The Art of Music
San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego
Upon entering the exhibition The Art of Music viewers are met with a huge wall sculpture by contemporary artist John Baldessari. It consists of an enormous white-painted human ear with a large trumpet jutting out from it. I took it as a sign that we should ‘listen carefully’, and pay as much attention to what we hear, as to what we see. At an art museum we are accustomed to focusing mostly on what we see – and The Art of Music challenges us to both listen and see simultaneously. In the over 200 works of art presented, there are a combination of paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos, sound art, installations and musical instruments covering artists and music-makers over several hundred years of time. This highly ambitious exhibition drawing from a variety of time periods, artists and musicians, is organized into three areas: Musician as Motif, Social Intersections of Art and Music and Formal Connections of Art and Music.
The Musician as Motif examines the motif of the musician and the symbolic nature of this figure in Greek terracotta figures, Chinese metalwork, and Western portraits of celebrated musicians. Through these we will present a visual history of the meanings associated with musicians, muses, and the individual artist at different moments and in different cultural contexts. The second section, Social Intersections of Art and Music, considers the social function of music and its public and private rituals. This spans depictions of musical performances at the court and in the theater, designs for the opera and ballet, and works portraying musical scenes of everyday life. Formal Connections of Art and Music, the third explores representations of the sounds, emotions, and sights of music, from Indian Ragamala paintings to modern and contemporary interpretations of the colors and forms evoked by music.
The works come from a combination of the museum’s permanent collection, loans from major museums and private collections. Art works from Pablo Picasso, Kandinsky, Chuck Close, Rufino Tamayo, and Henri Matisse are among the most prominent artists presented. On view is a harpsichord, lyre, violin, guitar, whistles, and Beethoven’s Fidelio from 1814, “Er Sterbel” manuscript with autograph. When viewers approach each musical instrument, there are sensors causing music to ‘play’ a musical piece using the particular instrument viewed. Throughout the many rooms of the exhibition, faint sounds of musical pieces can be heard adding a wonderful back-drop to the visual art pieces. We become aware of how visual art pieces contain movement and conjure up unique sounds and that sounds from musical instruments initiate some natural visual symbols and colors.
The final art piece we experience in the last room of the exhibition is contemporary artist Tristan Perich’s “Microtonal Wall”. This wall work arranged on a 25 foot long grid, is comprised of 1500 tiny speakers, each playing its own microtonal frequency over four octaves. When a viewer gets very close to each speaker, you can hear sounds separately but when further away the sounds all seem to play at once.
The Art of Music educates, entertains and challenges us – also reminding us of the interconnections of art and music and how each can inform the other, and stimulate our curiosity and creativity. The show is on view through February 7th.
IMAGE: “Beethoven’s Trumpet(with Ear) Opus #127 ” 2007