, let's take a look at conceptual and morphological similarities between these two, to see if they match.

Almost all of the painting made between 1500 and 1872 was tonal in essence. Painters used black and white to darken or brighten the dominant colors. Monet broke this rule. He abolished the use of black and white, and used mainly spectral colors. He was able to achieve the effects of volume, mass and distance of objects by switching between cold and warm colors.

The same thing happened in music, some 20 years later. Almost all of the music before Debussy was tonal. Tonality is an organized system of tones in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. This principle was abolished by Debussy. Musicologist Rudolph Reti (1958) observes glittering passages and webs of figurations which distract from occasional absence of tonality in Debussy's music; he also mentions frequent use of parallel chords, which are "in essence not harmonies at all, but rather 'chordal melodies,' enriched unisons." He mentions unprepared modulations, "without any harmonic bridge."

In both these cases, we talk about the ending of tonality, whether in painting or in music. Thus we have arrived at conceptual and morphological similarities between these two artists in their two art forms. There is, of course, a less formal linkage, too: Both these artists were called “impressionistic,” although Debussy disliked the term.

But Monet and Debussy are easy. The theory in front of you raises controversy, and the controversy might be ignited as early as Picasso. In the available literature (Ross, 2007) composer Igor Stravinsky is linked to painter Pablo Picasso: These two are supposed to be morphologically parallel to each other.

Ross and others are not accurate enough. Picasso and Stravinsky were active at approximately the same time, therefore we miss the typical time gap to which I referred earlier. The second, and of course more important dispute, is with the morphology of either painting or music, that is linked to the basic concepts of these two artists: Picasso drew from European classicism, to which he added the allover present elements of African art. We see figures in wild expressive motions, with almost no modulation or individual personal features. Stravinsky's music remained within European musical traditions throughout his output. So Stravinsky cannot fill in the role of Picasso's parallel.

Actually, George Gershwin did in music what Picasso did in visual arts: He drew from the European classic tradition, but infused it with jazz – African culture, that is. We hear simple melodies with very little modulation that are combined with relatively simple harmonies.

Apart from the intrinsic worth of this parallel, the parallel is also important because it could indicate that there is less confusion in music than there is in visual arts. Picasso is, namely, seen by many as a genius, a kind of demigod. Gershwin is a very respected composer, but is not seen as a genius by most. So, should we elevate the status of Gershwin, or should we downgrade Picasso?

Probably the latter, but read on.

Picasso was very influential, that goes without further saying. So let's look at the painter who was, for a long time, very much influenced by Picasso: Jackson Pollock. He had struggled with Picasso's influence for quite some time, when he stumbled upon his signature style: All over drip. This was American Abstract Expressionism at its highest. It is important to note that we are talking about American Abstract Expressionism (Pollock, Hoffman, Kline, Motherwell…) European Abstract Expressionism is called informel, and is different from its American counterpart: It is less gestural, more subdued in terms of the use of colors. The work of Tapies, Burri, Vedova and others are points in this case.

This difference could point to different origins of both abstract styles. The whole picture becomes clearer when taking into consideration the musical parallels. We have already established the link between Picasso and Gershwin. Should we look for Pollock's musical counterpart in the field of jazz? Should we look for someone who came after Gershwin, the same way that Pollock came after Picasso?

John Coltrane was strongly influenced by Gershwin in the beginning. Later, he dissolved his music into free jazz: Total abolition of any firm musical structure. Could Coltrane be the most accurate parallel for Pollock? It appears so, to a very high degree.

And the European informel? No jazz there. The musical parallels should be found in the field of serial music. Indeed, even the musicologist Gregor Pompe, in his book The Main Currents in the Music of the 20th Century (2014), notices the conceptual and morphological similarities between European abstract art and serial music, which is, unlike jazz, a European invention (Messiaen, Boulez, Nono…)

Things get even more controversial when we move on. It is generally accepted that pop art is a reaction to Abstract Expressionism. Is, therefore, Andy Warhol a reaction to Jackson Pollock? The “king of pop art,” as Andy is often referred to, is a reaction to the king of jazz art (which is how I would tag Pollock)? To some extent, this is certainly so. But let's take a look at where this leads us. We have established that the parallel for Jackson Pollock is John Coltrane: There are morphological and conceptual similarities, there is the time gap between these two.

So, which musician could be the most exact parallel for Andy Warhol? Warhol started at the beginning of the 1960s. Assuming the 20-year gap, we should look for Warhol's parallel in the early 80s. Let's consider the less formal linkages first, which are, in our case, the moniker that Warhol was given (The King of Pop Art) and his personality: “He had nothing to say,” as the famous art critic, Robert Hughes, once put it. Warhol was somewhat shy and reserved.

So, who is the king of pop music? Who came in the early 80s, created some of the most popular songs of all time, the same way Warhol created some of the most popular images of all time, only some 20 years earlier? Which musician was withdrawn, shy and reserved, had not much to say and so on?

The answer is obvious: Michael Jackson.

And the controversy that this theory brings up only gets more heated.

Boštjan Jurečič

is a painter and film-maker for RTV, Slovenia’s national television. He is working on his first book, a philosophical comparison of 20th century painters and composers.