“You have to listen,” say stereotypical jazz freaks, “to the notes he’s not playing.” This (admittedly slightly pretentious) phrase holds the key to this revolutionary art form – one which can transform an all-too-familiar tune into something rich and strange by simple elision, missing out particular notes in a key phrase before spiralling off into joyous improvisation. Jazz was as much about omission as it was about embellishment.

The principal artists in this exhibition have a certain similarity with the pioneers of jazz: they emerged in the opening years of the 20th century, using the conventional tools of the trade (trumpet, piano; oil, canvas) to create radical new means of expression. And, most importantly, they were quite stridently not playing a particular note – the note of representation. Since this was what had given paintings their form and structure for centuries, the abstract trailblazers turned to the inherently non-figurative art of music for inspiration. For someone like Paul Klee, himself a concert--standard violinist who had performed with the Bern Music Society, this meant tackling such previously aural concerns as polyphony and rhythm in his work, and taking on board the central jazz tenet of improvisation. In Kandinsky’s case, music had a more direct correlation to painting, since he professed to be a synaesthete, one of that bizarre breed for whom the senses intermingle (so that C Major, say, is yellow and tastes of tin); he maintained that the purest green, to him, represented “the placid middle notes of a violin”. Frantisek Kupka, too, was constantly riffing on musical elements in his work, even going so far as to sign his letters with the phrase “colour symphonist”. His rigorously geometric studies of concentric circles were based on fugues, while later paintings were explicitly influenced by the sound coming out of New Orleans: Jazz Hot No. 1 (1935), with its snaking, interlocking forms vaguely reminiscent of the valves and bell of an unidentified brass instrument, has all the joie de vivre of a recording by Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.

This being Pallant House, the exhibition is not limited to Mitteleuropean masters. The gallery prides itself on its displays of British art, and so the likes of Ceri Richards, Tom Phillips and Eduardo Paolozzi are also represented. Their inclusion is not forced, however: John Tunnard was a jazz bandleader and drummer – the Gene Krupa of abstract art – while Alan Davie mastered the tenor sax when serving in the Royal Artillery and applied the principles of free-form jazz to his painting.

And it doesn’t stop there: spot the incursions by Matisse, Miró and Mondrian, as well as tie-in concerts featuring relevant compositions by Bach and Schoenberg (the latter’s perhaps ill-advised self-portraits are also featured). If all this, with so many competing voices and styles, sounds dangerously close to a cacophony, remember this: listen to the notes they’re not playing.

First published in World of Interiors issue 299. Reproduced with permission.

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