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Themes and Variations

Works on paper from the museum's collection with a musical motif
Heather Lemonedes, Curator of Drawings
August 9, 2016
Orpheus, c. 1903–10. Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916). 1926.25

The musical term “themes and variations” refers to a standard form of composition consisting of a simple melody presented first in its original, unadorned form, and then repeated several or many times with varying treatments, with some semblance of the original motif always preserved. The exhibition Themes and Variations: Musical Drawings and Prints takes its cue from this musical concept, exploring the myriad ways in which the subject of music has been addressed in the visual arts by American and European artists working from the 15th through the 20th centuries. Music is present in the 60 works on paper on view, either overtly, as in portraits of famous composers and virtuosos with their instruments, or sometimes more subtly in landscapes that borrow musical terms as titles, and occasionally obliquely in abstract compositions. What has inspired artists throughout the centuries to attempt to represent music visually—an inherently unattainable goal since music by its nature is intangible—and what aspects of the musical experience have they sought to conjure?

Some of the values that we ascribe to music today—its ability to transport the listener to a place that surpasses daily life, its character as a “universal language,” and its ability to impose order and beauty upon chaos—date from antiquity. In the sixth century bc, Pythagoras formulated the idea that the planets and stars move through space according to mathematical equations that correspond directly to the intervals between musical notes. According to this theory of the “harmony of the spheres,” the rotation of the planets produces continuous sound—perfectly melodious, celestial music. Such musica mundana (music of the universe) became the archetype for earthly music, the goal toward which all composers strove. In the Middle Ages, the depiction of singing angels arranged in concentric circles Christianized the ancient philosophical conception of the harmony of the spheres. Works in the exhibition as varied as an etching from the Italian Renaissance, Domenico del Barbiere’s Gloria (1535–36), and a watercolor made for a Christmas card competition by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, also titled Gloria (1884), attest to the persistence of this perception of music as divine and transportive.

Gloria 1884. Thomas Wilmer Dewing (American, 1851–1938). Gouache over graphite. Fanny Tewksbury King Collection 1956.722

The exhibition explores music’s relationship to the myths of antiquity and the Bible. Orpheus, a personification of music who represents the power of poetry and sound to defy death, is depicted in a kaleidoscopic pastel by Odilon Redon in which the singer’s voice transcends the life of the body, his song uniting with the harmony of the universe. Music’s ability to uplift the spirit is alluded to in representations of Apollo, the god of music, by artists such as Marcantonio Raimondi and Heinrich Goltzius. Paradoxically, the power of music to seduce and beguile is playfully suggested by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo in a drawing in which a nymph subdues a centaur with the sounds of a tambourine. A group of 16th-century prints depict the soothing effect of David’s music upon the melancholic King Saul as relayed in the Old Testament.

Although 17th-century Holland produced neither noteworthy composers nor renowned performers, rarely has another culture produced so many visual images of music. It has been estimated that more than ten percent of all Dutch paintings and prints from this period represent music in some form, whether merry company scenes, country bagpipers, scenes of dancing and festivity, portraits of families or individuals playing music, Biblical scenes such as David the Psalmist, classical themes such as Orpheus and the animals, genre subjects of music-making couples, or still lifes displaying musical instruments or sheets of music. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is the fact that music in the Dutch Republic was a communal activity, one of the most popular forms of relaxation and social interaction throughout the period, crossing distinctions of wealth, class, and education. A selection of Northern prints by artists such as Rembrandt van Rijn and Jan van de Velde bring the presence of music in the Golden Age to life.

Music (from the Tarocchi, series C: Liberal Arts, #26)
Music (from the Tarocchi, series C: Liberal Arts, #26) before 1467. Master of the E-Series Tarocchi (Italian). Engraving. Dudley P. Allen Fund 1924.432.26

Images of musical performance—both public and private—can reveal vital information about the economy, aspirations, and character of the culture in which they were made. A drawing by Jean Bérain depicts the elaborate stage set for the opera-ballet Les Muses, which premiered in 1703 at the Opéra, the most prestigious public theater in Paris. During the 18th century, French theater shifted away from traditional heroic, mythological, and historical themes toward an emphasis on the lighthearted pleasures of comedy and spectacle. The opera-ballet was one of the period’s most fashionable forms of entertainment; four acts revolved around a slender plot that was essentially an excuse for extravagant song and dance enhanced by exotic settings, sumptuous costumes, and lavish stage design. The Opéra attempted to maintain a monopoly on music, forbidding other companies throughout France to produce operas or to use more than two singers and six instrumentalists. More than 150 years later, spectacle was still drawing crowds in the French capital; in his drawing Valmy and Léa (c. 1885–95), Jean Béraud captured the raucous excitement of the outdoor café-concert in fin-de-siècle Paris.

In contrast to drawings by Bérain and Béraud, Maurice Denis’s color lithograph Love: Our Souls, in Slight Gestures (1892–98) depicts two women at a piano in a quiet domestic setting. Such images were prolific in 19th-century Europe and America; piano playing was a mainstay of feminine education, and representations of a woman at a piano invariably invoked notions of middle-class femininity, propriety, and secure domestic life.

The exhibition concludes with a group of works by artists interested in synesthesia, such as Henri Fantin-Latour, James McNeill Whistler, and Wassily Kandinsky, each of whom sought to create “visual music” and to communicate music’s suggestive power. Selections of music to accompany the exhibition and commentary by Dr. David J. Rothenberg, associate professor of music at Case Western Reserve University, will be accessible on iPads in the galleries.  


Cleveland Art, January/February 2015