Art & Technology
- Synaesthesia

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, The other was Roy De Maistre, a young musician-turned-painter, whose musical training was evident in the titles of many paintings on display. "Still-Life Study in Blue-Violet Minor" was typical: while the subject was realistic the colours were chosen to harmonise like the notes in music. Blue-violet was supposed to be F sharp, so this painting was designed in colours aligned to the key of F sharp minor. Hung at the back of the exhibition were De Maistre's colour charts, showing how specific musical notes corresponded to different hues to form 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. The recent release of Heather Johnson's "Roy De Maistre: The English Years, 1930 to 1968" throws fresh light on later work. Like the first volume of his biography, "Roy De Maistre: The Australian Years, 1894 to 1930", it emphasises the continued importance of colour music to this artist.


The colour music principles used by De Maistre in his paintings formed the basis for this commercial device, sold to interior decorators and students as a guide to colour harmony. The dark, outer mask could be rotated to reveal different colour combinations on the chart beneath. The holes in the above example are spaced in accord with the intervals of a harmonic minor scale (there was a corresponding mask for the major scale, with differently-spaced holes). The keynote is at the bottom left, positioned in this case over D and green, to give an overall key of D minor (or green minor) when read in an anti-clockwise direction.

   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 ROYGBIV 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 sequence in which the frequencies, or vibrational rates, of both light and sound progressively increased.

   The ROYGBIV 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, ROYGBIV, that is commonplace today. This structure was an artifice, designed by Newton as a metaphor for certain traditional musical scales. The chord of the basic key was represented by the triad of primary colours, red, yellow and blue. Adjacent colours were held not to agree and intervals of fifths (such as red and blue) were considered harmonious, as in music. And so a crude colour-music code was created.
   Using the same colours, De Maistre constructed his own code, aligned to the white notes of a modern keyboard. He began at the beginning, with red and A, the first-named note. A is also the first note in the bass of the piano, and during De Maistre's lifetime A emerged as the international standard of pitch, at A440 cycles per second. Its musical primacy could not be ignored, so De Maistre assigned A to red, the first colour visible at the low end of the spectrum. Both Heather Johnson and the art historian Mary Eagle have written that De Maistre's code commenced at middle C and yellow, the middle of the spectrum. While yellow may stand out amongst the colours as a logical starting-point, this is due to its intensity rather than it being in the middle of the spectrum - a position in fact occupied by green. Indeed, yellow was aligned to C in De Maistre's code and the white notes, assigned to the other spectral colours, made up the key of C major. But equally well, the same notes make up the key of A natural minor; this has the same key signature as its relative major C, both showing no sharps or flats. The alignment of C with yellow was coincidental: De Maistre's musical knowledge obliged him to begin his colour-music code with A, at red. Other less sophisticated colour-music codes have used C as a starting point, but invariably assign it to red, not yellow. At the low threshold of vision, red is the logical beginning for sequences of spectral colour.

   Having formulated the basis of his code, De Maistre then had to join the opposite ends of the spectrum together, to make the rim of his colour 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, and 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 represented 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.


Division of the spectrum into eleven sections provides a check on De Maistre's code. In a best-fit situation, most notes and colours match up as they should. The chief discrepancy is at the top end, where G does not coincide with the violet De Maistre allotted to it, but has to be moved into the extra twelfth segment, outside the spectrum. This is an 'impure' red-violet, originally set aside for G sharp, which in turn must move to deep red.

   De Maistre's colour-music code had a formal niceness, a serendipity to it, that other codes would be hard-pressed to match. But in any application to painting, the code presented practical problems that were difficult to overcome. The red-violet-blue section of his colour wheel took up six segments, or half the colour range. Three or four of these colours would automatically be included among the seven notes of any scale, giving his colour schemes a violet slant. Mary Eagle noted that De Maistre's palette tended towards violet in his early work. This may not be, as she supposed, just the result of a personal taste but rather an inevitable outcome of the colour-music code he used.
   Particular difficulties would have arisen in differentiating between overall major and minor schemes. The semitone differences between the third and the sixth notes of the major and minor scales could result only in slight shifts of hue, involving but two of the seven colours. This would seem insufficient change to express the radical difference in musical mood, between positive major and mournful minor.
   One could suppose that De Maistre, in his early works at least, chose a palette from the colour wheel according to a predetermined major or minor key; this was then employed on conventional subjects, modifying the local colours of still-lifes or landscapes, such as "Boat Sheds, Berry's Bay" (1919). Great scope for interpretation was available with such a wide range of colours, but artistic licence was limited by the need to balance the differing requirements of the colour-music code, recognisable local colour and pictorial composition.

Roy De Maistre, 1919, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

   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. Such technicalities became important in De Maistre's later paintings, such as " Arrested Phrase from a Haydn Trio in Orange-Red Minor " (1935). Here, he 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 some enigmatic graphic elements; with tightly controlled means, De Maistre created fairly complex designs to express only small amounts of music.
   Later work suggested De Maistre was emphasizing a chord-based, rather than a note-based, application of his colour-music code. The august 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 yielded abrupt colour contrasts - a red key (A) would be augmented by green (D) and blue (E) chords. (These are the main colours present in the Haydn piece mentioned above. It is hard to see the orange-red, blue-green and indigo that one would expect from the title, suggesting the piece may be misnamed.) With few chords based on other notes - especially in a short fragment - the music lent De Maistre's mature paintings an inevitably brazen, heraldic colouration. And underlying all the details of De Maistre's scheme was a quasi-scientific assumption, common to most colour-music codes - that a mathematical relationship of frequencies, or vibrations, united the physical phenomena of light and sound.

   A similar concern preoccupied many artists overseas and news might have filtered through to the Australians of parallel developments in the field of colour music. When De Maistre attended recitals on the colour organ, by Alexander Hector in 1918, he may have been aware that the synaesthete, Alexander Scriabin, had scored "Prometheus: a Poem of Fire" to include a colour organ, in 1915. In both cases, arcs and waves of colour were projected onto overhead screens, in time to the music. Painters, too, were transferring musical ideas to canvas - Kupka, Van Doesburg, Russolo and the Delauneys on the Continent, and Klein, Rimington and Duncan Grant in England, had all treated musical subjects prior to the end of the First War. De Maistre could have been up with these developments: through Wakelin, he seemed to particularly absorb the influence of the Synchromists Russell and Wright, who worked at colour music in America. Because of, or apart from these influences, a brief moment in Australian art history emerged when colour music took centre stage, with Roy De Maistre as its chief exponent.

Illustration 4 : " FUGUE FOR TWO COLOURS."
Frantisek Kupka, 1912.

   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 his 1919 work, and visionary qualities were still apparent. "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor" emphasized depth recession and three-dimensional form 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.)

Roy De Maistre, 1920-34, National Gallery of Victoria.

   European and American interest in colour music had led 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:
   De Maistre's colour music work was never truly abstract in this sense; whether portraying spiritual visions, personal hallucinations or musical structure, he always had a subject in mind, albeit an invisible one (his biographer quite rightly sees them as very far in spirit from abstraction). The nature of his subject matter is hardest to identify in the earlier paintings, "Rhythmic Composition in Yellow-Green Minor" and "A Painted Picture of the Universe", but the organisations of their picture planes are redolent of landscape compositions. This connection was later demonstrated by Grace Cossington-Smith, when de Maistre was instrumental in procuring her a first show in 1926. Even her most abstracted canvasses, such as "Trees", were clearly landscapes, in obedience to Cossington-Smith's dictum of painting what she saw. Her paintings shared many of the same techniques as de Maistre's - criss-crossing lines that separated flattened planes of discrete and differing colours, often arranged in chromatic sequences - while her palette was at times indistinguishable from those of de Maistre and Wakelin. The arced sky of "A Painted Picture of the Universe" was paraphrased in Cossington-Smith's "Eastern Road, Turramurra" even if the over-riding geometry and formal adherence to a colour-music code were missing in her art.

Illustration 6 : "EASTERN ROAD, TURRAMURRA."
Grace Cossington-Smith, 1926, Australian National Gallery.

   In Australia, colour music fluctuated in popularity, as it had elsewhere. 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 (he even managed to market his colour discs through Grace Brothers in 1926, as the Colour Harmonizing Chart for interior decorators). 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.