Part I: Using three objects of your choice, create a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tour will be titled The [Blank] Collection: it's up to you to fill in the blank with a theme of your choice. The theme of your tour can be anything you choose, but keep in mind the ultimate goal is to provide visitors with an introduction to the museum. The tone can be informal — but remember, you are acting as an official representative of the museum. N.B.: Be sure to provide precise directions to each object — I will be taking your tours!

The Musical Collection

Love music, but unmoved by art? They have more in common than you may realize — and by looking at art through a musical lens, you just might find new appreciation for both.

  1. After gaining admission via the center entrance, jog R of the steps and follow the corridor deeper into the museum's first floor. Forge ahead into the large, dark hall and turn R, passing through Medieval Art. Just past the glass doors to your L will be a set of stairs. Ascend to the top, follow along to the L, and enter through the glass doors on the R into Musical Instruments. /// At the leftmost end of the hall you will find Harpsichord (ca. 1675) by Michele Todini, which is exactly what it sounds like, and then some. If for a moment you can look past the panoply of golden gods, somewhere in there is an actual (and gigantic) musical instrument. But it's got art slathered all over it.
  2. After juggling arguments for “instrument?” vs. “artwork?”, you're mentally prepared for some zigzagging. Double back to the other end of the hall, turn L through the doors, R through the next available doors, enter the first room on your L, exit it on the R, and keep going until you pop out of the maze and into a grand vestibule. At L are the steps back down to your starting point, but you've got more art to see. Turn R and follow the long corridor clear across the museum. Continue past the major intersection marked “Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture” into a new maze, then make the first available L. /// On the back wall, at L, is Degas's The Dance Lesson (ca. 1879). A violin is depicted in the foreground, but as a means to an end, supporting the activity of the dancer. (It's also a means to the end of engaging your interest in art. Touché, Degas.)
  3. Go back to that big intersection and turn L. At the end, turn L again. Walk past the bustling free trade zone into the white-walled Twentieth Century Art wing, and make the first R, entering an airy, well-lit space. /// On the near wall at L is Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental (1941-2) by Richard Pousette-Dart. The title is a musical allusion, but processing it might give you a little treble, not least because the work makes no pretense at realistic representation. What are you looking at, how do you know, and how does it work? Your musical background will be a major key helping you puzzle it out.

Part II: Write a visual analysis comparing and contrasting the three objects on your tour. Explore the formal and narrative content of the works and explain how they relate to the overall theme of the tour. Unlike Part I, this should be a formal, academic paper. Close looking is essential, but your paper should also be more than an inventory of aspects of the work. Make sure you have a strong argument that is supported by visual evidence. Please note, as with the first paper, this is not a research paper! Arguments should be based on first-hand observation, not outside sources.

Physics for Poets? Art for Musicians

When cultured people speak of “the arts,” they mean many fields of creative endeavor. Among others: theater, dance, literature, music, and visual art. The ability to appreciate one or more such fields, or to create in them, does not imply the ability to appreciate all others. Sometimes it is sufficient to have an inclination in a new area and this ability soon follows; usually, training is needed. For most people there is some area of “the arts” in which they have a knack, or at least a basic interest, and it can be pedagogically fruitful to treat this as a point of reference from which to draw connections to other areas. It certainly worked for me. In learning about visual art, I have been involuntarily seeking to map each new concept to some similar idea or technique found in music composition or performance. Remarkably often there is a meaningful mapping. Better yet, the ways in which music is enjoyable to me are also beginning to map to visual art.

Suspecting that my experience might have some universality, I have created “The Musical Collection.” These three works were selected out of a great many possibilities because they encompass a wide range of noteworthy characteristics, including involving music in different ways. Much can, has, and will continue to be made in the art world at large of the parallels between disciplines such as music and painting. That is not the goal of this paper. However, given the collection's theme, they will not be entirely avoidable.

On with the program. Harpsichord's musical heritage is plain: it is an instrument that was playable long ago, and indeed might yet be played today if not for its probable state of disrepair and a societal taboo against touching that which is displayed in museums as high art. And unquestionably this is high art, large in scale and scope, gilded and textured and intricately decorated nearly throughout. A frieze along the side of the instrument depicts warriors, horses, and a chariot whose wheels sport rims that would sell briskly at a present-day car shop. The figures in the frieze appear against a background of curly clouds and a lightly ridged surface of some kind, represented in relief. Physical intuition would suggest that in order to support horses and chariots it must be earth, but it looks watery. Zooming out, the instrument sits among a field of sculptures. At its left, right, and rear its weight is supported on the shoulders of three figures, like maritime Atlases, whose upper bodies appear male and lower bodies are spirals of scales and tails. Beneath them is a familiar lightly ridged sculptured surface — one of very few areas which is not gilded — that must be intended as water because of these sea creatures, but is of course, in fact, solid. Yet the women at center are sinking into it! At each level of abstraction Todini is playing with our perceptions and, indeed, with the very notion of how weight is supported, an exciting proposition considering the heft of a harpsichord and the monetary value at stake if the arrangement were to collapse. Even the base holds surprises. It appears to rest on a set of wizened feet, but I was able to spot further inward what was at least a slat running the width of the so-called “base,” and may itself have been the edge of a solid base. If we keep following this line of reasoning, the next question becomes: what is holding us up, really? Clever, clever.

For the eye there is never a dull moment in the firmly Baroque Harpsichord. For the brain, what is the role of music in interpreting it? Without the instrument, there is no task to be done, no theme by which to unify this garden of characters, and presumably a different title. The figures could instead carry a coffin, perhaps, without too much rearranging, and in contemplating the possibility it becomes clear that music here is being paid the highest respect. Despite its attention-grabbing visual attributes and the instrument's disuse, music plays a primary role in this work and is its focus.

The violin in The Dance Lesson could make a case for equal or greater significance. It is only a two-dimensional depiction of an instrument, not a real one. Yet it appears in the foreground and is being played. Further, the tilt of the violinist's head evinces reverent sentiment. Before we try to appraise the musical situation, however, let us take a cue from the violinist's middle-parted hairstyle and look at how the work's elements balance. Literally, of course, the girl balances on one foot, not so securely that she can let go of the handrail but not so precariously that she needs it to stay upright. Formally and narratively, symmetries abound. The two-dimensional space is bisected by a thick horizontal brown stripe. Judging by the girl's pose and scale, it must be a wall panel and not part of the floor, in which case the simulated three-dimensional space is half floor, half wall. The white portion of the wall is similarly bisected by the handrail, where the uncertain girl's firm grip complements the deft, confident touch of the violinist's hands on bow and neck; they both hold narrow, cylindrical, mostly wooden objects. If we imagine a diagonal line from lower left to upper right, each character owns half the space, with her side primarily light in color, his primarily dark. She stands, he sits. Her legs are splayed, his together. She is engaged in one form of art as a student; he is engaged in another, as one who is already skilled.

In the grand scheme of “The Musical Collection,” there is a balance between Harpsichord and The Dance Lesson. The former is sculpted in three dimensions, essentially oriented parallel with the ground (taking the harpsichord itself as the lodestar), extremely large, bright in color, and filled with many mythical characters; the latter is drawn on paper in drab, brown-heavy pastels, mounted vertically on a wall, and studies two believable people relatively closely. The function of the musical instrument is complementary as well: whereas in Harpsichord it initially seems secondary but turns out to be the main event, in The Dance Lesson it appears primary but in truth is merely an accompaniment to dance. The work could conceivably function without the violinist — although, as established, his presence provides an array of pleasing symmetries — and this is supported by the wall text, which notes that Degas may not have envisioned him in the scene's initial drafts.

The Dance Lesson is not quite a paragon of Impressionism. While the violin's four strings disintegrate into line fragments on inspection, the faces have recognizable features and details that are more represented than suggested, and the girl's raised leg (otherwise difficult to identify from the unusual pose) is clearly curved like a right leg. The apple cart of representational art, so carefully loaded by the previous two works, is jostled rudely by Symphony, which on the whole does not resemble anything remotely identifiable, other than perhaps an overexposed photograph from a particle accelerator facility. Nonetheless, the title says music is involved, and looking closer reveals this to be truth in advertising. Large, colorful, busy, richly textured, and on canvas of horizontal (”landscape”) alignment, the work in some ways hearkens back to Harpsichord. In some places, Pollock-like, piles of paint pop out of the canvas. In these places the paint looks viscous, whiskery, and it leans downward slightly, suggesting that Pousette-Dart did not employ Pollock's technique of painting from above. Symphony is framed by means of a painted black edge which connects with the interior, where it also frames mostly rectangular subsections. The biggest masses are white or variations thereof, with tinges of pink and yellow. Orange and blue are used sparingly and stand out. Some shapes are readily identifiable from musical notation: empty circles, circles with a line extending outward, a giant upside-down treble clef on the upper half just right of center, a smaller mirror-image treble clef in the lower right subframe, a bass clef in black extending rightward from the upper-right corner of the lower-left subframe. Other shapes seem parts of musical instruments: the tight spirals capping string instruments as at lower right and twisting over the black line extending downward from the giant treble clef, three white tuning pegs extending from the bottom one third of the way from the left edge, tiny white and black keys shooting leftward out of the giant treble clef just before it explodes into curves resembling the bell of a brass horn. Still others highlight the physics of sound, like the sinuous wave radiating vertically along the upper right. The texture of the paint is thinnest at the edges (sometimes exposing the canvas) and thickest near the center, just as a piece of music usually has its most interesting layerings and developments in the middle. Layers of the work pop in and out just as do instruments in, say, a chamber work. And the rest is merely evocative of music, with elements from one place quoted, slightly modified, in another. The overall effect is deliciously atmospheric. This is art, but it is not about music. It is music.

As I sat studying Symphony, an old man in a blazer, glasses, and an unplaceable accent sat down next to me. He watched me as I watched it. Then he said, “I've been looking at this for 10 years.” We briefly discussed our findings. “It's different paintings on top of each other,” he said. “I keep seeing new things.” I could imagine having the same experience 10 years from now. “He is a poet.” I assumed he meant this figuratively. Now I realize it could have just as well been meant literally; it is true either way. Degas's dancers, Todini's musical instruments, Pousette-Dart's symphony, an electric current of original vision runs through them all, taking the form of least resistance. They are all poetry as much as painting, theater as much as sculpture, literature as much as music.

Works Cited

  • Degas, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar. The Dance Lesson. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  • Pousette-Dart, Richard. Symphony No. 1, The Transcendental. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  • Todini, Michele. Harpsichord. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.