Arts - Autumn 2018

Visual Music

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Is it possible to “hear” a painting as if it were a fugue by Bach?

By Lincoln Perry | September 4, 2018
Paolo Veronese, The Madonna of the Cuccina Family, c. 1570 (Wikimedia Commons)

Visual artists have been known to emulate and envy other art forms. They’ve aspired to evoke, in colorful pigments, the complex, coherent worlds of Ovid or Dante, aware of the life-changing power of poetry. In painting imaginary ideal cities, Renaissance artists dreamt of housing and molding a perfectible mankind, while Michelangelo became an admired poet and architect. Music set the bar high as well, and by 1877 Walter Pater could confidently write that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music.” From the time of the ancient Greeks, visual artists admired the quantifiable rigor involved in dividing a string so that when plucked it reverberated in pleasurably subtle ways. The planets themselves were seen to share in a form of musical harmony, such that the music of the spheres, though perhaps not audible to the ear, was manifest to the mind.

Greek sculptors of the fifth century B.C. found analogies in proportion, and though they produced magnificent work, their measurements never rose to the level of physics. In subsequent centuries, artists knew that certain decisions made for better paintings, but they could never quite pin down whether the intervals, colors, or curves they chose could be explained by some cosmic, mathematical proof (Aristotelian color theory aside). By medieval times, music had gained the status of a liberal art, for it shared the stringent beauty of arithmetic and astronomy, while the visual arts remained lowly crafts, with painters in Bruges assigned to the same guild as housepainters and saddle makers. For the most part, studio practice remained a seat-of-the-pants affair, masters passing down their practice to apprentices behind closed doors. To this day, conservatories teach melody, harmony, and counterpoint, while art schools teach less and less, having lost all faith in anything analogous to music’s rigor.

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