The Humanity of Art

September 28, 2019 in Blog

Paintings and music

Imagine watching a movie without music: Jaws without John Williams or Brief Encounter without Rachmaninoff. As good as the script, the cinematography and the actors may be, a film needs the emotional muscle of music. A good composition gets under our skin, squeezing every bit last bit of sentiment out of a scene. It’s fitting then, that works of art have inspired so many musicians. When Don McClean wrote Vincent (Starry, Starry Night) he expressed what Van Gough’s art made him feel, and it’s as touching as the painting. The same with Ray Evans and Jay Livingston’s Mona Lisa. I can’t hear Nat Cole sing “Do you smile to tempt a lover Mona Lisa” without seeing the painting and I can’t see the painting without hearing the song.

Felix Vallotton was a painter who, like Picasso, changed his style radically throughout his career. Moving from Realism to Impressionism to abstract art and symbolism, his work still resonates with artistes and graphic designers today. What strikes me most about his work (currently on display at the Royal Academy) is his use of negative space – the part aside from the main subject of the painting. In ‘The Theatre Box’ we see two theatregoers peaking down at us, framed with great blocks of colour.

In the same way, Goya trains our focus with ‘The Dog’. The space around the subject isn’t wasted, it gives it more weight, enveloping it, and creates a space for our own narrative. Interestingly, Goya was influenced by Pierre Bonnard, a close friend of Vallotton.

Vallotton continued to use the power of negative space in many of his woodcuts, most strikingly in ‘Money’, one of series of ten woodcut prints he produced in 1898 called Intimacies, satirising tensions between the sexes. In ‘Money’, two-thirds of the canvas is solid black, extending the man’s coat to create a sense of unease and keep our focus on the woman. As in life, what’s not said can be just as powerful as what is.

My favourite piece in this exhibition is Moonlight (Clair de Lune), an Impressionist night sky, with a golden moon and clouds reflected into a river. He painted this in 1895 when Impressionism was firmly established and Gauguin had just slipped away to Polynesia. Perhaps in response to the everyday realism of photography, the Impressionists preferred to paint their subjects the way they made them feel, not necessarily how they actually looked. Why bother painting what a camera can capture in a heartbeat when painting could be used to intensify a feeling. Look at Vallotton‘s Moonlight and you can feel something of the dreamy mood of the moment.

Paintings and music are natural bedfellows because at their best they reflect what it is to be human. They express the things we all feel but can’t always articulate. When we connect with a painting or a piece of music, we feel we’re not alone – that someone, somewhere understands us, and maybe, in the end, that’s enough.

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