This "insensible melting…"
Metempsychosis and Earth with Meaning: Listening to Paintings
at the Taubman Museum of Art
Below are the quotes and notes for my presentation of "Listening to Paintings" today at the Taubman Museum of Art. The program was framed by arias from Carmen, featuring the leading ladies of the opera, Carla Dirlikov as Carmen and Amy Cofield Williamson as Micaela. Carmen and Micaela are opposites in the opera, the soprano the pure and innocent "light" to the "dark love" of the seductive Gypsy. Maria Oakey Dewing's portrait in the American Gallery,"The Rose" is tinged with chiaroscuro (literally "light - dark") shadings and is a perfect pairing for Carmen and her bewitching allure.
After the Habanera from Carmen, we moved upstairs to Earth with Meaning: The Photographs of Alan Cohen. I shared a moment of synchronicity I experienced when reading curator Mary Jane Jacob's essay on Cohen's art. The meaningful coincidence of encountering in the gallery guide one of my favorite writers on art, the early 20th century philosopher John Dewey, reinforced the synchronicity of the program itself. "Listening to Paintings" is about the "unexpected relationships" that arise between not only artist and audience but various genres of art, like music and painting, opera and photography. What is an aria, if not a portrait of a particular character in a specific setting whose art transcends specificity to speak (or sing!) across time and space.
The artist’s “experience of being there unfolds into our experience of seeing…we take this forward, as intellect and as emotion, and an ‘insensible melting’ [John Dewey] occurs when we give ourselves to this work.”
(Mary Jane Jacob on Alan Cohen)
Dana Gioia, writing on opera, unabashedly committed to catharsis and the extremes of human experience:
What opera excels at is presenting peak moments of human emotion… its power is lyric… it can represent the full emotional intensity of a specific moment… That special lyric intensity explains why people so often cry at the opera… For a few moments they have become the character on the stage…this transforming subjectivity is not incidental but essential to opera’s identity.
Juxtaposing this with Jacob's assessment of Cohen's work, we begin to make connections between these genres and their parallel abilities to move us. The artist’s “perspective allows us to discover unexpected relationships…[aided by his] exquisite use of the subtle vocabulary of tonalities, light and shadow…” (Jacobs on Cohen)
John Dewey (from Art as Experience): art is nature transformed by entering into new relationships. Expression is the clarification of turbid emotions.
If not always clarified, such "turbid emotions" are sensible and tangible, they move and affect us palpably, vicariously effecting that catharsis. This is the essential power of art.
That fundamental power is present in the symbols and archetypes of art and music. Such symbols are encoded messages of meaning with potency of amazing force. In Opera and its Symbols, Robert Donington writes:
unconscious symbols will lie barely hidden beneath the conscious images… Somewhere beneath the threshold of consciousness, we know obscurely…we get some of the sensations of familiarity without any awareness of its unseen causes. We are gripped, we are absorbed…It is from this blend of conflicting impressions that the sense of purification by catharsis may in certain circumstances arise. Confrontation with archetypal material is likely to be cathartic. Confrontation with the archetypes is the chief business of opera…
We then reviewed some of these "symbols of transformation," from the elements & nature to the cosmos & "spirit-world."
Water=life, purification, baptism / rites
sea=unconscious, unfathomable, infinity, womb / Homer's Odyssey & the "wine-dark" sea
Earth=seasons as symbols of change, flux, death/rebirth; Dante's selva oscura (dark wood)
Fire=(like water = life, purification); alchemy (transformation), light, energy
(color as symbolic: red= fire, blood, passion, danger...)
Cosmos=mystery, (like the sea = infinity), darkness, shadow; sun/moon/stars
Spirit-worlds=angels & devils, daemons, dragons & mythical creatures (light & shadow, benevolent & malevolent)
We connected Alan Cohen's photographs to the exhibit across the hall, Metempsychosis: The Power of Transformation. The symbols and archetypes present in Cohen's work are present in the sculptures, paintings and murals resonant with imagery and associations. We also noted that Renaissance artists desired a rebirth not only of classical aesthetics but a reconnection to the "spirit-worlds" by which the ancients experienced a sensible and tangible connection to the "beyond." They read the events of their lives as signs in an ongoing dialogue with the gods, rife with meaning and interpreted via art.
I have need of angels. Enough hell has swallowed me for too many years. But finally understand this – I have already burned up one hundred thousand lives already, from the strength of my pain. [Antonin Artaud]
I invited the participants to wander around the photography exhibit while I sang 3 short songs inspired by geography or landscape. Connecting not only the archetypal images of the "dark wood" and "wine-dark sea" present in Cohen's work, but the pictures of boundaries and borders around the world, equally rich with associations. 20th-century German images, from the Berlin Wall to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp are among Cohen's subjects, and the juxtaposition of contrasts in Germany is striking as it is unsettling. I mentioned Weimar (the nearest city to Buchenwald), the East German center of Romanticism, home to the poet, philosopher, botanist and scientist Goethe and his colleague (of "Ode to Joy" fame), Schiller. I started with a quintessential German Romantic art song by Schumann. "In der Fremde" (In a foreign land) evokes the imagery of the solitary wanderer.
I then shared the British composer, poet and soldier Ivor Gurney's epigrammatic elegy for his beloved English countryside, "Severn Meadows:"
Only the wanderer
Knows England's graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.
I concluded the short set of "landscape" songs with an ironic lullaby Sting recorded on one of his early solo albums. "The Secret Marriage" was originally a Bertolt Brecht (author of "The Three-Penny Opera" with Kurt Weill) poem set by Hanns Eisler, one of many emigrant German artists exiled during the Nazi era. The original text is a song the poet sings to his "little radio," the faithful companion who gives him news about his enemies, the one "friend" who will journey with him away from bondage into the longed-for freedom of exile.
We then moved across the hall to the Metempsychosis exhibit, curated by Ray Kass. There, we reinforced the transforming potential of opera, the most multi-genre of art forms called the "total work of art" for good reason.
Metempsychosis Diptychs of Sally & Jessie Mann & Liz Ligouri are multi-layered and resonant. They evoke an old form (the two-paneled Diptych) with new vision, creating another example of "unexpected relationships." Their chiaroscuro subject is the "dark wood" archetype, visible in the fragmented photographs thinly veiled behind painted-over layers of the canvas.
Stephen Addiss' Sumi-ink print, Enso ("Past & Present are two")
Here, the past & present overlap and combine, hinting at transformation in the future...
Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reinforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is. [Dewey]
Michael Hoffman and the Mt Lake Workshop's large, powerful canvas, "Under Mountain Lake Dragon" is a favorite. It is a potent archetypal symbol with many layers of operatic meaning.
The enemies of the aesthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum (Dewey).
Martin Johnson’s “operatic” objects are anything but humdrum. They remind me of Rauschengerg's seminal “Combines” from the mid-20th-century, multimedia "Gesamtkunstwerk" ("total work of art").
I have two favorite "Combine Arias" (my title): Cartunispending, and Fanunishead ("Hydrogen Jukebox")
While Johnson's titles may be part cryptic message and part Dada-Fluxus prank, the subtitle "Hydrogren Jukebox" comes directly from a seminal poem of the 1950's, Allen Ginsberg's infamous Whitmanian ode, Howl. In the 1990's he collaborated on an operatic adaption of it with the composer Phillip Glass. About the work, Ginsberg said:
"Ultimately, the motif… the underpinning, the secret message, secret activity, is to relieve human suffering by communicating some kind of enlightened awareness of various themes, topics, obsessions, neuroses, difficulties, problems, perplexities that we encounter as we end the millennium. The title comes from HOWL:
'...listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...' It signifies a state of hypertrophic high-tech, a psychological state in which people are at the limit of their sensory input with civilization's military jukebox, a loud industrial roar, or a music that begins to shake the bones and penetrate the nervous system as a hydrogen bomb may do someday, reminder of apocalypse."
Here is the excerpt from Howl in which the title phrase appears:
…who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy
Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought
them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain
all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford's floated out and sat
through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi's, listening to the
crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,
who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue
to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge…
We concluded our time of "transformation" in that eclectic and provocative exhibit with a whimsical musical transformation of my tenor voice up an octave to sing soprano in a Renaissance madrigal duet with Amy. Thomas Morley's depiction of two lovers "with wanton glances" who simply "dally" is an apt metaphor for the essential pleasure of spending time "dallying" with art and music. Not "wanton" in any untoward way, but excessively rich with the possibilities of finding meaning and experiencing life amidst the full bloom of human creativity.
After the madrigal, Amy sang Micaela's ravishingly beautiful aria from Carmen, and I closed with a favorite quote from Victor Hugo: "music expresses that which cannot be said, and cannot be suppressed."