Friday, June 18, 2010

Travel Journal: The Symphony of Nature

La Sinfonia della Natura was the poetic name of a wonderful exhibit in Rome of landscape painting that traced the evolution of Impressionism from Corot to Monet.

It was a welcome counterweight to the Hallmark store cliches Monet's gardens and lilies have become. What would the card-makers make of the abstract "Path of the Roses" from 1920, where impressionism is obliterated on the road to abstract expressionism?

Of the many delights of the show was the discovery of Guillaumin, another impressionist whose technique approaches the pointillism of Pissarro & Seurat.

One section of the show emphasized another facet of artists' engagement with modernity and technology. "Realism and Photography: Nature as a Vital Force" was a reminder that the tension between tradition and innovation is age-old.

Another happy hour of discovery for this amateur of painting was found in the miniatures of Bonheur. The tiniest patch of blue sky illuminates the otherwise charcoal gray canvas of his "Volcano," a vivid example of the essential power of color.

The titles of Mr Goodhour's paintings appear in the lower corners of his detailed canvases. Like postage stamps on the picture side and in the wrong place they command attention on their own. Another reminder of art as representation, the work as object.

The path from Courbet and Corot to C├ęzanne appears to be a clear one.

The former's striking "L'onda" (Waves) from 1870, reminds one of the visionary worlds of Turner and Homer.

Narcisse-Virgile Diaz (there's a name!) rendered the "lovely, dark and deep" woods of Fontainebleu beautifully. In addition to the opening of Verdi's epic Don Carlo, the dense, chiaroscuro landscape evoked the wilderness of James Fenimoore Cooper. I would not have been surprised to meet a Mohican inside.

The pinks and lavenders of Guillaumin's "La Senna a Rouen" were representative of the brilliant hues of the show's middle section, "The New Harmony of Impressionism."

The final part of the show, "Nature as the Ideal Refuge" wed philosophy to the poetry and music the paintings joined in polyphony.

Listening to Goldschmidt's expressionist "Mediterranean Songs" later that afternoon evoked the canvasses we'd just left. Shelley's "green and purple seaweed strewn" could have inspired Monet's late series of Water Lilies (rendered even more evocative in Italian: Ninfe).

The green and purple--aqua and violet, to be more precise--accompanied the lapis lazuli in "Armonia in blu" (Harmony in Blue). I wonder if Miles Davis liked Monet? Goldschmidt? Shelley?

The symphony of nature continued throughout our Mediterranean Voyage.

One of the composers whose music played as frequently as any during this trip was my beloved Hans Werner Henze. I listened to his myth-inspired-water-music-tone-poem Barcarola several times.

It is characteristic of his work since 1980. No less dense--even more thickly scored & multi-layered--than his work from the first 30 years of his career (he is still composing into his 80's), his textures are generously varied, evocative, and often unabashedly romantic in gesture.

This barcarolle evokes Charon's journey across the river Styx to Hades. The music narrates the journey, from the stark opening (bass drum and brass) to the vanishing mist at its end (filaments of string harmonics). Henze's music is always colorfully atmospheric. A trumpet blast recalls the Venetian Baroque with the gesture of a fanfare. The twinkling whisper of a harpsichord reinforces the antiquity of this world. The episodic bursts of energy from various instrument groups resemble a concerto for orchestra and place us back firmly in the 20th century. The paired thirds of cascading wind and brass duets have a Janus-faced quality, befitting to any traveler on Charon's boat, leaving the shore of the world for the unknown beyond. It is a strange and unpredictable world, and one well-worth the 20' the dramatic musical journey takes.

Like the mediterranean which inspired its composer, this is music that engages the senses. It is alternately exciting, haunting, and beautiful. It is rarely still and never dull.

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