It’s hard to believe now, but concert goers in the days of Mozart would casually talk over the music, oblivious of the genius in the air all around them. The modern concept of silently experiencing music comes with the age of Beethoven and the Romantics, who elevate music to the status of an art form equal to that of the visual arts. With that change came a revolution in how the visual arts “saw” music, or more accurately, how the visual arts depicted the experience of appreciating music. In the exhibition Looking and Listening in Nineteenth-Century France currently at the Smart Museum of Art, the development of this relationship is examined through works such as Henri Fantin-Latour’s A Schumann Piece (above), which captures a moment in which the musicians perform Robert Schumann’s music as the intimate parlor audience watches them. This dynamic of the performer and listener provides a fertile field for the scholars writing in the exhibition catalogue to work within “the nexus of art history, musicology, history of science, and psychology,” as the introduction states.
Originating in an interdisciplinary course conducted in the Spring of 2007 by the co-curators of the exhibition—Martha Ward and Anne Leonard—Looking and Listening in Nineteenth-Century France approaches the subject from multiple angles using a variety of artists. Honoré Daumier saw the new fascination with viewing, aided by technical innovations such as the telescope (above), and recognized, as Julia Langbein writes in her essay, “that ultimately those who lose themselves in observation make themselves vulnerable to be observed” and, therefore, the subject of caricature. Consequently, as Leonard writes in her essay, this results in “viewers’ self-consciousness about being on display while they behind the ostensible objects of display” in art galleries. The appreciation of art, whether painting or music, suddenly became a subject of interest in itself. Passively listening or looking would never be as “pure” again after such heightened consciousness.
Émile-René Ménard, Homer, c. 1885, Oil on canvas. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Purchase, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Davidson, 1980.4.
Émile-René Ménard’s Homer (above) neatly encapsulates this controversy over sensory experience. “With eyes cast in different directions, their contrasting demeanors make for an odd combination of vacant starting, languorous sensuality, and plebian profile,” Ward writes in her essay on the painting. “All of these figures could be said, in some sense, to be blind to everything but their inner experience, including the viewer’s presence.” Ménard’s uses the blind poet Homer to symbolize the blindness of the creative artist totally immersed in the creative act, while the figures listening (or not) catalogue the different levels of immersion for those experiencing the creative act of another.
Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu, Joan of Arc at Domremy, c. 1870–74, Cast bronze. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Purchase, Gift of the Friends of the Smart Gallery, 1986.12.
Elayne Oliphant examines the religious component of this sensory submission to the power of art. Looking at depictions of Joan of Arc such as Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu’s Joan of Arc at Domremy (above) and Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc Listening to the Voices, Oliphant designates Joan as the ultimate audience. “To be absorbed in the task of contemplation,” Oliphant writes, “implies that one has overcome the distractions of the material world and, therefore, is capable of perceiving and understanding God’s words.” Where Joan heard the word of God through her powerful faith, the common patron of the arts can hear the artist’s message, regardless of the medium, through an equal leap of faith in the power of art to communicate. Joan of Arc thus becomes a patron saint for the newly enlightened viewer and listener of the increasingly secular nineteenth century.
Pierre Bonnard, Illustration for Le petit solfège illustré, by Claude Terrasse, Paris: Ancienne Maison Quantin/Librairies-Imprimeries Réunies, 1893, Printed book. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Purchase, Paul and Miriam Kirkley Fund for Acquisitions, 2007.106.
The true love of music so many nineteenth-century French artists had greatly helped forge this new connection and exploration between visual art and music. Michael Tymkiw examines how Fantin-Latour’s wide-ranging appreciation of the music of Robert and Clara Schumann, Berlioz, and, above all, Richard Wagner inspired him to illustrate those works, especially those relating to operas or ballets. (A CD accompanying the catalogue contains selections from many of the works Fantin-Latour and the other artists reacted to artistically, allowing for a truly multimedia experience that brings both the art and the music more fully to life. Many kudos to the developers of this catalogue for taking advantage of the available technology to provide this great enhancement.) Odilon Redon later viewed Fantin-Latour’s images as too illustrative, more reductive than truly in the spirit of the music. “My drawings inspire and do not provide definitions,” Redon wrote. “They do not determine anything. Just like music, they place us within an ambiguous world of the indeterminate.” With such striving for indeterminancy, Redon’s art truly aspired to the state of music itself, linking the wordless expressivity of the visual with that of the auditory explicitly. On a different level, Pierre Bonnard explicitly integrated visual art and music in his innovative drawings for a musical instructional book (above) that used amusing figures to illustrate musical notation in hopes of bringing this new way of "seeing" music to the next generation.
I’ve always toyed with the idea of art and music pairings, similar to the way that foodies obsess over wine and food pairings. The idea of walking through the MoMA while listening to John Coltrane, completely immersed in the dual experience and oblivious of everything else, always struck me as something to put on my personal “bucket list.” Looking and Listening in Nineteenth-Century France cuts to the heart of that interaction between the two media and how the whole is so much greater than the individual parts. In many ways, the nineteenth-century was a paradise for such cultural experiences. Although recorded music was not yet in existence, more people played instruments in the home, allowing for a more direct experience with the music. Classical music and the opera held a much more prominent position in the entertainment world than today, when they are both relegated to tiny, niche markets. Even the visual arts have fallen victim to the decline of arts education in America, leaving many museums empty and in financial peril. Looking and Listening in Nineteenth-Century France allows us to look back at that fertile time of true multimedia and, perhaps, regardless of the wonders of surround sound and IMAX theaters, make us conscious of what we’re truly missing.
[Many thanks to the Smart Museum of Art for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Looking and Listening in Nineteenth-Century France and for the images from the exhibition.]