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Hear the painting? See the music!

Hear the painting? How about seeing the music?

by Tom Service
[The Guardian, July 9, 2015]

The National Gallery’s new Soundscapes exhibition puts masterpieces to music so visitors can experience them in a new way. We boldly go where no curator has gone before with unexpected musical and visual pairings that are guaranteed to distort any listening experience

“This is a terrifyingly insecure cultural cringe of an exhibition, a pitiful act of obeisance by the National Gallery [London, UK (Ed.)] to popular culture, contemporary art and anything else it hopes might pull in a few young people”.

Jonathan Jones hates the National Gallery’s recently opened Soundscapes Exhibition, in which great works of art are “brought alive” by music or sound art that were composed in response. “I have just one word for this daft exhibition. Shush!” he writes.

Given that the National Gallery’s experiment seems to add little, if anything, to the great works of art on display, I thought I might do the opposite: pair great compositions with incongruous works of visual art to create the maximal insightful irrelevance to accompany your listening.

[Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Jeff Koon’s Antiquity 3]

Beethoven’s suprahumanist symphonic canvas of man and nature finds its contemporary counterpart in Koons’s haunting vision of human-natural symbiosis, as cetacean, ironic lingerie-clad quasi-mermaid and simian simulacrum are fused and foregrounded against monuments of the classical world. It’s an eerily precise analogy for the way Beethoven foregrounds the birds, streams, storms and peasant dances of his Pastoral against the “classical” background of symphonic form. Can you hear the dolphins in the last movement? You can now.

[Sibelius’ Tapiola and Roxy Paine’s Small Tapioca Slime]

The elemental desolation of Sibelius’s final orchestral work is inexpressibly magnified by your intense visual focus on the pseudo-solid gelatinity of Paine’s sculpture, made from the very material that inspired Sibelius’s music, the cassava root gloop that is such a staple of Finnish mythology … Honest.

[Wagner’s Parsifal and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain]

Duchamp’s pre-postmodern holy grail of modern art transmutes into the “Gral” of Wagner’s last opera when you look at Fountain for all four hours of Parsifal’s drama. The knights of the Grail are revivified and reconstituted by the implied cycling and recycling of water that is so elegantly distilled by Fountain. Yet Duchamp’s work is as much idea as it is physical object; it’s as ethereal and weightless as the most transcendent sections of Wagner’s score. Those are moments in which music itself ascends into a realm of uber-aesthetics, in which time, as Gurnemanz sings to Parsifal, becomes space. That’s the same liminal interzone of transformation in which Duchamp’s Urinal can become Fountain, completing the circle of multimedia exchange. Probably.

[Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and John Constable’s the Hay Wain]

Steve Reich’s inspiration in early 19th-century English landscape painting is well known. (Isn’t it? And if not, why not?) And if you count the number of leaves on the trees in the brushstrokes of Constable’s picture, as I recommend you do, you will arrive at exactly the same number of repeated quavers as are played in Music for 18 Musicians: 654,784 of them. Not a lot of people know that. The Hay Wain on the left of the cart is, of course, an image of the composer, at once part of the landscape, and yet also shaping it, just as Reich has always done whenever he performs 18. Reich’s landscapes, Constable’s minimalism – so similar. Who knew?

[Bach’s the Art of Fugue and Bridget Reilly’s Streak 2, 1979]

Bach’s effortlessly effortful counterpoint, which warps and wefts your very ears just as it distorts and twists the stuff of multi-voiced musical composition, finds a visually resonant analogy in Reilly’s finely calibrated yet instantly hallucinogenically powerful optical illusion in Streak 2, 1979. Actually, wait a minute and hold the OTT irony – it really does. Reilly and Bach actually are creative soulmates across the centuries and the senses … You see – and hear? Looking and listening together can actually work if you can find the right alchemical combination!

Author: Tom Service

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2 Comments on "Hear the painting? See the music!"

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Interesting issue.

Pairing painting and music can be mutually enriching or interfering. To appreciate it, we have to know which accompany which. It could also become one unified art. Combining various art forms into one unified art actually not something new, as we know in Ballet (Western) or Wayang (Indonesia).


Hi Tom, nice article. I assume You totally agree with Jonathan Jones and being sarcastic.. 🙂