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Monday, November 19, 2012

Painting and Music

A Moor and a Christian Playing Lutes,
13th century, King Alfonso X (?)
Painting has several, what we might call, "sister" arts. It could be claimed that sculpture is merely three-dimensional painting, and indeed, many sculptors have painted their work, just as many painters sculpted theirs. Literature, poetry in particular, is often compared to painting in that many paintings often have a certain lyrical quality. Genre painting is often quite narrative. Likewise, the storyteller often relies on the illustrator to enhance the narrative. Dance, drama, and even architecture have their counterparts in certain types of painting. Also, painting has sometimes been linked to motion pictures in works quite apart from the many biographical epics detailing the lives and loves of famous artists.

Woman Seated at a Virginal, 1670,
Jan Vermeer
But nowhere is the bond between the arts stronger than that linking painting and music. It's a link dating far back into the deepest reaches of art history, at least as far back as Greek ceramic decoration. In more "recent" times, during the thirteenth century, we find an unknown Spanish artist depicting harmony between the two great warring religions of the time in his A Moor and a Christian Playing Lutes (top left). Though the Christian musician wears a sword, even as the murderous crusades raged across the Middle East, it was seen as impossible for him to make music and draw his sword at the same time. Indeed, Moorish musicians were often invited to play in the Christian courts of Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Pleasures of the Ball , 1714, Antoine Watteau
As sister arts, music and painting share a common vocabulary. Colors have tones and harmonies while both arts are often referred to as compositions. James McNeill Whistler even went so far as to title his paintings using musical expressions such as Symphony or Nocturne. Religious paintings often depicted angels making music and as the art of genre painting developed, artists such as Pieter Brueghel added musical elements to his "low life" scenes. Peasants are seen playing music to celebrate special events using pipes, while the more refined gentry from the same era are depicted with lutes. Vermeer, in 1670, chose a type of the harpsichord for his Woman Seated at a Virginal (above, right). To her left is a viola, suggesting she might soon be joined by another. And Antoine Watteau refined the art of painting and music still further with his 1714 The Pleasures of the Ball (above) in which he depicts a "Rococoish" ensemble of French pleasure-seekers mingling, gossiping, and dancing to a barely visible orchestra tucked away in the shadows of his grandiose garden arcade. The mood is light, lively, elaborate, and yet surprisingly impromptu, despite the delicate, feminine and effeminate finery, with the sounds of nature seemingly harmonising with those of the musicians.

The Song of the Dog ,1876, Edgar Degas
A century or so later, the French Impressionists revelled in the musical nightlife of Parisian cafe society. Degas painted The Song of the Dog in 1876 while artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, and Seurat sought to bring the sometimes raucous sounds of the music hall to their work. Degas' work, however, is often as much about capturing the noisy, smoky, slightly degenerate look and feel of such musical venues as in the music itself. But it was only as painters began to move beyond genre into the art of Expressionism that music and painting were finally able to merge. Marc Chagall's late work, The Wedding (bottom), dating from 1961, is one such piece. In it he manages to fuse the bride and groom in his Jewish wedding scene into one entity. The groom is seen upside down (head over heels in love?). Likewise, he also merges the cello and the cello player. It's as if the instrument is playing itself. Indeed, unlike the all but hidden musicians in Watteau's work, Chagall's music makers occupy at least half the canvas while at the same time he employs strident reds and oranges amid the otherwise dull trappings of the wedding experience to draw attention to the most dominant sounds. One can almost hear the music.

The Wedding, 1961, Marc Chagall

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