When Viennese composer Arnold Schönberg came to Munich for a concert in 1911, his radical - often atonal - music did more than enthrall several important painters in the audience, it inspired them to imagine whole new possibilities in their approach to art.
That evening a soprano sang "I feel the air of another planet," from Schönberg's "Second String Quartet" (1907-08). For Wassily Kandinsky, Gabriele Münter, Franz Marc, Alexei von Jawlensky, and Marianne von Werefkin, it felt as if the currents of a new universe had wafted toward them.
These painters were so galvanized by the composer's dissonant sounds that they would launch the Blue Rider movement and change visual art forever. An exhibition, "Schoenberg, Kandinsky, and the Blue Rider" at the Jewish Museum in New York until Feb. 12, explores the years 1911-1914, when Kandinsky and Schönberg exchanged ideas, letters, and works of art, forging new paths for painting and music.
"The fact that these great giants of 20th-century modernism crossed paths and befriended each other, that they had this amazing dialogue, which was a source of inspiration to both, is likely to be a revelation to most people," says Fred Wasserman, associate curator at the Jewish Museum.
Kandinsky described his response to the concert as like "the lash of a whip." Schönberg's atonal music, with its contrapuntal style that defied classical tradition, struck a resounding chord. He immediately executed two sketches, then a near-abstract oil painting, "Concert" (1911).
Kandinsky felt colors had emotional and aural correlations. Yellow, for him, was like the blare of a shrill trumpet, while black was the blank of silence. In his painting, he set a blob of black (an abstracted grand piano) against a surge of cadmium yellow to indicate the jolting clash of disharmony he heard in "Three Piano Pieces" (1909), Schönberg's first completely atonal work.
"Both saw in the other a conscious and forceful decision to change the course of history," says Joël Durand, professor of composition at the University of Washington in Seattle. "They both created a new form of language, in rupture with the past."
Kandinsky sent Schönberg the first of many letters. "In your works," he wrote, "the independent life of the individual voices in your compositions is exactly what I am trying to find in my paintings."
As for Schönberg's stature in modern music, "He was one of the great instigators of the 20th century," says Christopher Hailey, visiting professor at the Arnold Schönberg Institute in Vienna and a consultant for the current exhibition. "He was willing to explore terrain that went beyond the known boundaries."
Venturing into the unknown exacted a harsh price. In Vienna, Schönberg's premières occasioned near riots. At the Munich concert, the dumbfounded audience erupted in boos, hissing, laughter, and cursing - while a few offered applause.
"The Blue Rider artists found in Schönberg's music a kind of daring that complemented what they were trying to do," says Reinhold Heller, a professor of art history at the University of Chicago. Their discovery of a musical equivalent emboldened them to join the fray. In their manifesto, Kandinsky and Marc declared, "We are standing at the threshold of one of the greatest epochs that mankind has ever experienced, the epoch of great spirituality."
Schönberg's atonal music seemed analogous to their quest to express an inner spirituality in art. Kandinsky saw the artist as savior, a St. George slaying the dragons of materialism, commercialism, and the ills of a newly industrialized world.
Just as Schönberg liberated music from conformity to conventional notions of pitch and key, painters aimed to evoke a universal essence instead of depicting nature. With their intense colors and simplified forms, the Blue Rider painters pushed art closer to abstraction, a shocking affront at the time. "Their works were not literal descriptions but suggestive, to involve the viewer," says Rose-Carol Washton Long, professor of art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "Out of struggle comes revelation," as Dr. Long describes Kandinsky's philosophy.
Schönberg also believed art was revelatory, but for him, the truth it conveyed was subjective. His paintings illuminate his musical intentions. "Of course, his music will always be preeminent," says Christian Meyer, director of Vienna's Arnold Schönberg Center. "He painted only a short time, but it's one of the aspects without which we cannot completely understand his musical ideas."
The show includes 60 paintings by Kandinsky and his fellow Expressionists, as well as paintings - little known in the US - by Schönberg, some of which were displayed in the landmark Blue Rider shows. The exhibition showcases self-portraits and portraits of colleagues like Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg, as well as visionary paintings in which glaring eyes dissolve into a muddy background. The tortured quality of the works, created around 1908-12, reflects Schönberg's troubles at a time when his music was reviled.
"Schönberg's paintings were made in the worst years of his life," says Esther da Costa Meyer, co-curator and assistant professor at Princeton University. "He was in a desperate situation. Kandinsky's letter, with its expression of emotional support, was a godsend."
The paintings Schönberg called "Gazes," with staring, red-rimmed eyes, suggest what he believed to be the source of art: the unconscious. Influenced by Freud, Schönberg was "trying to tap the wealth of the imagination's potential," Ms. da Costa Meyer says, "to get the richness of the unconscious for art and music."
The show documents not only the friendship between Schönberg and Kandinsky but their split, occasioned by Schönberg's accusation of anti-Semitism against Kandinsky, which the painter vehemently denied.
Mr. Meyer characterizes the intellectual ferment in the prewar period as due to "something in the air. Those with the right antennae grabbed it like fruits from a tree." Both artists remembered the exciting years when they assaulted the formidable tide of tradition.
Kandinsky recalled the "Murnau moment," when they vacationed together in Bavaria and shared common goals of ushering the arts into a new era. In his last letter to Schönberg in 1936, he wrote, "All our contemporaries from that time sigh deeply when they remember that vanished epoch and say: 'That was a beautiful time.' "