Duncan Grant

Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound


Not on display

Duncan Grant 1885–1978
Gouache and watercolour on paper on canvas
Support: 279 × 4502 mm
Purchased 1973

Catalogue entry

Duncan Grant 1885-1978

T01744 Abstract Kinetic Collage Painting with Sound 1914

Not inscribed.
Gouache, watercolour and collage of painted and cut papers, on contiguous sheets of paper with overall dimension 11 (irregular) x 177¼ (28 x 450), laid on unpainted canvas support 14¿ x 219¼ (36 x 556.5). Purchased from the artist through Anthony d’Offay (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Repr: Burlington Magazine, CXVI, March 1974, fig.52.
Lit: David Garnett, The Flowers of the Forest, 1955, pp.34–7.

The following account of this work has been approved by the artist; those passages relating to the origins of the work and his intentions in it are based, where not otherwise indicated, on his conversations with members of the Gallery staff in 1972, 1973 and 1974.

The painting was made in 1914. On 25 August 1914, Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry from Asheham House, Sussex (Charleston Papers, King’s College, Cambridge): ‘Duncan and I do nothing here but paint. He has started on a long painting which is meant to be rolled up after the manner of those Chinese paintings and seen purely by degrees. It is purely abstract’. In a letter to Fry from Asheham, dated 1 September 1914, she added ‘Duncan has been doing most lovely still-lifes besides his long roll’. In reply to the question whether Chinese scroll painting was an influence on the making of T01744, the artist wrote (June 1974) that Chinese scroll painting ‘suggested that movement played a great part in establishing the relationship of pictorial forms, in Chinese art mainly landscape forms, in my attempt more purely abstract’.

In Flowers of the Forest (loc. cit.), David Garnett describes how he took D. H. Lawrence to Grant’s studio on 26 January 1915. During the visit

‘Lawrence began to explain to Duncan what was wrong with his painting. It was not simply that the pictures themselves were bad—hopelessly bad—but they were worthless because Duncan was full of the wrong ideas… Finally, in despair, Duncan brought out a long band of green cotton on two rollers. I stood and held one roller vertically and unwound while, standing a couple of yards away, Duncan wound up the other, and a series of supposedly related, abstract shapes was displayed before our disgusted visitors... Next day Lawrence wrote: “We liked Duncan Grant very much. I really liked him. Tell him not to make silly experiments in the futuristic line with bits of colour on moving paper.”

‘It seems certain that a memory of the visit to Duncan’s studio inspired the passage at the end of Chapter XVIII of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Mellors, the gamekeeper hero (Lawrence), is taken to the studio of Duncan Forbes, “a dark-skinned taciturn Hamlet of a fellow with straight black hair and weird Celtic conceit of himself. His art was all tubes and valves and spirals and strange colours, ultramodern, yet with a certain power, even a certain purity of form and tone; only Mellors thought it cruel and repellent.”

The artist has confirmed that the work referred to by Garnett and Lawrence was T01744, but that Garnett must have been in error in referring to green cotton, as the present unpainted canvas support is the original one.

The artist made T01744 with the intention that it should be viewed through a rectangular aperture 24 in. (61 cm.) wide and of the same height—11 in. (28 cm.)— as the painting. As the painting was viewed, it was to be in continuous slow movement across the aperture, moving from left to right. Movement was to be effected by the scroll’s being mounted on twin spools, one on each side of the aperture and hidden from the spectator’s view, which would be turned by mechanical means. The artist intended that as the painting passed across the aperture the spectator should hear slow music by J. S. Bach.

The artist failed in 1914–15 to make the viewing aperture or to set up the necessary mechanism to make this painting operative kinetically; shortly afterwards the painting was rolled up and stored. It was not exhibited static, as it was not conceived in terms of static painting. The artist agreed in 1973 that the Tate Gallery could display it static and fully extended so long as the Gallery realised it in its true (kinetic) form and accompanied the display of the scroll by its kinetic realisation. The physical condition of T01744 makes it impossible to display the original painting in motion. A high-quality colour film of it has therefore been made, to be projected on a screen 11 x 24 in. to the musical soundtrack specified by the artist. The original painting has been framed conventionally, the superfluous unpainted canvas at each end being retained, concealed and folded, and the original winding-baton to which the scroll had been attached since 1914 being retained separately. The reproduction in the Burlington Magazine cited above shows the appearance of the work, when fully unrolled, at the time of its acquisition by the Tate Gallery.

The basic scheme of the design is seventeen presentations of the same group of six colours, in the form of seventeen clusters each made up of one rectangle of each colour. The colours are red, green, blue, pale mauve, light bright orange and dark, duller orange. The positioning of the rectangles within each cluster was determined intuitively, but strong horizontal emphasis is developed in clusters 10 to 14 and gives place in the final three clusters (15 to 17) to a tightly compressed vertical stacking of all the colours shown in each cluster (some colours are omitted from each of these last three clusters). The first six clusters are executed wholly in collage. From cluster 7 (in which one collaged colour is replaced by a rectangle of the same colour painted direct onto the underlying paper support) onwards, the extent to which collage is employed decreases, until in and after cluster 13 the work is entirely painted. The crisply-defined rectangles are set against a ground of loose calligraphic marks in blue and white; though of generally even scale, this ground varies in detail and density. Most of the rectangles are accentuated by pointilliste ‘shading’ in black, along one or two edges. The beginning and end of the design are each marked by a slender vertical black line. The artist has confirmed that in the kinetic realisation nothing beyond these lines is intended to be seen, but that the lines themselves should appear.

Although the artist intended from the first that this painting should both move and be accompanied by music by Bach, the selection of a particular piece of music was deferred pending the painting’s being made kinetically operative, and when the Tate Gallery acquired it no music had yet been selected. The musical soundtrack was thus intended not as a means of accompanying a given visual configuration of 11 x 24 in. by a given sound, but rather to give a continuous musical experience ambience of a certain character—what the artist describes as ‘a state of mind’— simultaneous with a continuous visual experience, the two to be mutually enhancing.

The spectator’s experience of the painting’s design in motion differs according to the exact piece of music selected and to the speed at which the design moves. In the expectation of the painting’s realisation kinetically, the artist specified in 1972 that the soundtrack should be the slow movement of one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Although he and others subsequently suggested various different types of music by Bach, he adhered to this decision. All five slow movements from the Brandenburg concertos (the 3rd having no slow movement) were played to him on 16 May 1973, and he selected the slow movement from the First Brandenburg Concerto as being the most expressive of his musical concept for the painting. The painting was then filmed on video tape at various speeds and these were projected to the artist, accompanied by a recording of the chosen music, on 5 June 1974. The artist selected as most nearly according to his concept a speed of movement at which, by chance, the duration of the painting’s complete movement, once, coincided with that of the chosen slow movement by Bach (approximately 4 minutes 20 seconds). It was agreed that for comparative purposes the version of the film of the painting to be made to this specification would be accompanied by another made to the artist’s second choice, a speed of 2 minutes 30 seconds, both films to be submitted to the artist for his final approval of one of them. The films were made at the Tate Gallery on 28 October 1974, under the direction of Christopher Mason. On 27 November 1974, both versions (in the faster of which the music was necessarily faded out in the middle) were shown to the artist who warmly approved and greatly preferred the slower version, in which the Adagio from the First Brandenburg is performed by the Würtemberg Chamber Orchestra under Jörg Faerber, in a recording of 1965. The duration is 4 minutes 18 seconds.

The making of T01744, including the concept of its moving with musical accompaniment, came about because the artist read in a newspaper of experiments being made in London concerned with the interaction of music and colour. He associated these with an event at the Queen’s Hall, which he thinks he did not attend, which was publicised or reported in the papers as involving music being played while colour in movement was projected on a screen. It seems probable that these memories relate to the work of A. Wallace Rimington and of Scriabin. The programme note, by Rosa Newmarch, to the Symphony Concert given at the Queen’s Hall on 1 February 1913 (which was reprinted in The Musical Times, 1 April 1914) stated that Scriabin had invented a ‘Fastiera per Luce’ or keyboard of light with which to accompany his ‘Prometheus’ by visual effects, but that the apparatus was not yet ready to be transported for practical purposes. ‘Prometheus’ was performed at the Queen’s Hall on this occasion, and on 14 March 1914, without visual effects. Under the heading ‘Colour Organ at Queen’s Hall’, The Times, of 21 March 1914, p.10, reported: ‘Sir Henry Wood has made arrangements with Professor Wallace Rimington to give a performance of Scriabin’s “Prometheus” with the “colour organ” at a Queen’s Hall Orchestra Symphony Concert early next season. The “colour organ” was described in the Times yesterday’.

In his Colour-Music, the Art of Light, London 1926, A. B. Klein wrote ‘the “Prometheus” was performed in Moscow in 1911 with colour-projection apparatus which apparently failed to function, and it was not until March 20, 1915 that it was performed at Carnegie Hall, New York, with the Clavier à Lumières. The conductor was Modest Altschule.’ (p.44). In a footnote to this passage, Klein added ‘“Prometheus” was to have been accompanied by Rimington’s colour organ in London in 1914, but the War and Scriabin’s death prevented this plan from being realized’. A. B. Klein’s Own work was concerned with the relation between colour and music. In 1926 he recalled (idem., p.25) ‘the writer was led to an active interest in the subject of an art of light by a study of the late works of Turner. Having concluded that an art of abstract painting was the next logical step in the development of the power of the art, a series of paintings was exhibited in London early in 1912... under the general title of “Compositions in Colour-Music, and studies in line and shape”.’

Duncan Grant recalls that although he may have intended to realise T01744 on a larger scale he did not in fact do so as he did not receive much encouragement. In November 1974, after approving the film of T01744 projected to the same size as the original and thus realising his intentions in it as closely as possible (see above), he added that he would be happy if the Tate Gallery were on occasion to project the same film on a larger scale, since although this would constitute a different version he was very pleased with the effect.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.


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