The Music of Painting: Music, Modernism and the Visual Arts from the Romantics to John Cage

Rob Young writes:

‘Can one imagine anything in the arts,’ Louis-Bertrand Castel wrote in 1763, ‘which would surpass the visible rendering of sound, which would enable the eyes to partake of all the pleasures which music gives to the ears?’ That would, it’s easy to admit, be quite a spectacle. But would it be the future of art, the logical outcome of whatever synthesising tendency the arts might have? That’s another question entirely. If it was going to happen at all, it was most likely during the futurist frenzy of the early 20th century. Peter Vergo, in The Music of Painting, examines a neglected aspect of the modernist era, when a variety of painters, poets, composers and inventors became preoccupied with the convergence of visual and aural stimuli – a utopian race towards a future of total sensory immersion. Vergo’s starting point is the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total artwork’ which strove to consume the viewer/listener in a synthesis of music and drama – although, as he points out, the stage sets at Bayreuth were more often than not conventional quasi-Romantic backcloths and props. But Wagner had followers among the French post-impressionists, and decadents such as Baudelaire. The holy grail was the correspondance that would echo the speculation, in Les Fleurs du mal, that ‘perfumes, colours, sounds may correspond’, that fusing music and sound with colour and light would push the viewer/listener into a realm beyond thought. Baudelaire himself, like Delacroix and Madame de Staël, revered music’s ‘absence of reasoning’, an escape into pure sensuality. For de Staël, painting and music fused into a state ‘above thought’. Vergo begins by showing how music, or the discourse surrounding it, helped painters legitimise the new abstraction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He undercuts various myths along the way. Whistler’s early 1870s Nocturnes are frequently cited as counterparts to Chopin’s mood pieces. In fact, as Vergo documents, Whistler didn’t know anything about classical music, preferring music hall songs, and it wasn’t his idea to call the paintings Nocturnes, but that of his patron Frederick Leyland. Another of his works, Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), had its musical appellation added later, possibly as a result of the critic Paul Manz’s reference to the subject of the picture as ‘la symphonie du blanc’. Vergo finds various other dead ends. In Cézanne’s Young Girl at the Piano: Overture to ‘Tannhäuser’ (1869-70), an old woman sits mending a stocking while a girl extends her skeletal fingers over the piano keys; but the sheet music is blank, and the association with Wagner is a pretentious appendage to an otherwise unremarkable conversation piece.

(LRB 22 September 2011)

Buy Online Shipped by Blackwells

Other Titles of Interest