Saturday, April 22, 2017

Never a Vacuum: Art in Diaologue

No man is an island, and no artist is either. Artists of all types create in real time and space, affected by cultural climate and often interacting with other artists in their sphere. Art is more than its medium. It is the dialogue between mediums and artists that drive culture forward. Music, literature, visual art and more are all part of the same conversation and often draw their inspiration from one another. The following curation will focus on the variety of musical creations that have stemmed from visual works of art or the artists themselves.

There is dialogue between dear friends who share a nationalistic ideology but there is also dialogue in a reflection separated by two hundred years. The conversation does not stop with death or ideological shifts but continues evolving and creating. This creative dialogue is not limited to high art either, it is evident in Pink Floyd’s interaction with The Wizard of Oz, in Andy Warhol’s collaboration with The Velvet Underground, and numerous others. However even excluding pop culture, visual art has inspired everything from ballet, to opera, to symphonic orchestration, to piano works, to broadway, and this fruitful relationship continues to this day.

Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket, James Abbott Mcneill Whistler, 1875, oil on panel, Detroit Institute of Arts, 46.309

In December 1899, Claude Debussy finished composing his Nocturnes, an orchestral piece of music in three movements. In a poetic introduction to the piece Debussy explains that the piece does not fit the conventional musical structure of a Nocturne but rather follows the musical implications of the meaning of the word. He was inspired to compose these after viewing Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket and more in Whistler’s Nocturnes series. The Whistler pieces utilize unusual abstraction of light, form, smoke and color to create the full experience of seeing and remembering rather than a scientific observation. Although not initially received well by the art world, Whistler’s series inspired Debussy to push the envelope in musical convention and redefine musical beauty with new concepts of dissonance and harmonic progression.
Paris Catacombs, Viktor Hartmann, watercolor, State Russian Museum
On August 4th, 1873, Russian artist Viktor Hartmann unexpectedly died of an aneurism at the age of 39. His dear friend Modest Mussorgsky had shared Hartmann’s passion for finding a way to create distinctly Russian art and owned two of Hartmann’s artworks. In 1874 the art critic and their friend Vladimir Stasov organized a memorial exhibition of Hartmann’s work to which Mussorgsky lent his pieces. Three months later Mussorgsky, deeply depressed by his friends death, was struck by the inspiration to compose a musical tour of the exhibition. No. 8 of the ten movements, each focusing on a different work, is titled “Catacombs” and highlights this watercolor. Like much of Mussorgsky’s work Pictures at an Exhibition was not widely acclaimed until long after his death.

A Rake’s Progress, Plate 2, William Hogarth, 1735, Etching and engraving; third slate of four, 32.35(29)

A Rake’s Progress is a series of paintings by English artist William Hogarth that outline the downfall of Tom Rakewell. The series tells of the rich heir’s spiral through prostitution, gambling, and expensive living, only to end it all in Bedlam. The original eight canvases were copied, etched, and printed for reproduction. The debauched story of Tom and his subsequent decline inspired Igor Stravinsky’s loose adaptation in the Opera A Rake’s Progress in 1951, after Stravinsky saw the prints at an exhibition in Chicago. Hogarth’s work continued to inspire new creation over two hundred years later.

Job and his Daughters, from Illustrations of the Book of Job, William Blake, 1825-26, Engraving, 17.17.1–20

Throughout 1825-1826, William Blake developed 22 detailed engravings  to illustrate the biblical book of Job. The engravings were considered to be Blake’s masterpieces in the medium of engraving. In 1927 Geoffrey Keynes conceived the idea of a ballet based off of the illustrations and approached his mother’s cousin Ralph Vaughan Williams about composing the music. Vaughan Williams was so captured by the idea that he could not wait to begin work on it. The result of the collaboration was a stunning marriage of dance, music, and biblical truth, inspired by visual representation.

Island of the Dead, Arnold Böcklin, 1880, oil on wood, 26.90

Die Toteninsel or Island of the Dead by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin has captured the imagination of many dreamers over the years. The mystery of the shrouded figure with its draped coffin floating to the fantastical island captured its initial audience so much that Böcklin painted three copies of it. Interestingly, each copy gets distinctly darker and more foreboding. Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff saw a black and white copy of the image in 1907 and was inspired to compose a haunting symphonic poem of the same name. The work became one of the pinnacle examples of Russian late-Romanticism.

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884-89, oil on canvas, Art Institute of Chicago

Georges Seurat’s pointillism is most famously remembered in this serene image on the Seine. In 1984 Stephen Sondheim took the idea of Georges Seurat and his systematic way of portraying the world and created a musical. Sunday in the Park with George follows a fictionalized George Seurat and his descendant years later, and both of their struggles to interact with the world around them. However Sondheim uses musical pointillism to weave the scientific precision into the structure of the musical, carrying the theme not just into the plot but into the fabric of the music itself.

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