Music, Symbolism, and Les Nabis

Between November 2019 and January 2020, Phillips Music presented three concerts exploring the interrelationships between music and art in the period of the Nabis as part of the exhibition Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life—The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26). Ahead of the last of these performances on Sunday, January 12, featuring resident musicians from the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Belgium, Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on some of the cross-disciplinary currents that united visual artists and musicians in the late 19th century.  

“Think…of the musical role color will henceforth play in modern painting. Color, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the time most elusive in nature: its inner force.”—Paul Gauguin, 1899

In 1884, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine made a curious statement about the future of poetry in his publication L’art poetique. He wrote that poetry should seek to become “music before all else” (“De la musique avant toute chose”). This seemingly radical idea compelled the artists of his generation to look to the example of music for the formulation of new aesthetic directions for art. If it seems unusual that Verlaine would seek to devolve his art form from its own resources in the search of something completely new, his talismanic statement on the value of music for all art was, by the 1880s, surprisingly a rather commonplace idea. Baudelaire, under the influence of Wagner’s music, had opened the flood gates in the 1850s through the concept of synesthesia and correspondence between the arts, emphasizing the value of music for its non-imitative, abstract capacity. Before this, artist Eugene Delacroix discussed his paintings in musical terms as early as 1824. Coining the idea of the “musicality” of painting, Delacroix used the example of music to show how a work of art could transcend imitation to achieve a higher aesthetic goal.

Influenced by Baudelaire and Delacroix, Paul Gauguin sought to infuse painting with the powerfully affective, mysterious aura of music, suggesting that in painting, “ultimately we should look more for suggestion than description, as with music.” Gauguin also espoused rational, scientific parallels, describing color as “vibration, just like music,” unifying an idea prevalent in the Renaissance (the Pythagorean theory of the Harmony of the Spheres, that mathematical intervals linked musical sounds with the divine) with new concepts about the science of color; that colors could be arranged in scales with “consonant” and “dissonant” harmonies (foreshadowing the color theories of painter Wassily Kandinsky, or the musical color wheels of composer Alexander Scriabin). As Gauguin sought to move beyond traditional figuration into what he described as “mysterious centers of thought,” it was the example of music—both for its vagueness and mystery as well as its scientific, rational properties—that helped free painting from the strictures of representation, supporting a trajectory that would lead, ultimately, to abstraction.

Gauguin’s ideas and teachings were hugely influential to the artists of the Nabis. Vuillard, Denis, Bonnard, and other painters of the Nabis adopted Gauguin’s ideas of the sensory and emotive capacities of color and form, and their wider intellectual engagement with literary symbolism (through the writings of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Verlaine) meant that they also fully absorbed the principles of correspondence, synesthesia, and the musicality of painting. Of all the members of the group, Maurice Denis was the most profoundly influenced by music and musicians. Denis’s understanding of music informed his theoretical writings (notably in his influential treatise of 1890, Définition de néo-traditionnisme), and he established close links with the musical milieu of his time. He was friends with Claude Debussy, collaborating with the composer on lithographic covers for his scores, and he was close with the circle of devotees surrounding César Franck, particularly Ernest Chausson, with whom Denis formed a close personal friendship. Intellectually, Denis was aligned to the Franck school’s guiding principles of la musique construite, and the desire to liberate French music from the accreted excesses of late-German romanticism by re-introducing the order and structure of forms drawn from renaissance and early-classical music. In his theoretical writings, Denis articulated a parallel ambition for painting and the decorative arts, hoping to orientate the Nabi group toward a revived classicism.

Compared to other members of the Nabis, Denis had a much deeper grasp of music, and while others may have subscribed to the general concept of music as abstract, suggestive, mysterious, or atmospheric (profoundly Symbolist qualities), Denis saw in music more formal ideas and structures that could be recognized to have analogous relationships to new techniques in painting. Denis’s highly distinctive musical tendencies are well-evidenced by his painting Les Musicians, on view in the exhibition.

Maurice Denis, Les Musicians, c. 1895. Oil on cardboard, 9 5/8 x 13 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant.

Nominally representational in the sense that we see four figures around a piano in the act of music-making, the painting is notable for its abstraction. Facial features are withdrawn, and sheet music is emptied of its symbols of notation. The painting instead holds the suggestion of music, the aura of its imminence. Denis deliberately draws our attention to the materiality of the line, the “rhythmic” contours of decorative Arabesques, which become the visual equivalent of an elapsing “melody” within the composition, with a concurrent “harmony” and “sonority” in the surrounding colors. If such heuristic devices feel nothing more than confused metaphors for us today, they were anything but to Denis and other creative artists in the period of the Nabis. However, the correspondences, parallels, and associations espoused by artists of this time should not be taken too literally; neither the painters of the Nabis nor the composers of the period desired a musical-visual equivalence—a transposition from one art form into another (which they saw as mere empty formalism)—but rather the burgeoning period of artistic exchange in the 1880s and 1890s provided artists and composers with the intellectual basis with which to borrow resources, concepts, or material means from different artistic domains.

This Sunday’s program, conceived in partnership with the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel and its resident musicians, presents a special confluence of currents within fin de siècle art and music. The spirit of the program is embodied—to some degree—by a single, revolutionary figure: Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe. Ysaÿe was a prominent musician in the cultural milieu of the late 19th century and the pre-eminent virtuoso of his age. A champion of new music, Ysaÿe was aligned with the Franck school, and he regularly toured music by Franck, D’Indy, Chausson as well as Debussy (frequently in concert with the music of Bach) internationally as talismans of French cultural export (both Franck and Ysaÿe were Belgian natives who became naturalized French citizens). As a musician, Ysaÿe came to embody 19th-century perceptions of the transcendent power and mystery of music, and in this heady period of synesthetic connection, Ysaÿe’s performances were often interpreted in lofty, poetic terms. Following a performance at Auguste Rodin’s atelier in Paris, French author Camille Mauclair described the violinist as a “living Rodin” in his novel La Ville Lumiere, thus transfiguring Ysaÿe into the solidified permanence of a museum piece.

The exchange went both ways, and Ysaÿe took an active interest in other art forms himself. In 1894, he programmed a series of four concerts with the Ysaÿe Quartet at the Musée de l’Art Modern in Brussels during an exhibition curated by Octave Maus titled La Libre Esthétique (The Free Aesthetic). Ysaÿe created an ambitious series of concerts that were ideologically aligned to the “Franckistes.” The second concert featured an all-Debussy program in which the String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 received its second performance (the premiere had taken place at the Société Nationale in Paris in 1893). The final performance presented Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21. Hanging in the galleries as these works were heard were paintings by Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, and many other artists of the Symbolist milieu. This Sunday’s concert thus presents an irresistible opportunity to hear some of the music that was most alive to the cross-disciplinary artistic spirit of the time.

—Jeremy Ney, Director of Music


The Beethoven Effect

Ahead of pianist Jonathan Biss’s first Sunday Concert (November 3) in a three-concert series exploring the Piano Sonatas of Ludwig van Beethoven during the 250th anniversary of the composers birth, The Phillips Collection’s Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on Beethoven’s legacy at this milestone year of celebration.

The 2019/20 season marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, the most well-known and most admired Classical composer in the history of Western music. Beethoven’s status within culture is something akin to ubiquity; not only is his music performed more than that of any other composer but some of his works have made unusual symbolic leaps into broader cultural, political, and social spheres. Beethoven is the composer we turn to in moments of national crisis (as with the performances of the Ninth Symphony after the September 11 attacks), and the composer of unity, hope, and humanitarianism (the Ode to Joy from the Ninth Symphony is the anthem of the European Union, and as recently as October 25 this year, the Ode was sang in Arabic by Lebanese protesters in Beirut). Indeed, the “Beethoven effect” can be traced in all manner of seemingly disparate fields of activity across time, from 18th-century philosophy to 21st-century film and pop culture, which says much about the adaptability of the Beethovian image and the enduring power of his music.

Illustration by Kathryn Zaremba

Yet the monumentalizing of Beethoven’s genius is not new; it began in his own lifetime, and his trajectory from earthly musician to transcendent musical prophet closely paralleled a shift in the perceptions of music itself. In the years after 1800, music as a practice both in performance and composition became less dependent on court appointments or church practices. The proliferation of public concert halls in the early 18th century democratized the experience of musical performance, whilst the philosophy and aesthetics of enlightenment thinkers such as Kant or Schlegel raised music’s status to that of the highest art, capable of speaking a truth beyond words, reason and concepts. Musicologist Mark Evan Bonds has observed that at the dawn of the Romantic era, the composer became “an oracle who speaks in tones that cannot be translated into words: rhetoric gives way to revelation.” In this context, Beethoven became the paradigm of the “liberated composer,” his music imbued with a metaphysical transcendence that was beyond the vagaries of the mundane world. As a means to interpret and understand this new revelatory power of music, new modes of poetic and descriptive written criticism proliferated. The influential writings of E.T.A Hoffman (which were published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung) made Beethoven’s putative claim to the sublime clear: In his 1810 review of the Fifth Symphony, he writes that Beethoven’s music “opens to us the realm of the monstrous and immeasurable. Glowing rays shoot through the deep night of this realm, and we sense giant shadows surging to and fro.” Within Beethoven’s chamber music, some of his piano sonatas gained nicknames such as “Moonlight” and “Pathétique” (added by critics and publishers), which lent opaque, suggestive, and poetic visions to the music. The practice of bestowing music with extra-musical allusion would have a long history after Beethoven but it began with his example. Long after his death, these fragments of history and biography stick to the mythology around Beethoven, both enriching and complicating our relationship to his music.

Assessing Beethoven’s legacy does not necessarily mean stripping back the excesses of Romantic-era thought, or returning an earthly, mortal image to this most immortal of composers. The 250th anniversary represents an opportunity to view the composer in his totality, celebrating the scope of his achievement in music, and his singularity as a figure in the history of art. He was one of those rare characters who both seized the spirit of their own epoch and left a body of artistic work that has only grown in popularity since his death. As the conductor Andris Nelsons has observed, Beethoven’s music is “for our time and all time.”

The Piano Sonatas

Within the many musical forms that Beethoven revolutionized, his achievement within the 32 piano sonatas represents something completely unique in his output. Generally split into three distinct periods, they exemplify the shift into early Romanticism, as Beethoven developed from the relative simplicity of the classical style in the first few sonatas, to the greater harmonic innovations and emotional complexity of the monumental final three sonatas of Op. 109, Op. 110, and Op. 111.

For any pianist, recording the 32 piano sonatas is akin to summiting a (crowded) musical Mt. Everest. Yet it is an Everest that demands maturity, patience, and vision, as much as youth and ambition. In recent years, the acclaimed American pianist Jonathan Biss has brought such a balanced approach to his recording of the complete cycle, a process that began in 2011, and will conclude in 2020 with the release of the full box set. During Biss’s nine-year odyssey into recording the music of Beethoven, he has published an e-book about his experiences called Beethoven’s Shadow, and launched an online course exploring all 32 Piano Sonatas in collaboration with the Curtis Institute of Music. In the 2019/20 season, Biss performs full cycles of the sonatas worldwide, including performances at The Phillips Collection on November 3, December 1, and March 22 to explore sonatas from Beethoven’s middle and late periods respectively.

-Jeremy Ney, Director of Music

A Contemporary Music Interpretation of Soy Isla – A Response to Zilia

To get the full experience of this blog, we recommend listening to the Spotify playlist created by the author, Nia Gomez. The full track list is below.

  1. Teardrop – Massive Attack
  2. Anchor Song – Bjork
  3. Sullen Girl – Fiona Apple
  4. Dry Land – Joan Armatrading
  5. Symphony in Blue – Kate Bush
  6. Seascape – Tracey Thorn
  7. Salt of the Sea – Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions
  8. Sea, Swallow Me – Cocteau Twins
  9. Blue – Joni Mitchell

Soy Isla is an embodiment of artist Zilia Sánchez’s perception of self, a reflection on her place in the world (or lack thereof)—the dichotomy between self-ownership and solitude. This playlist is an interpretation of the Zilia Sánchez exhibition, using modern music to embody thematic elements of the artist and her work. The playlist is exclusively comprised of female artists, expressing the sensuality of the female physical form like the curved and stretched canvasses in Soy Isla. Works including Maqueta Soy Isla (1972/92), Juana de Arco (1987), and the lip-shaped imagery of El Silencio de Eros (1980) exude subtle eroticism in their composition.

Zilia Sánchez, Topología erótica (Erotic Topology), 1960–71. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 41 × 56 × 13 in., Collection of Jose R. Landron, San Juan

Zilia Sánchez, Topología erótica (Erotic Topology), 1960–71. Acrylic on stretched canvas, 41 × 56 × 13 in., Collection of Jose R. Landron, San Juan

Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” highlights the feminine sensuality and minimalism present in Topologia Erotica (1960-71) and Topologia from the series Azul azul. “Water is my eye. Gentle impulsion, shakes me, makes me lighter.” The muted pink and blue shades of the paintings exude a weightlessness upon the curves of the canvas.

The dissonant instrumental harmonies of Bjork’s “Anchor Song” mimic the dichotomy of peaceful and ferocious waves. A singular female voice sings, “I live by the ocean, and during the night I dive into it. Down to the bottom, underneath all currents, and drop my anchor.” Just as an anchor, Zilia is rooted as an island to her homeland of Cuba and current residence in Puerto Rico.

The separation of an island from other land is arguably applicable to Zilia’s experience as a queer Latina artist, disconnected from tradition and the mainstream art community. In “Sullen Girl,” Fiona Apple laments, “It’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion. They don’t know I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea.” Apple refers to “they,” those who do not understand. Zilia states that an island “belongs to only one thing” and that they must “understand it and leave.”

The first piece in the collection, both the canvas Soy Isla (2000) and the performance video Encuentrismo–ofrenda o retorno (2000) depict the release of the work into the ocean. In “Dry Land,” the unyielding voice of Joan Armatrading declares, “Tides and waves have kept me, kept me going. I’m longing for the calm.” In Zilia’s performance video and Armatrading’s words alike, the ocean maintains its subject in constant motion.

“Symphony in Blue” is carried by a bright and assured soprano tone as Kate Bush sings of her past: “I spent a lot of time looking at blue, the color of my room and my mood. Blue on the walls, blue out my mouth.” Azul Azul (1956) carries the entire spectrum of blue on 23×21 inches of canvas. Blue is not only a dominant color of the exhibition and the ocean, but also a feeling associated with the work. As displayed in the geographic landscape of Soy Isla: Comprendelo y retirate (1990), a blue pointed center is isolated from a blue perimeter of the canvas. Circles of white and grey surround the center, creating a protective barrier from the origin of the circle outward. The blue center is isolated, potentially lonely, as the title of the piece asks the viewer to “understand and retreat.”

Zilia Sánchez, Azul azul (Blue Blue), 1956. Acrylic on canvas, 21 × 23 in., Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Zilia Sánchez, Azul azul (Blue Blue), 1956. Acrylic on canvas, 21 × 23 in., Collection of the artist, Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

The lyrics of the acoustic melody “Seascape” by Tracey Thorn allude to nostalgia and a relinquishing of control: “Watching tides that take me away, to a distant shore. And I don’t want to be saved.” Upon release in Enceuntrismo–ofrenda o retorno (2000), Zilia’s canvas is left to be governed by the intention of the waves. Coexisting as the black image on white canvas in Zilia’s Subliminal (1972), Hope Sandoval’s “Salt of the Sea” pairs a gently xylophonic chime with a wailing electric guitar. Above it, a sirenesque tremor whispers an ode of her wanted fate: “Waiting to fly around the salt of the sea. A way to be, a way to be.” The Cocteau Twins’s “Sea, Swallow Me“ from the album The Moon and the Melodies reflects multiple components of the exhibition: the presence of the ocean as translated in the blue tones of Azul azul and the lunar motifs of Lunar V (1973) and Lunar (1980).

Zilia Sánchez, Afrocubano, 1957. Oil on canvas, 27 ½ × 21 ½ in., Private collection, Madrid

Zilia Sánchez, Afrocubano, 1957. Oil on canvas, 27 ½ × 21 ½ in., Private collection, Madrid

Joni Mitchell’s iconic “Blue” references tattoos, which are featured on works including Soy Isla (1970), Untitled from the series Afrocubanos (1957), and Concepto Z (1976). Mitchell observes, “Blue songs are like tattoos, you know I’ve been to sea before. Crown me and anchor me, or let me sail away.” Tattoos, as markings on the body and imagery thought to be essential to ones sense of self, could further represent the experiences that shaped Zilia’s identity. Like Joni Mitchell, Zilia  knows the sea, feeling its presence as boldly as black ink upon skin. With intense sentiment, familiarity, and elusiveness, Zilia Sánchez proclaims her place as an island. This contemporary music interpretation is intended as a response, a respectful communication with the many forms of Zilia Sánchez represented in her work.