Noisy and Quiet Paintings

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Some paintings and painters are noisy and some are quiet, as paradoxical as that sounds because paintings do not have audio boxes attached. They just sit there in their frames and the viewer provides the sound effects when that is appropriate. Poussin is a particularly noisy painter. You can hear the screams of the Sabine women as they are being abducted; you can hear the moans of suffering but also the silences surrounding dead bodies and deserted streets in “The Plague of Ashdod”  You can hear the crash of blind Orion’s feet as he lumbers down the steep path in the painting “Blind Orion”. How the painter evokes sound is a good question. Perhaps Poussin does it with Orion by having people close to him gawking up at him, or maybe it is because the grade of the path is just right for encouraging a viewer to see the giant rushing down it by crashing one foot in front of another. However the painter does it, it gets done. It is part of his art. There are also quiet painters. The Hudson River School is known for its silence, whether Thomas Cole’s “The Oxbow”, where the countryside below suffers no sound, there maybe being some birds chirping on the hill where the painter who is observing the scene has his seat, or Bierstadt’s “Yosemite Valley-The Landing”, where the distance from the camp site means that the sounds of the Indian settlement will not be heard, while a close up, as in Homer’s “Snapping the Whip” allows an audience to hear the chatter of children. Sounds are therefore created as an inference from the information of the painting and the painter is accountable for the inferences that are to be drawn. That is part of his art.

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A painting where the inferences to be drawn as those inform the meaning of the painting and are directly opposite from the meaning a viewer might expect is in John Singleton Copley’s “Watson and the Shark”, first exhibited in 1778, which is sometimes interpreted as an allegory of the rise of the American Republic, the people in the boat representing the various strands of the American community, while the boy in the water is America and the shark is Great Britain, out to destroy the Republic. Or else, as is more usually the case and was so seen when it was first shown, the picture is a tribute to religious salvation: difficulties are overcome by courage and solidarity. But listen to the silences of the painting. The people in the boat are agape with wonder or horror but are not shouting, because there are no such expressions on their faces or mouths wide open. The shark seems dead in the water and so makes no sound and the boy appears to be unconscious and so also makes no sound. So what is being conveyed is a mood where great danger is over, the figures in the picture in the aftermath of some dramatic moment, trying to absorb it, each one within their own solitude. This is the opposite of what Lessing will say is the heart of sculpture, which is the moment before something awful happens, but rather is the moment after a disaster, when its impact is being communicated to the people who observed it, this moment of a drama also caught by Poussin in his noisy way in “The Parting of the Red Sea”, where Egyptian charioteers are washed up on the beach by still noisy waves while some Hebrews are still making their way onto the beach with, presumably, their heavy breathing and clattering steps accompanying the waves breaking upon them.

So what is the significance of “Watson and the Shark” other than that it intrudes upon the timeline in its own way, portraying the moment after rather than the moment before the climactic event? It is, I think, a point that is not political, however easy it is to see the little dingy as the ship of state. It is a sense of the deeps, even here in Havana Harbor, where the event that inspired the painting took place: the shark is one of the demons of the deep, the boy one of the victims of the deep, a victim of circumstance because the shark had found him. All onus belongs to fate. So the people in the boat are looking at their own destiny, whether they are black or white, and of whatever profession. They too will be dragged down into the sea. That is their eventual doom. I therefore read the painting as not about the Enlightenment or religion  but about the nature of life and think there is no reason to think the artist has been documenting the political moment rather than what is always the moment, a modern version of a dance of death painting, the grim reaper coming for all of us.

Some great painters are noisy and that explains what they are up to. Brueghel was particularly noisy. You can hear the laughter and music and bustle in his “The Wedding Dance” just as you can hear the crunch of the snow under the feet of the hunters returning to their town in “The Hunters in the Snow” and you can hear the rustling of the sheaves and the buzz of the flies in “The Harvesters” as the farmer who is taking a post lunch snooze under a tree, even down to his snores. Brueghel provides these sound effects via the viewer’s association of these picture elements with sounds, because Brueghel is giving a realistic account of the fullness of everyday life, even if some of his figures are exaggerated, that snoozing farmer a bit oversized, but not much more so than his fellow harvesters would notice.

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Then again, there are great painters who are very silent. I count Rembrandt as one of these even though he also did some loud paintings, such as “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” where you can hear the roar of the waves against the boat. Some of his greatest works are very silent, notably “The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild”, a picture of the solemn burgers who rule Amsterdam’s commerce out of their dour black clothing and unsmiling faces. They say nothing, not caught in the midst of chitchat or great events, as are the Founding Fathers who are caught by Turnbull as they are signing the Declaration of Independence, they perhaps silent for a moment in tribute to how profound is their action. Rather, the sense in the Rembrandt is that these men are known for their decisiveness rather than for their eloquence. They are solid burgers, which is what makes their republic great.

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A modern great painter, David Hockney, is also a silent painter and has been so throughout his career. His early creation of a Los Angeles office building, “Savings and Loan Building”, is not set amidst the bustle of street traffic either human or vehicular, as is the case in the Ashcan School paintings of John Sloan and others. Only a few palm trees stand in front of the building. His late creation, “A Bigger Interior with Blue Terrace and Garden” experiments with space in that he shows the wings of a terrace without distorting space to get it all in, but the painting is true to Hockney’s silent world in that nothing rustles. The same is true of his greatest paintings. “Peter Getting Out of Nick’s Pool” shows a nude man getting out of a swimming pool, his bare buttocks at the center of the picture, but he is not disturbing the water, the indications of ripples in the water not suggesting the splash of wavers, no more than the dashes on the blinds behind the emergent swimmer suggest only the soundless play of the sun on the blinds. Similarly, “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy” is without a soundtrack, no crescendo of music to accompany the very self assured quality of a couple standing amidst their still incomplete living room, the plush rug softening footsteps, Percy the cat saying nothing, and the phone, still not set on a table, not ringing. What is striking is Mr. Clark’s angular and faintly sinister face, it not needing to say anything to be worthy of notice. What the silence provides to the painting, I infer, is the artist’s characteristic combination of serenity and unworldly eeriness.

Whether or not there is a soundtrack is, I fully grant, sometimes an inference drawn from the sense of what the painting is up to rather than to be garnered from some clue in the painting, as is the case with some of the paintings I mentioned earlier, which give reason to associate sounds with them. But the question of a soundtrack is raised by the nature of painting as a form, one that is largely without words, however much that is not true of pamphlets and paintings in Luther’s time, or in Cy Twombly’s graphical comments on the environment, or in one or another poster that serves as agitprop. It is a form that is also devoid of ideas in that it does not state any directly, that being an abstracted verbal activity, even as many painters represent in their paintings the thoughts that lie behind their paintings. All art forms reach beyond themselves. The novel uses drama and a prosaic poetry. The drama uses spectacle, which is a painterly thing. Poems portray scenes as if they are being painted and music sometimes claims to be programmatic in that it is telling a story rather than being “pure” music. So there are no end of precedents for claiming that painting too drifts off into being noisy or silent, even as, within its own confines, it can be more colorful, as is the case with the Impressionists, or less so, as in the case of Rembrandt. Don’t shortchange the painter’s use of his resources.