While I have many faults, there is one which comes up every time I head to an art museum: no matter what I’m looking at, I will likely end up drawing a parallel between what I’m looking at and a piece of music. Blends of colors and indeterminacy in impressionistic paintings always lead me to one or another piece of Debussy. The balance of strict proportion and high ornamentation in 18th Century portraiture will lead me to C.P.E Bach or Gluck. Medieval paintings of courtly love mingled with the divine parable of human sacrifice correspond to the motets of Guillaume de Machaut.
It’s hard to say whether it’s a filter, a means of translation or a tendency to apply some complementary historical context. More often that not, there’s little direct historical or constructive correlation between art and a piece of music I see. It’s all very vague, general. There are similarities between art and music, admittedly, but often the difference between the physical phonomena of light and sound often render the two mutually exclusive. Take ornamentation for instance. A musical ornament strikes me as spontaneous, and even superfluous to a musical performance. A musician can leave it out, lengthen it, change it. But an extra flower, a touch of gilding or any other small addition in a painting is usually seen as a product of something far more willful. Once it’s on the canvas, it’s done (though presumably the artist may have changed his mind several times in the process).
It’s often the case that performers tend to think of process of music as an action executed in real time, while a painting is often seen as a finished product of a past action, somehow immutable. Such distinctions are arguably false, as the composition of music is a process unseen (though often less glorious than painting), and the very processes of how a painting was constructed can be divined through some careful gazing. It’s really a matter of where you want to position yourself when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music. That’s why I love getting to see a piece of art or music that challenges you to sit in multiple time spaces at once.
In visiting Francisco de Zubarán’s (1598-1664) paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons at the Frick, I was struck by their sheer size. Each is not just life-size, but larger, close to seven feet tall. And yet, despite their size, none seemed unsubtle or overblown. Every detail about the sons’ clothing, posture, and possessions bore to me the significance of the blessings bestowed upon by their father in Genesis 49.
Some like Issachar are more conventional and obvious.
Issachar is a strong donkey,
Lying down between the sheepfolds;
He saw that a resting place was good,
And that the land was pleasant;
So he bowed his shoulder to the burden,
And became a slave at forced labor.
Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, is dressed as a dandy. His duplicity can be seen not just in his posture, but in the occlusion of half of his face, starkly contrasted against the Carvaggio-esque green paleness of the half left in the sunlight.
Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
In the morning devouring the prey,
And at the evening dividing the spoil.
Asher has more layers. Carrying a loaves of bread and sporting an emblem on his garb used in Zubarán’s Adoration of the Magi, he prefigures Christ as the final incarnation of Melchisedech.
Asher’s food shall be rich,
And he shall provide Royal delicacies.
But in Naphtali, there was something different. He’s sporting a shovel. Why?
Naphtali is a doe let loose
That bears lovely fawns.
His stance is also oddly commanding compared to that of his brothers. In looking at the Frick’s informational plaque, it said that this particular study was based on a depiction Naphtali’s by Jacques de Gheyn’s II (1565-1629) prints of Karel van Mander I (1548-1606). In particular the rhetorical shape of the hand is very similar. It’s open, though not relaxed. The face in van Mander’s is based on a woodblock of Christ’s apparition to Mary Magdalene by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Christ’s garb and sporting of the shovel however, are seen explicitly in Zubarán’s later painting. Dürer’s? On an engraving of Saint Bartholomew by Martin Schongauer (1445-1491).
Immediately, the music of organist and harpist Antonio de Cabezón (1510-1566) came to mind. In 1570, his son Hernando published a volume of what he described as “mere crumbs of his father’s achievements.” The collection included some of the larger and more popular keyboard works that Antonio had composed in his lifetime, transcribed by his son due to a near total loss of his sight. The volume contains a work entitled “Stabat Mater I” and another, “Stabat Mater II.” Containing the same harmonies but with different variations and ornaments, they stand out because the cantus firmus (that is, the fundamental melody) doesn’t align with any contemporary liturgical chant setting of the Stabat Mater.
At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.
Can the human heart refrain
from partaking in her pain,
in that Mother’s pain untold?
Indeed, it turns out that they are both embellishments of Josquin des Prez’s (1455-1521) monumental setting of the hymn, which uses not a Gregorian chant as its basis, but a secular melody taken from composer Gilles Binchois (1400-1460). Binchois melody was originally set to a text also about the sorrows of a woman.
Like a woman most distressed,
more even than all the others,
with no hope of being consoled on any day of my life,
weighted down by my misfortune,
I desire death, day and night.
The trick in performing Cabezón’s piece however comes in deciding a tempo. There are phenomenal number of notes, indeed too many to play on a keyboard at once.
There are several possibilities (all conjecture, mind you). Perhaps that the work is intended for the harp, where the natural sustaining quality of the strings allows you pluck a note and leave it. Alternatively, maybe all the notes aren’t meant to be played – much music of this period was written down for the purpose of showing people how to improvise themselves, rather than be performed directly from the score. But supposing that decision is made, what speed to we play it at? There are roughly sixteen of Cabezón’s notes in scales for every half note beat of Josquin’s motet. Is the piece meant to go at a speed similar to which it’s supposed to be sung? Or is it “its own thing?” Indeed, in teasing out how to perform the work, you’re subconsciously determining primacies of authorship, based on pure aesthetics and gut feeling.
I look at Zubarán and I can’t help but wonder if these are really “his” paintings? We know his students’ hands are on them, and we know that the emotive symbols that make each of the characters individual are borrowed from earlier masters. While I can see Zubarán’s genius in bringing all these elements together, I can’t help but also see the beauty in the accumulation of symbols and influences across centuries. In the end, authorship or attempts to divine a scheme of construction dissipate the more you look. It’s as if the artist – or artists – fade away. These are paintings intended to showcase not the self, but the divine – that is, something untouched by time.