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Modern Art and Music

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Portrait of Ralph Burns, Edwin A. Finckel, George Handy, Neal Hefti, Johnny Richards, and Eddie Sauter, Museum of Modern Art, New York, N.Y., ca. Mar. 1947. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb.

The Library of Congress just hosted the first of a new lecture series organized in conjunction with the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the contemporary art arm of the Smithsonian Institution. Artist Maira Kalman spoke about, And the Pursuit of Happiness, an illustrated book that documents the author’s visit to Washington DC for the inauguration of President Obama. While in town, the author visited the Library of Congress, where she admired one of the Music Division’s harpsichords.

This casual intersection between art and music is just the tip of the iceberg.  The relation between music and the visual arts is one I think about all the time. In the most recent Flickr release of images from the William P. Gottlieb Collection, you can see an image of arranger Ralph Burns, composer Neal Hefti (most famous for composing the Batman theme) and others  posing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in front of a Picasso. Thus was modern art linked to modern jazz at the time.

Detail from "Concerto for Two Violins, Tenor and Bass," by Johann Christopher Pepusch.

But I have found more subtle reminders  in the Music Division’s collections  – and sometimes in the most unlikely places. The striking lines of this 18th century manuscript by German-born composer Johann Christopher Pepusch reminds me of the chalk drawings of Abstract expressionist Cy Twombly.

The Historic Sheet Music, 1800-1922 collection is full of impressive cover artwork that reflects the visual taste of the times, but the cover artwork for Richard L. Weaver’s 1909 song “Bungalow” (at right) seems cut of the same cloth that inspired the word-paintings of artist Ed Ruscha some fifty years later.  “Bungalow” was illustrated by an artist named Jenkins, who worked on other covers for the Jos. Morris music publishing company, such as “Cease, Sweetheart, Cease,” “Mister Music Master,” and “Oh You Blondy.” The last of these uses a bold shade of blue reminiscent of the color dubbed “International Klein Blue” by artist Yves Klein  – who, to bring us full circle, was the subject of a marvelous exhibit at the Hirshhorn earlier this year.

Comments (2)

  1. Interesting point you raise there about the parallels between art and music. I think music traditionally has had more freedom to express itself, as, historically, it wasn’t confined to what patrons and benefactors wanted to see, as was the case in the pre-modern art world. Of course modern art changed all that as artists could paint with much more freedom – resulting in pieces like Henri Matisse’s paper cutout: The Parakeet and the Mermaid (1952). Nice piece on how modern art evolved here:


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