The new exhibition at York Art Gallery, Art and Music, explores the way that artists have responded to music and attempts to find links, sometimes clear and sometimes tenuous, between the two art forms. It is interesting to see such a wide range of work in a single room, from very different artists and eras, works which have very little in common with each other but all still share that common link. It gives the exhibition a fresh quality and makes you look at them from a new viewpoint. Sometimes the link with music is a narrative one, and sometimes more abstract but the variety of work makes for an interesting and thought provoking exhibition.
There is a lovely unfinished work by Walter Sickert from 1915-1917, Old Heffert of Rowton House, which is a study in concentration and absorption in a musical world, and Henry Scott Tukes’ beautiful painting from 1880 The Misses Santley does the same, showing both the singer and her sisters all transported by music into a new world. The silence of the painting allows us to concentrate on the musicians themselves. Watching the interplay and character of the musicians is always a particular pleasure at any chamber music concert and this extra dimension of a musical experience was brought out perfectly by these two images. There are a selection of other portrait images of musicians from a calm dignified portrait of a man with a missal painted in 1524 to a cubist group painted in 1939, but those two were the ones which appealed to me most.
There are ceramics in the exhibition too, including a lovely 1974 piece, Tall Vessel, by Elizabeth Fritsch which is elegant and full of movement. I’m not sure what it has to do with music but I didn’t mind. The fine portrait bust of Paul Robeson by Jacob Epstein which you can view accompanied by a recording of the man himself singing is a powerful piece, dignified and strong.
The Bandstand by L S Lowry celebrates the communal power of music, where hundreds of people are drawn towards a bandstand in Salford to share the experience of listening together.
I think the exhibition is at its most interesting when an artist is attempting to represent music itself. There is certainly something musical about Whistler’s nocturnes, an abstract dreamy quality which is hard to describe, and the beautiful Nocturne in Blue and Gold by Walter Greaves deserves a soundtrack by Ravel or Debussy. There is a wonderful large abstract work by John Golding, Canticle, which shows light flowing and reverberating through the empty space of a cathedral, in a way which really does make you think of a great organ playing in an empty space full of light,and two works by Brigit Riley from the 1980’s in which the colours and stripes oscillate, receding back or leaping forward, in just the same way that notes following each other or resonating with each other in a chord do. It’s a hard thing to describe but you know it when you see it.
An interesting small show which was well worth a visit.