September 17

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Ettore De Grazia’s Experiments in Art and Music

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On the 17th of September 1982, American artist Ettore “Ted” De Grazia died in Tucson, Arizona. He was an impressionist, western pop painter, sculptor, and lithographer best known for his pastel images of wide-eyed Native American children, which were used by UNICEF as cover art for their greeting cards. De Grazia was born into a family of Italian miners in Morenci, Arizona. However, during his childhood, his family went back to Italy during a downturn in copper prices. They returned to America when the wages increased. Right from his early years De Grazia began to relate to his Mexican neighbours and travel throughout northern Mexico, coming to identify closely with the Mexican and Native American cultures that were reflected in his art. “I like to portray people as they really are,” he once said, “not merely to present a tragic view of life, but to enrich the experience of those who have not really seen the common Mexican people.” (San Pedro Valley News, August 22, 1941). An expression of his strong inclination towards Mexican culture was his famous Gallery in the Sun (constructed between 1951 and 1965) – a series of buildings scattered throughout a natural desert setting – in which De Grazia worked and lived until his death. Presently, the complex serves as a museum of De Grazia’s work.

De Grazia was a prolific artist, whose experiments with the use of various artistic media only added to his rich and colourful biography. One of the most intriguing episodes of his life is the research he conducted for his Master’s degree. In his thesis, Art and Its Relation to Music In Music Education, De Grazio aspired to explore the relationship between art and music. “”Basically, music and 81QtKlbiHCLpainting are the same, the common root being emotion,” he said. …He painted eight classical works from sheet music to support his thesis. Using brushstrokes that rose and fell with the notes on the sheet music, De Grazia’s oil painting of Stravinsky’s “Nightingale” seems to show a rain forest and a waterfall. His rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Concerto no. 1 in B -flat Minor has a look of modern art with lines, circles, squares, and triangles and “gives the feeling of man caught in the whirlpool of life,” while his painting of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude, op. 23, no. 5 is black at the bottom of the canvas with brilliant colors shooting upward. In his thesis he wrote, “There is no doubt in this writer’s mind that pure colors and music will in the future be inseparable and that one will not be thought of without the other. It will appeal to man’s intellects, emotions, and imaginations.””  (James W. Johnson, De Grazia: The Man and the Myths)

In order to establish the relationship between music and art, De Grazia conducted two tests on a group of students. “He gave one test to 358 music, drama, and education students, who listened to Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 5. The test’s results surprised even him. “The principal inference to be drawn was that fundamentally people will feel in music what they experience in painting, which was an encouraging conclusion.” The second test was a color-and-music pattern experiment given to 370 of the same types of students. He had them listen to Sibelius’s Finlandia, op. 26. The test result, De Grazia said, “proved that the feeling roused by music can be translated into painting so that what the ear hears the eye can see.” De Grazia suggested to the students that when making their choices they should listen, not to their brains, but to their emotions.” (Johnson)

download (6)Part of DeGrazia’s thesis included the ‘Color Machine’ which he built to measure the different levels of tone and pitch when music was being played. DeGrazia assigned specific emotions, shapes, and colors to his ‘Color Music Pattern Test’. To conduct the test, De Grazia set up easels with his paintings on them and then played music. He walked around the room pointing to the paintings as the music rose and fell. This, he felt, prepared the students to understand the questions on the test. De Grazia then gave each student a piece of paper with directions on it. “There were little squares … and they had little squiggles in them,” Sinnock [one of the student participants] said. “He would play a phrase and then he would ask, Now on your [test] mark for me which one of the squares with the drawing inside that seemed to you to fit that piece of music,’ and so we got into it, we were really having fun with it, because it did seem to work.”” (Johnson)

In the archives at the DeGrazia Foundation, there are oral histories from some of the students who were given the Color Music Pattern Test. At first, they could not understand how they were going to be able to see shapes and colors. But the more they listened to the symphonies, the more the shapes and colors took form in their minds. They could literately ‘see the music.’ DeGrazia did a series of abstract paintings based from the results of these psychological, audio, and visual experimental tests. Incredibly, from these results DeGrazia was able to ‘paint’ these symphonies from the information the students had given him. They are abstract wonders of line, shape, and color. This remarkable Master’s Thesis is part of the permanent collection at the Gallery In the Sun.

Feature Image: DeGrazia’s Shostakovitch by DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun, via Flickr

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