Tag Archives: Visual arts

Liszt’s Totentanz


The medieval Dance of Death and variation form always belonged together, and Franz Liszt’s Totentanz is a splendid example.

In the European cultural tradition, the Dies irae is closely bound up with the experience of death. Liszt’s use of motive transformation—particularly the practice of modal reshaping—permitted him to unfold this theme in a series of ever new character variations, with their contrasts oriented around a common denominator.

This according to Haláltánc: Variáció, épitkezés, modális transzformáció Liszt Ferenc zenéjében by József Ujfalussy (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1990).

Happy Halloween from RILM! Above, a woodcut from Hans Holbein the younger’s Danse macabre series, one of the visual works that inspired Liszt. Below, a performance by Beatrice Berrut.

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Filed under Romantic era, Visual art

Paul Hindemith, visual artist

Apparently Hindemith seized every opportunity to draw, from early childhood until his last December, when he completed that year’s entry in a series of Christmas cards that spanned more than 20 years.

He used any medium that came to hand—including menus, advertisements, and paper napkins—and clearly never considered his drawings to be very important; they were carelessly preserved, and almost never dated or titled.

Most of Hindemith’s drawings are whimsical, often to the point of grotesquerie. He characteristically filled all the available space, often with impossible conglomerations of people, animals, and machines. The richness of his ideas and the skill of their expression bear witness to a truly original talent.

This according to Paul Hindemith: Der Komponist als Zeichner/Paul Hindemith: The composer as graphic artist (Zürich: Atlantis, 1995).

Below, part of Hindemith’s tribute to a great visual artist—the Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald. Herbert Blomstedt conducts the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester in Grablegung, the second movement of Symphony: Mathis Der Maler.

BONUS: Hindemith must have rotated the above drawing several times as he worked on it; it can therefore be viewed with any edge on top. Copy it into a picture editor and rotate it yourself to see the four different angles!

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Humor, Visual art

Patuas’ paintings repurposed

bengali scroll painting

In West Bengali tradition, a person known as a patua travels around the countryside to entertain with sung narratives illustrated with painted scrolls. The patua’s audiences are usually poor and illiterate, lacking access to televisions and films as well as to written entertainments.

Increasingly, however, patuas are finding that their scrolls are viewed as valuable folk art, and that their storytelling skills are in demand among the urban intellectual elite as a means of selling these illustrations, which thereby take on a new, passive function.

This according to “From oral tradition to folk art: Reevaluating Bengali scroll paintings” by Beatrix Hauser (Asian ethnology LXI/1 [2002] pp. 105–122). Below, a patua demonstrates her art.

BONUS: A more modern example of the patua’s skills used to raise ecological awareness, with English subtitles.

Related article: Bhāgavata purāṇa as performance

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Filed under Asia, Curiosities, Visual art

John Cage, visual artist

Cage painting

Best known as an experimental composer and performer, Cage (1912–92) was also a visual artist who created an extensive body of prints, drawings, and watercolors during the last 20 years of his life.

In all of his work, regardless of medium, Cage consistently dismissed conventional aesthetics by limiting or eliminating the artist’s choice in the creative process. In composing his watercolors, he relied on his signature method of chance operations, guided by a system of random numbers derived from the Yijing.

The sight of silence: John Cage’s complete watercolors by Ray Kass (Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 2011) reproduces all of the 125 signed watercolors that Cage created during four week-long sessions at the Mountain Lake Workshop, Virginia, between 1983 and 1990.

The included critical essay and accompanying workshop diaries relate the methods at play in Cage’s visual art to those of his musical compositions and theater pieces. The accompanying DVD offers a live view of Cage at work, featuring a public reading with audience discussion, as well as an interview with him about his watercolor paintings.

Below, Cage’s collaboration with the visual artist Marcel Duchamp for Hans Richter’s Dreams that money can buy.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Visual art

Libretto illustrations

Illustrated libretti for eighteenth-century opera performances comprise a specific and unusual type of visual art. Since these engravings were made before the performances, they cannot be interpreted as objective documentation—indeed, clear evidence points to discrepancies between these representations and what the audiences actually saw. Rather, they must be seen as conveying the intention of these occasions, in surprisingly subtle ways.

Christine Fischer demonstrates this way of reading libretto illustrations in “Engravings of opera stage settings as festival books: Thoughts on a new perspective of well-known sources” (Music in art XXXIV/1–2 [2009], pp. 73–88). In the above engraving by Johann Benjamin Müller of the final scene in Maria Antonia Walpurgis’s Talestri, regina delle amazzoni (1760), Fischer notes that the wide gap between the female Amazons and the male Scythians—their leaders both with drawn swords—demonstrates their opposition, but the bridge in the background indicates their impending reconciliation. The message below the surface involves reassurance that the composer’s ongoing consolidation of her political power in Dresden will be beneficial to all, and that her rule will be based on a deep knowledge of state affairs and peaceful collaboration with powerful men.

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Filed under Classic era, Dramatic arts, Literature, Opera, Politics, Reception, Visual art