Last week, I undertook an experiment more Dali than Darwin. Hypothesis: classic art goes well with a side of contemporary music. The National Gallery, situated in London’s Trafalgar Square, is home to the UK’s public art collection, including works by the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The distinctive façade has remained essentially unchanged for almost two-hundred years, though the world around it has transformed drastically – we’ve swapped Queen Victoria for Kate Middleton, top hats for snapbacks and Elgar for Adele. I was intrigued to find out how a playlist of contemporary music would change my perception of the ‘modern’ art in the gallery.
Towards Modernity: Cezanne, Monet, Matisse (Room 41)
My playlist opened with a piece of classical music by Claude Debussy, to ease myself into comparing aural with visual. “Reflets dans l’eau” from Debussy’s series of Images, is water translated into music – it is considered a distinctive example of ‘impressionist music,’ intended to convey the emotions provoked by a subject. The quaint works by Claude Monet in the far corner of the room were undoubtedly complemented by this piece – the pinks, purples, blues and greens of the cliffs in The Seine at Port-Villez, reflected with perfect symmetry, came to life with ripples suggested by Debussy’s music.
Debussy is unambiguous in his subject matter, but Simone’s touching vocals lie somewhere between the dawn suggested by the blues and greens of Cezanne, and the romantic pinks and oranges of Monet…
Progressing from Debussy to Duke Ellington’s “Le Sucrier Velours” was a smooth transition. Viewed with Ellington’s charming composition, Renoir’s Misia Sert in her blush-coloured robes and Gustav Klimt’s Hermine Gallia in her conservative white frills became the subjects of Ellington’s flattery. Turning to Monet’s Water-Lily Pond and Cézanne’s eye-catching Bathers, the dulcet tones of Nina Simone flooded my ears. The opening of “Angel of the Morning” recalls Debussy’s musical reflections. Debussy is unambiguous in his subject matter, but Simone’s touching vocals lie somewhere between the dawn suggested by the blues and greens of Cézanne, and the romantic pinks and oranges of Monet’s Water Lillies, Setting Sun. The last corner of the room was a turn to the future – the primary colours and geometric shapes of Matisse’s Forest at Fonteinbleu pre-empted the psychedelic patterns of the 1960s, and deserve nothing less than a soundtrack from the queen of 1960s French pop, Francoise Hardy.
Degas and Art Around 1900 (Room 42)
The lilting rhythm mimicked the swinging motion of Miss Lala’s trapeze act; both the angle from which we see Miss Lala (looking up at her from below) and the way the end of the waltz imitated the triumphant climax of the show…
Whilst listening to Leo Delibes’ waltz from the Coppelia, Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas was no longer a painting but a time machine. The lilting rhythm mimicked the swinging motion of Miss Lala’s trapeze act; both the angle from which we see Miss Lala (looking up at her from below) and the way the end of the waltz imitated the triumphant climax of the show, I was transported to nineteenth-century Montmartre. Despite his unfailingly French reputation, Degas’ mother Célestine originated from New Orleans, Louisiana. It is fitting, then, that Degas’ playful circus and beach scenes should be accompanied by the king of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong. Swinging round, I found myself facing Odilon Redon’s unsettling depiction of Ophelia, the tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia’s phantom figure in the corner of the painting was drawn out by British jazz singer Zara McFarlane’s track “Pride,” in which the provocative solos and haunting vocals gave me a snapshot into Ophelia’s troubled mind.
Beyond Impressionism: Seurat, Gaughin, Van Gogh (Room 43)
I entered this room listening to Miles Davis’ “Will O’ the Wisp” from Sketches of Spain. One of the first paintings that caught my attention was Henri Rousseau’s Surprised!, a jungle scene depicting a startled tiger hiding among the rushes. Coupled with Davis’ Spanish-inspired arrangement, the painting looked predatory – the trumpet became the voice of the lone explorer, brazenly exploring unknown territories and disturbing the peace on his voyage. Next to Surprised! I found Picasso’s portrait of the eccentric Paris actor, Bibi la Purée; not only was the soundtrack suitable as an ode to the distinguished Spanish painter, but it also enhanced the volatility of “Bibi’s grotesque energy.”
…a jungle scene depicting a startled tiger hiding among the rushes. Coupled with Davis’ Spanish-inspired arrangement, the painting looked predatory – the trumpet became the voice of the lone explorer, brazenly exploring unknown territories…
From one Spanish icon to another, the next song to echo through my ears was Julio Iglesias’ funky 1970s cover of French pop classic “La Mer.” The coastal landscapes that surrounded me – Seurat’s The Channel of Gravelines and Arthur Streeton’s Blue Pacific – were plucked from the 1890s and dropped into the modern glamour of beach holidays. Seurat’s gargantuan masterpiece Bathers at Asnières became bittersweet, the factories of Clichy visible in the background of the painting drew attention to the false paradise of the beach – also present in Iglesias’ tone when singing a wartime hit about a quaint world of times past.
Turning to Camille Pissaro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night, the understated tone of Drake’s contemporary classic “Hold On, We’re Going Home” gave the painting an air of urban modernity. The song drew attention to the isolation depicted in paintings such as Paul Gaughin’s Harvest: Le Pouldu and John Russell’s Les Terrasses de Monte Cassino. The sentiment of the song also highlights the status of artists as expats; just as performers flock to the US today to get their big break, nineteenth century painters: Spanish Picasso, Danish Pissaro, Dutch van Gogh – fled to Paris to further their careers. The Michael Jackson-inspired stylings of French electro-pop star Christine and the Queens make her the contemporary answer to Degas’ dancers. The unusual shapes and perspectives of the Vincent van Gogh works in this room seemed to pulsate in time with the rhythmic music. The whirling sky of his Wheatfield with Cypresses revolved and the delicate brushstrokes in the Long Grass with Butterflies rustled and swayed.
Manet, Monet and the Impressionists (Room 44)
Many of the works in this room included artistic depictions of women. Unlike the women portrayed in many of the paintings I had seen thus far, the women in these paintings had agency. The disengaged looks on the faces of the working women I saw (the subjects of Pissaro’s The Pork Butcher and The Little Country Maid and the central figure in Manet’s Corner of a Café Concert) brought to mind Californian trio Haim’s track “Don’t Save Me,” particularly when examining the black-clad figure, defiantly facing away from the viewer, crossing the picture as a solitary symbol of independence in Norbert Goeneutte’s Boulevard de Clichy under Snow. The reticence of these women was also complemented by the tone of Amber Coffman’s vocals on Major Lazer’s “Get Free,” especially her reluctant cry of ‘look at me.’
The extent to which aspects of both the paintings and the songs took on different meanings when paired together amazed me.
I finished my trip through these Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings with Kendrick Lamar’s “These Walls” – the lyrics reminded me of how art allows us to communicate with the past, as well as pulling me out of nineteenth-century Europe and back into twenty-first-century London. The extent to which aspects of both the paintings and the songs took on different meanings when paired together amazed me. As a former literature student, I am used to comparing unusual texts to elicit interesting ideas; this exercise proved to me that, despite a few moments that felt ill-fitting, cross-genre comparison can work the same way. The withdrawn looks of the subjects became coy and knowing when I wondered what secrets they would reveal “if these walls could talk.” Haim’s defiant anthem of “baby, don’t save me” became the voice of women in French high society. Nina Simone’s simple lament felt inspired by the Avenue de Chantilly. Where the more traditional music pairings became incidental, the contemporary pieces were in dialogue with the paintings, both resisting and conforming to the tone suggested by the music.
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