From the spiritual abstraction of Wassily Kandinsky to the enlightened silence of John Cage

From 11 November at Palazzo Magnani in Reggio Emilia, a major exhibition on art and music that extends from Kandinsky to Cage will be opened to the public. The project explores ideas of interiority and spirituality as open themes that encompass many influences. As curator of the exhibition, Martina Mazzotta explains: ‘From the end of the nineteenth century to our own day, a central thread unwinds which links music to developments in modern and contemporary art. There is no artist who has not had to face the immateriality of the sister-art, with its sovereign independence from the world of the visible and the goals of replication. According to philosopher Adorno, symptoms that show art is aging include increasingly extreme individualism and rationalism. And so music claims the role of restoring art to its most noble and ancient purpose: to become the domain of universal ideas. In the years between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially in the Germanic context, the cult of Goethe, Wagnerism and philosophical and scientific investigations reflected a yearning for the harmony of the individual within the whole and the spiritualisation of artistic work; this had a strong impact on the figurative arts, favouring recourse to the model of music.’

This is the starting point for the exhibition Kandinsky → Cage: Music and The Spiritual in Art, featuring precious drafts of Richard Wagner’s works (from the Archivio Ricordi in Milan), Max Klinger’s Fantasy of Brahms and a series of Lubok. An important nucleus of some fifty works by Wassily Kandinsky follows: paintings, watercolours and graphic work from museums and private collections. Notable among these are a number of eminently musical pieces, such as watercolours painted for the theatrical performances Violett (Centre Pompidou, Paris) and Paintings at an Exhibition based on Mussorgsky’s music (Wahn Castle University Collection, Cologne).
From a dialectical comparison of a great musician and artist such as Constantin Čiurlionis, featured in the exhibition with works and scores from the Lithuanian museum at Kaunas, as well as with the influences of the atonal music of his friend Arnold Schönberg (later Cage’s teacher), celebrated as a painter at Palace Magnani with an extraordinary selection of paintings from the Arnold Schönberg Center in Vienna, Kandinsky reached his spiritual abstraction around 1910, and opened the way to the inner sound of signs and colours and the continuous ascent towards the freedom of the material. The range of artwork, which is linked to the unity of the subject and his role as an artist, shift the attention to interiority, to what Kandinsky called ‘das Geistige in der Kunst’ (the spiritual in art). The prophetic inclination towards the age of the spirit that animated his book of the same name, written in 1909 and published in 1912, was dramatically negated by the advent of the First World War. Music, however, remained the favoured field in Kandinsky’s career, as it did in that of the other artists in the exhibition, as they progressed towards abstract art, interpreted also in a mystical, anthroposophical, religious and cosmic sense. Synesthetic fusion and empathy (Einfuehlung), which will involve viewers in a process of re-creating the work, represent a fertile approach for guiding visitors along the exhibition route, where painting, sculpture, theatre, dance and cinema relate to the non-objectivity of music. A section on Paul Klee, an inescapable major figure in this context, is followed by a tribute to Marianne von Werefkin, in association with the Museum of Modern Art in Ascona. Von Werefkin was the great painter linked to Kandinsky and to the Blue Rider, and a pioneer in considering artistic thought as ‘the revelation of life in terms of colour, form and music’, without, however, choosing pure abstraction. She found an equivalent in the ‘naturalism’ of her friend Stravinsky, who, alongside Schönberg, was the other major figure of modern music during the first half of the twentieth century, and whose music has been chosen to accompany visitors as they view her works. The sound of bells and video along the exhibition route heighten appreciation of some groups of works with targeted musical accompaniment, which visitors will be able to enjoy in a way that is closely linked to viewing the works. The exhibition is enhanced by selections from the artists’ writings, as well as videos and installations that invite experimentation with synaesthesia in a playful way and provide true rediscoveries, such as the figure of Oskar Fischinger, whose works are held in the Californian archive of the same name. Fischinger was inspired by Kandinsky in a multiform way and later became Cage’s tutor in the US. In the Walt Disney film Fantasia, Fischinger was responsible for animating Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, music in which many of the facets of the exhibition seem to find a prefect home. The itinerary continues with a selection of works by two artists particularly linked to music and spirituality in the post-Second World War period: Nicolas De Staël and Fausto Melotti (both connected to the figure of collector and musicologist Luigi Magnani, owner of the homonymous building where the exhibition will be held). Some of their precious paintings and musical sculptures will return to the light; for example, Melotti’s L’uccello di fuoco [Bird of Fire] (1971), which has not been exhibited for over three decades. These are joined by works from a third artist, Giulio Turcato, in the form of watercolours, maquettes and videos, with music by Luciano Berio from Moduli in Viola. Omaggio a Kandinsky [Violet Modules. Homage to Kandinsky], the performance created for the 1984 Venice Biennale. The exhibition concludes with a major tribute to John Cage, musician, thinker, poet and artist, whose principles of inner resonance and whose conception of art as a privileged conduit for universal ideas present similarities, references and correspondences with the Kandinsky’s spirituality. The section dedicated to Cage will be complemented by the presence of works by other artists and will develop by means of notations and audio and video documents, but, above all, through highly evocative installations that allow visitors to synaesthetically experience Cage’s work. Central features will be the reconstruction of an anechoic chamber or ‘silence room’ displaying a white canvas by Robert Rauschenberg, and the reproduction of a theatre that will stage a miniature reinterpretation of Cage’s orchestral composition Ocean, during which visitors – ideally seated in the opportunely recreated Romolo Valli Theatre auditorium in Reggio Emilia – will be enveloped by musical ‘waves’ issuing from various points of the installation. Also on display will be Cage’s famous score Solo for Piano from Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Cage’s masterpiece of invention in the field of musical notation.