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Review: 'Soundscapes', National Gallery - A Disappointment

13/08/2015 14:25 BST | Updated 12/08/2016 10:59 BST

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For their exhibition, Soundscapes, the National Gallery commissioned six musicians to create music, a sound installation, to accompany six paintings from the Gallery's permanent collection.

Sound as an art form may not be anything new, but creating specific music and sound that facilitates experiencing classic paintings with fresh perspective is an intriguing proposition. Sadly, what was an interesting idea fails to enthral as the commissioned works largely fall flat.

Placing music accompaniment with any painting is always risky as not only can it narrow interpretation, 'forcing' the viewer to observe the art through how the musician has interpreted it, but there's always the risk of the combination jarring and making it impossible to concentrate on either. (I feel that way any time I'm at Tate Britain during its Friday Lates events when they have DJs playing drum & bass when I'm trying to look at Turner. The two just don't work in harmony.)

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And that is certainly what has happened with Gabriel Yared's dark, gothic score that he created for Les Grandes Baigneuses. This beautiful Cezanne, with its warm skin tones and harmonious group scene, just does not complement a musical score that haunts and chills. The music was so incongruous with the art that I actually couldn't stay and admire the painting for long.

But actually the more common failing in this exhibition is that the scores created are uninspiring and bring nothing new to the pieces of art.

Chris Watson had the serene Lake Keitele by Akseli Gallen-Kallela to work with and he chose to recreate the sounds of a lake in his installation. There's bird song, breeze rippling across still water and all the sounds of a forest landscape. Pleasant but not revolutionary.

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Similarly, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller pulled out every single visual reference in Antonello da Messina's Saint Jerome in his Study and turned it into a sound - there's the sound of people messing about on the river, taken from the painting's background, as is the sound of workers in the field, and all accompanying the dominant sound of reverent choral voices. It's a literal audio walkthrough of the painting, not a re-examining of it.

A similar fate has befallen Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors. Susan Philipsz has taken the visual reference of the lute in the paining and composed a sound installation based around a violin.

But there is an exception - thankfully.

Undoubtedly the stand-out piece of work comes from Jamie XX, who used the pointillist style in Theo van Rysselberghe's Coastal Scene as a launch-off point for his soundscape.

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Jamie's work is comprised of electronic beats, each note an aural interpretation of each dot of paint on van Rysselberghe's canvas. And like the painting, the sound is different depending on your proximity to the picture - you stand farther away, the music is harmonious, like the painting. You don't focus on the individual tiny dots of paint and sound. But as you approach the painting, the sound breaks up - the harmony is lost and the distinctive sound of each beat, like each daub of paint, is clear.

Jamie's sound installation, called Ultramarine, is an undeniable success. Finally we have a piece of work that doesn't look to literally recreate the sounds that you'd expect if you were in the actual location of the painting, but instead interprets the art, examines it, and creates a sound that encourages us to examine the painting from a different viewpoint. If only more had taken up his interpretative angle, the exhibition would have captivated more.

Sadly, and probably understandably, this exhibition was not well attended when I visited. It's certainly a curious choice of exhibition for peak tourist season. But though this show may not be a resounding success, there was an unexpected benefit.

The empty galleries meant that I had these six beautiful paintings almost entirely to myself - a rare luxury. To pay £10 to stand alone with these six pieces of art, well, for me it was actually worth it. Probably not for the reasons that the National Gallery was aiming for though.

National Gallery, London to September 6, 2015

Image Credits:

1.Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) Paul Cézanne about 1894-1905 © The National Gallery, London

2.Lake Keitele Akseli Gallen-Kallela 1905 © The National Gallery, London

3.Saint Jerome in his Study Antonello da Messina about 1475 © The National Gallery, London

4.Coastal Scene Théo van Rysselberghe about 1892 © The National Gallery, London