Arts - Autumn 2018

Visual Music

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)
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.

As a painter, I have experienced this system envy, and though I distrust what passes for theory in art, I can speculate about rough commonalities between music and painting. A happy amateur, I listen repeatedly to Bach’s cantatas, appreciative if musically illiterate, in much the same spirit as I read about quantum theory or relativity. Not long ago, while trying to parse the complexities of counterpoint, I realized that some paintings I love might share various traits with Bach’s music. Paolo Veronese’s The Madonna of the Cuccina Family (c. 1570), for example, shares a kindred sensibility with Bach’s counterpoint, as heard in, say, the “Little” Fugue in G minor. (I find Glenn Gould’s renditions of Bach very clear, as if you could hear interpreter and composer thinking in tandem.) Bach’s polyphonic style, in which several independent melodic lines are played at once, has been described as a civilized conversation between gentlemen, a layering of voices that add up to a harmonious whole. When I examine Veronese’s work (opposite), I get just this sense of harmonic layering—I perceive a visual music. If conversing men lurk in the abstraction of the German fugue, abstraction can also be detected in the conversation taking place in the Italian painting. We can identify the various figures: to the left, the Virgin and Child, two saints (John the Baptist and Jerome), and an angel, separated by a column from 12 members of the Cuccina family (including Antonio, Alvise, Zuana, and Zuanantonio), accompanied by personifications of Faith, Hope, and Charity, plus a nurse and a dog. All very Italian, this specific and prolific Venetian family comfortably hobnobbing with the divine and the allegorical. Before we start murdering to dissect, let this image flow over you, a sort of passeggiata, a stroll, or a procession, yes, but also a passacaglia, a musical form related to the dance in which a set of variations plays over an underlying ostinato pattern. This visual dance lets colors and forms in fictive space become almost auditory, sister to spatial perceptions of music.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a fugue as “a polyphonic composition in which a short melodic theme, the subject, is introduced by one part or voice, and successively taken up by the others and developed by their interweaving.” What if, keeping four contrapuntal voices in mind, we looked for four spatial layers in the Veronese? Granted, they’re not lined up like ducks in a row at a shooting gallery, but if the first layer hugs the picture plane, it includes the prominent column and about four figures, “starting” with John the Baptist. I put this word in quotes only because we take in a painting all at once, and don’t read it dutifully from left to right, as we read texts and music in the West. Nevertheless, Veronese’s choice of a horizontal format, traditionally associated with landscape, does imply a scanning eye, so for the moment let’s treat the canvas like a page of sheet music, where the notes of a melody are read across the stacked lines called staffs, and harmonic interactions take place up and down.

Reading across the painting , we find a second layer starting with Mary, a third with Jerome, and a fourth with the angel. Certainly layers occlude each other—perhaps the way voices in counterpoint overlap each other. Stretto is the word used to describe such staggered entry in music, so consider the Baptist, Mary, Jerome, and the angel as stretti, entering sequentially, their harmony adding up to a spatial event of great subtlety. They form a curving niche-like plane on the far left and are faced or answered by another plane, consisting of the overlaps from Zuana back to Antonio. In the fugue one hears a subject, then an answer. Here the answer is both emotional, as the Cuccini adore their Virgin, and structural, forming a large wedge of space bisected by the column that separates two orders of being, holy and human. If it weren’t for that kid hugging the column, we’d have two separate paintings, but the twain do meet thanks to childhood innocence. In music (and poetry) such a pause is called a caesura, notated as ||. Here the foreground column, with its dramatic, relentless left edge, is like a knife cut, or a sudden silence. The kid all but winks at us, and we move on, finding a further restatement of the response to the initial subject in the planar overlap from Zuanantonio back to Hope. This echo is weaker, as if marked by a diminuendo, and the nurse to the far right weaker still: I can’t help but hear these forms answering and reverberating musically.

Bach could take a deceptively simple subject, then play endless variations on it, but if the Veronese contains no ur-shape per se that’s rotated, translated, or mirrored, we find contrasting black-white, red-green shapes, repeating and answering each other across the format,  forte and piano. (In using triads of hue, painters speak of color chords, but fair is fair: musicians speak of instrumental color.) When we look above and to the left of the little dog, it becomes clear the painter thinks in terms of abstract shapes that hug the surface, for there’s a bright vase-like configuration created by the unmodulated black and red shapes of the pantaloon and Charity’s dress. Veronese is cleverly pulling his most distant point, a building across the canal, right up to his picture plane, and though it may stretch the analogy, that surface might function like the key of a musical composition. We can read across as well as into depth, but the picture plane is home, one punctured and played with, but which we return to, even unconsciously. There may be a loose parallel between Veronese’s overall color temperature and key as well. What, after all, is with the bilious green sky, which evokes dissonance even while throwing the reds into complementary, contrasting relief, leaving a sour impression in a militantly minor key?

Sound travels as compression waves, as opposed to the classic transverse waves we experience when seasick. Picture a speaker pushing in and out, compressing the air in pulses that then cause our eardrums to vibrate in sympathy with the source. The Cuccina family might resemble a series of compressions, where Virgin, column, Hope, and Charity can be felt like rhythmic beats. Seen this way, the whole painting seems to pulse, in and out as well as across, but I don’t want to overstep, for although music is tied to physics and math, most of us don’t think of compressed air when listening to Bach (or seeing Veronese). But consider a pure musical tone—say, a single note played by a flute—and plot a graph, following the compressions along the horizontal axis. Let the intensity of these compressions be amplitude, or height, on the vertical axis, and you get the familiar sine wave. (For middle C, the distance between compressions will be about four feet, traveling fast, and our incredibly sensitive ears will pick up distances as short as three-quarters of an inch to as long as 18 feet.) We intuitively perceive musical waves the way we do the wavy lines that pass down a rope flicked by girls at play. Looking at the Veronese, we discern waves galore, so try finding some for yourself before I belabor the point. The largest of these waves might be traced from the lower left corner, up the Baptist’s back, over the column, down to the curving, flowing red dress of Zuana and up again to the baby in the maid’s arms. Another could mirror this curve, starting in the upper left corner, down the Baptist’s right arm, touching the base of the column to eventually ascend. Or we could find smaller arabesques, as when we curve up the Baptist’s arm and hand, across the light slash on the column (why else would it be there?), then glissando down Faith’s luminous white left arm, to Zuanantonio’s hand and back in a spatial infinity sign or Möbius strip.

Other similar configurations abound, but we might wonder, Why is the nurse so elevated? Imagine her the same height as the others, and you’ll find the painting ends with an anticlimactic whimper instead of a coda or open cadence implying continuity beyond the frame. I find it interesting that most of the waves never break on the format’s right side, but imply a continuation beyond the nurse, as if the Cuccina family line itself will wave or spiral into the future. Veronese couldn’t have known about DNA, but our eyes might discern double helixes embedded in this procession, the waves not linear but bulging out and into the pictorial space. For although this is a relief-like space, constrained within limits like a Roman sarcophagus, Veronese has bulging waves moving across, in, out, and throughout, again somewhat resembling baroque polyphony.

It takes training to look at sheet music and hear the music in one’s head, and it perhaps takes a Beethoven to compose a symphony while deaf. Few would claim music is a visual experience, though some, like Kandinsky, felt his synesthesia allowed him to hear colors, and presumably listen to a painting. Nor is structural complexity some guarantee of quality; for every lousy fugue, there’s a lousy painting, counterpoint or mathematical ratios notwithstanding. But if one aims to compose a fugue or to paint invented group-figure compositions, one would be well advised to understand how Bach and Veronese worked, for the rigor of their technique was equal to their inspiration and imagination.

I don’t make extravagant claims for the similarities between Bach and Veronese. Clearly, music unfolds in time, painting in a fictive space. We need our aural memory to process music temporally, while our eye is free to travel anywhere it wants across a canvas. Hearing the words to Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God ) sung in Cantata BWV 80 is not like seeing the Cuccina family as recognizable people mixing the divine and the domestic. Even if the family’s heads resemble notes bobbing up or down on a staff, or are volumetric in relation to the flattened forms of their clothed bodies, somewhat the way musical sharps contrast with flats, one shouldn’t get literal.

Nevertheless, when I was studying a glossary of musical terms, it struck me how much overlap there was with the terminology of painting. Tone, for instance. Corot may have had a better eye for light to dark intervals, which artists call tone or value, than any painter in our tradition, training himself to discern 20 separate tones. Aural and visual compositions can both have an overall tonality, while tone color helps us distinguish between a guitar and a banjo. Coloratura, or coloring, exists in both disciplines. The word motif  is used by musicians and painters equally. Texture and spatial music are in the musical lexicon as well, and musicologists borrow the term pointillism to describe the distribution of isolated notes in certain pieces of Anton Webern. We can sympathize with this mutual borrowing, for when composing at a piano or dabbing at an easel, one makes decisions often hard to verbalize or articulate, the proof of the pudding being in the eating.

Ear or eye, the mind is hard at work, and it’s unfortunate that the arts have become somewhat Balkanized. Goethe bridged this gap when he called architecture frozen music, but this is a bit icy, so perhaps better to borrow Delacroix’s concept of painting as visual music. He advised us to let painting wash over us, seduce us, to please, and only later, if necessary, instruct. Walter Pater’s claim that all art constantly aspires to the state of music’s purity, clarity, and inherent abstraction may suffer from an unnecessary bit of one-upmanship. We might more profitably seek not a competition between the arts but a conversation between gentlemen, a democratic, appreciative overlapping.

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