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The Arts Entwined: Music and Painting in the Nineteenth Century.

The Arts Entwined:

Music and Painting in the Nineteenth Century

Marsha L. Morton and Peter L. Schmunk, editors

New York and London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000,

viii + 239 pages, 44 illustrations, $65 cloth.

In The Arts Entwined, Marsha L. Morton and Peter L. Schmunk have gathered, and contributed to, a remarkable collection of essays chronicling the symbiotic relationship between music and the visual arts in the nineteenth century. If there were any doubt concerning the existence and extent of such interdependent influences, these doubts disappear as one turns from essay to essay in their anthology. In fact, the evidence presented in this series of essays is so compelling that the reader is left a little breathless.

The first two essays in this anthology, written by Marsha Morton and Philippe Junod, introduce in broad strokes the manner in which music and the visual arts were recognized to be "entwined" throughout in the nineteenth century.

Morton's essay provides an overview of the ever-changing relationship between music and painting. By examining statements made by painters about music, and by musicians about painting, she concludes that although practitioners of one art form were rarely schooled in the intricacies of the other, cross fertilization between the two occurred regularly--particularly after mid century.

Junod argues that the nineteenth century witnessed the replacement of the "Old Paragone" "ut pictura poesis" by a "New Paragone" of "ut pictura musica". Although he acknowledges that this new paragone has been "marked with contradiction from its beginnings", such contradiction has not "stood in the way of a series of valuable artistic accomplishments" (p. 35).

The anthology's remaining seven essays shift the reader's focus from the general to the specific; from a theoretical overview of the symbiotic relationship between the auditory and the visual to a chronological examination of particular examples.

Stephanie Campbell argues that the thirty year friendship between Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Carl Friedrich Zelter was fertile ground for the growth of their mutual interest in the "visual" approach to musical theory and composition. Campbell's essay also serves to elucidate two of the anthology's basic premises: that the acknowledged interrelationship between the visual and auditory arts continued throughout the entire nineteenth century (beginning as early as the 1780s), and the mutual benefits of that interrelationship were shaped by influences flowing in either or both directions from the outset.

Thomas S. Grey examines Felix Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture (begun in 1829) in light of the visual images that served to inspire it. James Macpherson (1736-1796), a Scottish poet, claimed (falsely) to have discovered fragments of an ancient epic Gaelic poem (third century CE) written by Ossian, the son of Fingal. Macpherson's hoax was accepted as genuine, and by the end of the eighteenth century, it was common practice among the romantically inclined of the day to visit what was believed to be Fingal's Cave on the western coast of Scotland. Mendelssohn's visit to Fingal's Cave helped shape his Hebrides Overture. I say "helped shape" because, as Grey points out, Mendelssohn wrote the first twenty-one bars of the Overture the day before he visited the cave. In point of fact, a pilgrimage to the cave had become so popular by the time Mendelssohn visited that any number of engraved sketches of the site--both actual and imaginary--could have influenced him before he arrived. As Grey writes, "Mendelssohn was inspired by the anticipation of the sight--that is, by a mental image of what he expected to see" (p. 67). It was not only engraved images of Fingal's Cave that could have inspired Mendelssohn, however. By the time he wrote his Hebrides Overture he could have seen any number of well known oil paintings by leading artists of the day depicting additional scenes from the life of Ossian. Grey points out that the epic of Ossian had become so popular by the time Mendelssohn wrote his Hebrides Overture that scenes of Ossian's exploits had become regular features of one of the lowest forms of popular visual entertainment--the phantasmagoria. Mendelssohn's quintessential "musical landscape" provides a further example of Ossian's popularity as a subject in the visual arts.

The next essay shifts our attention from the influence music derived from the visual arts, to the impact music had upon them. Kermit Swiler Champa argues convincingly that the different approaches to landscape painting evidenced in the works of Corot and Monet can be explained, in part, by their different approaches to music. That Corot considered his mature landscape paintings to be visual manifestations of musical compositions has become such a truism of those who discuss his work that Champa was able merely to summarize the evidence. The existence of a similar relationship between the landscapes of Monet and musical theory of the 1870s was more problematical for Champa; however, but I find his argument convincing. By noting an anti-Wagnerian approach to music following the Franco-Prussian war (from an approach which courted memory and reverie as found particularly in the work of Wagner, to an approach that focused upon the various elements of composition--harmony, tone scale, voice, etc.), Champa argues that Monet's "colorist" approach of the 1870s derived, in part, from music's new found critical discourse. In the words of Champa, "Monet's painting came increasingly and inseparably to be conceived as refined color and partnered with music as refined sound" (p. 111).

Carlo Caballero's essay once again returns the reader's attention from an emphasis on the visual arts to music. Caballero concludes that at precisely the same time Champa believes a shifting emphasis in musical theory was contributing to Monet's emerging painting style, a shifting emphasis in painting theory was contributing to the emerging musical style of Saint-Saens. In fact, in a very interesting way, it could be argued that in Caballero's discussion of the musical theory of the period, Liszt is to Corot as Saint-Saens is to Monet. Whereas Liszt's Ce qu'on entend sur la montagne (c. 1850) was intended to be a symphonic poem, a musical complement to Victor Hugo's poem of the same title, Saint-Saens' responded to Hugo's poem Le rouet d'Omphale very differently. Whereas Liszt's work was in constant dialogue with the verbal content of Hugo's poem, Saint-Saens' Le rouet d'Omphale became a symphonic poem of a very different order; Saint-Saens ignored the verbal content of Hugo's poem, and focused instead upon nothing more than the poem's title, "or at most a fruitful association of the spinning wheel with the mythic figure of Omphale" (p. 125). Whereas Liszt responded to his task in terms of arts for ideas sake, Saint-Saens responded in terms of art for arts sake (p. 127). His approach focused upon the sound made by the spinning wheel, just as Monet can be said to have focused upon color of a particular landscape.

Though there might have been a slight dip in the popularity of Richard Wagner's music following the Franco-Prussian war, as Champa suggests, Lisa Norris affirms that Wagner's star glowed ever brighter and higher in France throughout the rest of the century. It is this ever increasing presence that leads her to a discussion of the impact his music had upon the work of Fantin-Latour. Clearly Fantin, a true melomane, was mesmerized by Wagner's music in 1885 when he painted his Around the Piano. By 1887, when the symbolist critic Teodor de Wyzewa discussed the lithographs Fantin produced to "illustrate" Wagner's compositions, he described them as "symphonies", "sonatas", "original poems" (p. 158). Norris notes that "by the early twentieth century, one is hard pressed to find statements on Fantin that do not refer to musicality" (p. 159). But she also affirms, and this is the most significant point of her essay, that Fantin's visual music, his ut pictura musica, began as early as the 1860s.

Peter L. Schmunk turns our attention to the work of Vincent van Gogh and the role music "as an artistic ideal" played throughout his brief career (p. 178). By the summer of 1888, when Vincent moved to Arles, his letters to his younger brother Theo were peppered with references to music; Schmunk convincingly argues that although such references are less frequent in their earlier correspondence, the influence of music upon his life and work is no less significant.

The ninth and final essay (one wishes there were more) in the anthology was written by Elizabeth Prelinger on the influence of music upon Edward Munch's The Scream. Instead of discussing the work as is usual by musicologists, "as a visual corollary to the dissonance and atonality of the Expressionist music of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg" (p. 209), Prelinger argues that Munch "exploited music as a kind of performative gesture ... to bid farewell to the harmonies--both literal and figurative--of an earlier time and, Cassandra-like, to foretell the fate of the individual in the modern era of harsh cacophony" (p. 223).

By collecting essays that discuss the symbiotic relationship between music and the visual arts throughout the nineteenth century, Morton and Schmunk support the basic thesis of their anthology clearly and unequivocally: the theory and practice of these two art forms were inextricably "entwined" during the period under discussion. Just as one would no longer think of writing a book on the history of nineteenth-century painting without discussing the impact photography had upon the discipline, so I believe all future nineteenth-century texts will be flawed to the degree that they fail to acknowledge the importance of music in shaping the visual arts of the period. If you are at all interested in the history of nineteenth-century European art you should read The Arts Entwined. If you teach a course in the field, this book should be required reading for you and your students.

Larry L. Ligo

Davidson College
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Author:Ligo, Larry L.
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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