THE COLOUR-MUSIC PAINTINGS OF ROY DE MAISTRE

THE COLOUR-MUSIC PAINTINGS OF ROY DE MAISTRE

Plate 1 : “COLOUR COMPOSITION DERIVED FROM 3 BARS OF MUSIC IN THE KEY OF ORANGE-RED”, Roy De Maistre, 1918-33.
The Ian Potter Centre, NGV, Federation Square, Melbourne.
(from “Australian Modern Painting Between the Wars, 1914 to 1939”, Mary Eagle. There, it is entitled Arrested Movement from a Trio.)
Plate 2 : “ARRESTED MOVEMENT FROM A TRIO”, Roy De Maistre, 1934.
(a.k.a. COLOUR SCALE ON A MUSICAL THEME FROM BEETHOVEN),
Private Collection.
(from “Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968”, Heather Johnson, Plate 33. There, it is entitled Colour Composition derived from Three Bars of Music In the Key of Green (a.k.a. Colour Scale on a Musical Theme from Beethoven).)

 
These two paintings appear to be based on the same musical subject. The top version seems to be a preparatory work for the more elaborate one, below. The two are aligned here, one above the other, so common regions can easily be compared. Their ruled structures differ little, and seem to represent musical pitch by vertical measures, and time in horizontal intervals. The printed texts have not mention their similarity: I have also changed the titles they have given them, in line with my recent research.
The design originated in De Maistre’s “Piano Roll” (on the previous page), where it occupies about a fifth of the painted length. Another work, “Arrested Phrase from a Haydn Trio in Orange-Red Major”, is based on the same theme (Plate 3, below). It is almost identical to a section of the Piano Roll, in both composition and colour, and appears to be the first of the three easel paintings. The “Hayden Trio” represents a single bar of music, which is included within the expanded motif of the later works. For example, in the right-hand third of Plate 2, the geometric structure of the “Hayden Trio” can be detected (above), although the shapes are all stretched vertically.

 

Plate 3 : “ARRESTED PHRASE FROM A HAYDN TRIO IN ORANGE-RED MAJOR”,
Roy De Maistre, 1919-1935.

Australian National Gallery, Canberra.
(from catalogue of “Colour in Art: Revisiting 1919”,
Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 2008.)

In Plate 2, twenty-four vertical stripes of equal width could be considered as quavers, giving a common time signature and four beats in each of the three bars. The middle bar seems to be the focus of De Maistre’s attention; a descending figure of crotchets is repeated every two beats in the bass, while a run or arpeggio of eight quavers ascends in the treble. The bass rhythm is echoed in the treble, by dividing the colour sequence in half – a run of deep blue, red, orange-red and a greenish-yellow occurs twice. According to De Maistre’s colour-music code, these colours could be F, A, B flat and C. They could not supply the smooth rise in pitch intimated by the gradual slope of their ascent. Elsewhere, the blues could be anything from D to F sharp; tertiary colours (browns and ochres) are even more indeterminate – indeed, even De Maistre’s commercial colour charts failed to distinguish them clearly. While the central bar’s colouration is fairly consistent across both Plates 1 and 2, any musical reading remains ambiguous. Add to this the inconsistency of De Maistre’s own hand-made colour charts, the non-spectral nature of paint pigments, and the artist’s tendency to vary colour for effect, and it becomes difficult to discover the musical source from the paintings.
Nevertheless, on the basis of the pictures, I reconstructed what music I could. (Eventually, a piece called “Fragments” was composed for the exhibition “Sight & Sound”, at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, in 2010.) After examining the “Piano Roll” in its entirety (at the Art Gallery of NSW), I was able to identify the source music in 2012. It is Haydn’s Trio in B flat, for keyboard, violin and cello (Hoboken XV:20).

When the “Piano Roll” is compared to a manuscript of Haydn’s score, major features can be identified immediately. On detailed analysis, most colours are found to match their notes, as dictated by De Maistre’s colour music code. Occasionally, visual patterns on the painting are barely apparent in the written score, but emerge clearly when the music is heard. Such is the case with central arpeggios of Plate 2, as discussed above. The notes – F, A, B flat and D, as it turns out – sound as one discrete unit, immediately echoed by the same notes an octave higher. Thus the second set of notes is a paler version of the first, in accordance with De Maistre’s system, whereby lighter colours indicate higher octaves.
Musical realism is further enhanced with graphic elaborations. Indian red is confirmed as B flat with inscribed chevrons, the sign De Maistre appointed to that note on his colour wheel; green G and the blue-green of E flat are given similar symbolism, and marked with semicircles. Within a strict geometry, and via a rather literal colour-music code, De Maistre elaborated a single musical idea. His paintings are no spontaneous reactions to music, but more contrived, and meant to be appreciated primarily for their visual merit. The preliminary works are rather understated, compared to the final version of the painting (Plate 2). The latter’s enriched colour adds to a florid effect common to many of De Maistre’s later paintings, while tonality is used to throw separate musical voices into relief. The resultant chiaroscuro achieves a limited three-dimensional effect, compared to the flatter patterning and more abstract spirit of earlier versions. Apparently satisfied with his final picture, the artist propped it on an easel and painted its portrait: it stands at the focus of an undated work, “STUDIO INTERIOR”, at present in a private collection (see FRONTISPIECE)

Plate 4 : “COLOUR COMPOSITION DERIVED FROM 3 BARS OF MUSIC IN THE KEY OF GREEN”, Roy De Maistre, 1918-1934.
Australian National Gallery, Canberra (presently known as Arrested Phrase from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Red Major).
(from catalogue to “Colour in Art: Revisiting 1919”, Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 2008.)

De Maistre made one other easel painting of a specific piece of music: it also had a prepatory study, which is slightly smaller but very similar. Note names, for several areas of colour, can be detected beneath the oil paint of the study. The marks are similar to those found on sections of the Piano Roll; they share common methods, of both geometry and colour, to show De Maistre at his most particular and consistent. But no identical design appears on the “Piano Roll”: a separate musical source might be uncovered by reversing the painter’s methods of colour music. This way, the picture readily translates into a satisfactory phrase, in the classical vein. However, the passage is not to be found in any Haydn trio, nor does it appear in the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

(A more detailed analysis of this work is given in the Symposium Papers to the “Colour in Art” exhibition, 2008.)

 

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