Music about art: Fragmentary thoughts on Pictures at an Exhibition

Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is one of the classical pieces that is most familiar to me. Ever since my high school marching band did a show based on it, it has been a constant companion, at least in the version orchestrated by Ravel. More recently, however, I have been spending a lot of time with the original piano version, in part out of simple curiosity, but more directly because I plan to use it in my fine arts course — not only because of its unique status as a piece of music “about” visual art, but also to highlight how orchestration affects our reception of a piece of music.

For those who are familiar with the orchestrated version, it can be difficult to believe that Mussorgsky ever intended it as a solo piano piece to begin with. Leaving aside its unwieldy length, some segments seem to be screaming out for full orchestral treatment — most notably the majestic horns of “The Great Gate of Kiev.” The orchestrated version is so much better known, in fact, that the original can seem like a work of subtraction or abstraction, taking away the variety of a full orchestra. In a way, though, it also adds an element. The dissonances are much harsher and stand out more clearly when they’re not spread across a variety of sections, so that some of the segments (like “The Gnome”) can even sound like precursors to atonality.

The question that has returned to me again and again, though, is why exactly Mussorgsky would have started out with a piano version in the first place. It seems so counterintuitive in so many ways, and it’s not as though he lacked the ability to write for a full orchestra. If we take seriously the notion that this is meant to somehow resonate with the effect of an art exhibition, though, I think it makes more sense. Contemplating art is, after all, a very solitary and cerebral pursuit in most cases — hence why a solo instrument could seem more appropriate. In the piano version, the one aspect that struck me as manifestly more convincing are the recurring “Promenade” interludes, which when performed on the solo piano seem much more evocative of the act of reflection while walking between two canvases.

Further, the very inadequacy of the piano (most striking, perhaps, in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle”), the manifest limits the performer (even a very gifted performer like Evgeny Kissin, whose recording on Spotify I recommend highly) strains against, seem to speak to the difficulties of responding to art, the sense that there’s “something more” that one can’t quite capture. With the full arsenal of the orchestra, it’s almost too easy, and this very perfection betrays the experience that it’s meant to recreate.

Art and Gossip

Veronese, “Happy Union” from the Allegory of Love

This weekend, I had the opportunity to go to the big Veronese exhibit at the National Gallery in London, the largest collection of Veronese’s paintings ever assembled outside Italy. For this unique occasion, I did something I normally don’t — I shelled out for the audio guide. It was generally serviceable, and even if the content could’ve been conveyed just as easily in writing, I saw the advantage of being able to look at the painting at the same time as I listened (rather than having to go back and forth from the text on the wall). I felt a strange dissatisfaction, however, which was encapsulated in the fact that only on the commentary for the second to last painting did they mention brushstrokes. We were to understand that Veronese’s technique had changed in some way, and yet our attention had never been drawn to his technique previously (aside from his preference for certain characteristic colors and his skill in portraying elaborate fabrics).

I don’t want to single out this audio guide, because it’s a pervasive problem: the guidance provided for the general public in art museums relatively rarely directs our attention to the actual artwork itself. We learn a great deal about the artist’s life, about the circumstances of the work’s composition, about the representative content of the work, about the various schools or movements it may belong to. What I came here to see is the artwork, and I’m bombarded by facts about everything but the artwork.

The situation is similar when one goes to the symphony — your average program notes will contain 90% biographical information and 10% description of the musical content you’re about to hear. For instance, I once went to a concert featuring Walton’s first symphony, a relatively unknown work. The program notes told me all about how much he procrastinated on it and how it was apparently inspired by a turbulent love affair. I’ve listened to the piece many times, and I can assure you that you cannot hear anything about a love affair in it. What you hear is a bunch of music. Indeed, that’s why I came to the symphony, to hear music — and so why can’t the program notes help me to listen more intelligently to it?

The motivation behind these kinds of supplemental materials is to make art and music more relatable or accessible, but in practice, they cut off our access and fail to train us in how to actually talk with one another about what we’re seeing and hearing. We know all about van Gogh’s tortured life and can discuss that, but then we already knew how to talk about biography and suffering — what we probably don’t know is how to talk about the actual painting in front of us. Everyone knows that Beethoven went deaf, but when we venture to talk about it, it seems as though we’re deaf to the actual music he’s given us.

I don’t think it’s a matter of giving us access to technical terminology, because we all know what a line and a color is, and the majority of technical terminology for music consists in the Italian terms for fairly straightforward concepts (louder, softer, slowing down, etc.). Nor do I want to disallow biographical, historical, or representational information. Nor, most of all, do I want to leave people to wallow in the solipsism of their “personal experience” of the artwork — what I want is to provide tools that will allow people to actually talk about the artwork with one another, to draw one another’s attention to its features and effects so that we can all help each other to see and hear better.

Posted in art, music. 6 Comments »

The Dionysian in Christian art, part 2

Leonardo da Vinci - John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci – John the Baptist

What are we to make of the fact that Leonardo da Vinci and his students detected a certain kinship between John the Baptist and Dionysus? The two figures seemingly could not be more different — the grim ascetic preaching repentance and the god of revelry. One could perhaps forgive Donatello his “fabulous,” sassy David, given that David was, after all, a young man whose appearance had drawn God’s eye. (In this case, the stranger choice is Bernini’s older David, captured mid-throw.) How could John the Baptist be portrayed as an androgynous, sensual figure? Did Leonardo simply mix him up with John the Beloved Disciple?

We see this strange sexuality of John the Baptist emerge again in Strauss’s Salome. Here, though, it is a mark of perversion and decadence as Salome incomprehensibly takes John as a sexual object and, after being rejected, willingly collaborates with her mother in his beheading out of vengeance. This strange attraction culminates in a disturbing scene where Salome kisses and carresses the Baptist’s disembodied head. This is very different from Leonardo’s straightforward presentation — where Strauss plays on the very unthinkability of John’s sexuality, Leonardo is able to present it as a simple fact, as almost self-evident.

Nietzsche might see here an acknowledgment of the inherent sensuality of asceticism, the erotic charge of denial. How much greater, how much more durable and even unlimited is the jouissance derived directly from the refusal of jouissance — excessive piety is the greatest of festivals, the carnival that never has to end because it has finally become life rather than the exception or relief from life. If only the ascetic has truly experienced jouissance, then what better figure to serve as the Christian answer to Dionysus than John the Baptist, who is in fact the very threshold of the Christian dispensation itself?

Posted in art, Christian theology, Nietzsche. Comments Off

The Dionysian in Christian art

Raphael - Transfiguration
In The Birth of Tragedy, one of Nietzsche’s most concrete illustrations of Appolinian art is Raphael’s Transfiguration (pictured above):

In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.

It is a truly ingenious artistic decision to include the Transfiguration and the fumbling disciples, whom Jesus finds trying and failing to drive out the demon, in the same frame. I wonder if Nietzsche is missing something here, though — namely, the fact that the composition of the top half of the painting so clearly echoes the crucifixion. Jesus’s hands and feet are positioned in such a way as to suggest that they have been purposefully moved away from the posture of crucifixion, and indeed, the crucifixion would not be out of place in the world of the lower half of the painting. Perhaps Nietzsche’s point is actually strengthened if we emphasize the crucified figure implicitly “behind” the glorified Christ — in fact, it’s difficult to understand why he doesn’t explicitly make that connection.

My trip to Paris

As I’ve mentioned before, The Girlfriend and I planned a trip to Paris for this winter break. In addition to being near-perfectly timed to avoid the catastrophic cold in Chicago, it also proved to be a particularly fruitful moment for me, given that I’ve just spent a semester thinking about art in a focused way. My priority for this trip was the museums, and we wound up hitting the main highlights: the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, and the Rodin Museum. We also enjoyed great restaurants, morning croissants, book shopping, and just walking around — including in the incredible Luxembourg Gardens, which features the magnificent sculpture Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea.

In recent years, I’ve been trying to get away from the model of attempting to “see everything” in a given museum. We all know the drill — we walk along, stop briefly before each painting, maybe read the description card, and then move on. I have tended to opt for more concentrated viewing, faciliated by the fact that the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago are pretty familiar to me by this point. In Paris, though, I felt myself drawn back toward the “see everything” model (even though this would be physically possible in the Louvre), and I came to see its value in terms of giving a broader context and historical sweep. I won’t remember in detail all the paintings I saw, nor the names and dates of the artists, but I feel I have a better handle on the trajectory of at least one particular national artistic tradition (and on its various by-ways). And that contributes to the appreciation of individual works: simply by following along in the Musée d’Orsay in more or less chronological order, I was able to understand Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe on a much more intuitive level.

I was also shocked by the number of bookstores and their quality. Bourdieu’s Collège de France lectures on Manet had recently been published as a 700-page tome, and several stores I visited had it in a highlighted spot. I was able to get the recently published early Derrida seminar on Heidegger at a place a few blocks from where we were staying, a place that devoted half the store to children’s literature (and where I also bought the first Harry Potter and The Giver in French as gifts for my sister and mother, respectively). Whatever the French government is doing differently in this regard, we need to begin doing immediately.

Finally, I found many differences between French and American culture crystalized in a single point — the use of cash. I hardly ever carry cash in the US, but in Paris it was the most convenient means of payment. The Girlfriend and I both found it appealing as a quick and easy way to do things, but then we enumerated all the things that militated against it in the US: above all the insistence on charging sales tax separately, so that attempting to give exact change becomes a fool’s errand, and the car culture that makes it more convenient to buy everything in one place (both by providing ample storage space for purchases and by making it very laborious to visit several stores for one shopping trip). Perhaps there’s some kind of inner connection between an urban, walkable culture and the use of cash. I don’t know. I’m kind of jetlagged.

Posted in art. 4 Comments »

On the ending of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”

The ending of Kakfa’s short story “A Hunger Artist” is strange, even for Kafka — in fact, it initially makes the story seem like kind of a “shaggy dog” story. After detailing the rise and fall of a professional faster, Kafka stages his death scene:
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in art, Kafka. 6 Comments »

The greatest painting ever painted

The Minotaur 1885 by George Frederic Watts 1817-1904

George Frederic Watts, The Minotaur (1885)

Posted in art. 16 Comments »

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,053 other followers