Thursday 17 May 2012

Music to my Eyes...

One of my favourite pictures of the last year has to be the painting of the harpist by Maxwell Armfield which I reprinted in my review of the year at the end of last month.  I was thinking about it today, and found myself considering how peculiar it is in many ways.  In fact, if you think about it, all pictures of musicians and singers are a bit odd.  Hang on, let me demonstrate...

The Music Lesson David Sani
What is wrong with this image?  Well, nothing, but I was suddenly hit with the oddness of having a silent image of people creating sound.  It's like listening to someone paint, it doesn't tell you anything about the act of creation at all, not in that medium.  So what is the point of images of music?

David Sani's image above gives us one possible reason.  Often in images of people making music, it acts as a metaphor for their love.  The couple above perform a duet, when they can express their love through a lovely song, and still remain decent.  As Elvis once said, Music is the food of love.  Especially when dipped in chocolate.

The Singing Lesson Arturo Ricci
The gentleman above is looking at his pupil with adoration due to her beautiful voice.  Possibly it's because every time she takes a deep breath, she pops out of her corset (and Lord knows, we've all been there).  I had singing lessons when I was a teenager and it wasn't this glamorous.  I was taught by an old lady who had nine whippets that sat and stared at you.  If you hit a duff note, they would whimper.  Whippets are very judgemental.

Fair is my Love (1900) Edwin Abbey
Well, this young lady is certainly fair, and if the gentleman is thinking of Spencer, then he obviously finds her enchanting, however, something about his demeanour makes me think he's somewhat unhappy.  Maybe it's because he's sat on a lumpy root, or maybe he thinks she's dedicating her lute-song to another chap.  Either way, under that floppy hat, he's not best pleased.  Maybe she made him carry her lute?  What a shame, because it seems that music is meant to bring you closer together, like the following pair...

The End of the Song (1902) Edmund Blair Leighton
Who can resist a man with a harp?  The beauty of music is often shown as a winner of hearts, with the listener unable to resist the charms of the musician.  I suppose that is the young girl's father coming up the steps, rubbing his beard in concern.  Mind you, I'm sure Mr Walker would rub his beard in concern if Lily-Rose was courted by some long-haired harpist.

The Duet Frank Dicksee
For women, musical accomplishment is seen as especially beautiful in art.  The pair above radiate heavenly grace and beauty as they silently harmonise.  Looking at images like this, you can almost work out the music from the colours, the shading and tone.  After all, tone can refer to both colour and music, so what does it tell us about the ladies above?  The seated lady plays a light tune, her dress reflecting back the purity of her melody, whereas her companion, partially in shade, plays richer notes, her clothes holding a deeper, more complex pattern.  The women contrast and compliment each other in appearance and by extension their part in the song is reflected in their 'harmony'.

Musica (Melody) (c.1895) Kate Bunce

There is something about a girl with a lute... The beauty of her tune must be equal to the depth and richness of her clothes and that gorgeous mirror behind her.  I always thought she had slightly curious eyes, but maybe she is just desperately trying to remember the tune.  Often women playing music are shown as slightly solemn, possibly even blank in expression.  It's as if all the life, the passion in them is being channelled through their fingers onto the strings.  I do love lute music...

Odalisque with a Lute (1876) Hippolyte Berteaux
Something tells me that her lute playing isn't this young ladies greatest attraction.  In fact, I secretly suspect that she can't play that lute, or at least no-one has ever gotten round to asking her. Maybe if she played her lute, her top would remain closed.  That's what Kate Bunce would say, anyhow.

'Thy Voice is like to Music heard ere Birth...' (1902) Sigismund Goetze
The full title of the above is 'Thy Voice is like to Music heard ere Birth/Some Spirit-Lute touch on a Spirit Sea'. Well, quite, but again shows the wonder of a lute for keeping the front of your blouse together.  So now ladies, if you wish to attract a man, obviously a lute is the answer.

The Pre-Raphaelites, and particularly Rossetti, loved a musical picture (as did my Nan, who had a picture frame that played 'Somewhere My Love' from Dr Zhivago) and I think the notion of hearing the music through colour plays out very expressively in the work of Rossetti.  Take La Ghirlandata...

La Ghirlandata (1871-74) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Those long fingers are plucking out the tunes of the forest, gorgeous and luxurious.  It is an image of sensation; you can smell that bundle of roses, and feel the strings beneath your finger nubs, while you swim in the deep green of the frock and foliage.  The music she plays is of no matter as you are too busy gazing at the beautiful woman with her passive eyes.  Her fingers must express her passion as her gentle expression gives nothing away.

The Bower Meadow (1872) Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I wonder if these maidens, playing their tunes with such vacant expressions are hiding a reason for their song.  Certainly in Rossetti's work I suspect that the women play in order to stave off  impropriety, the music will keep them pure.  While their fingers are busy on the strings they won't be straying, and the women in The Bower Meadow are possibly locked in a musical chastity belt, all of their love and passion channelled through their art.  The flowers may hint at their bloom, so rich and pure, but destined to fade as the song is destined to end.  It reminds me of the Victorian notion that women were ruined by sex, their looks coarsened and lost, so these musical virgins will remain eternally beautiful if only they can keep playing.

How the Devil, Disguised (1907) Frank Cadogan Cowper
Oh deary me, see what happens when you let a man near a musical instrument.  Entire convents are ruined.  I know he's the devil, but when a man has an instrument in his hands, it's often about seduction.  With women, it's usually about the exact opposite.

Dog Playing the Piano (1888) James Carrington
And when it's a dog playing an instrument....actually, I have no idea what that means.  Maybe all those whippets were staring at me because they felt they could do better...


  1. Great post. Good music and these pictures definitely go together.

  2. I have "The end of the Song" called Tristan and Isolde, making beardy man King Mark.

  3. Ah, well that's just wrong in my book, we all know how I feel about an older gentleman... At least he got played by someone decent in the film, which I'm sure is a comfort.

    Thanks for the comments!


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