National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Musical Iconography and Sketches 
in the National Gallery:
Street Musicians by Lillian Freiman and
Orchestra Sketch by Pegi Nicol

by Francine Sarrasin

Article en français

Pages  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  

The representation of a musical instrument in a picture is governed by a principle similar to that of a "picture within a picture." The musical configuration must then be taken in a very broad sense, providing a causal rather than formal relationship to art. A musical instrument does not always, in its physical structure, contain the decorative qualities and sculpted elements that would make of it a visual work of art. Instead, it establishes and maintains, through its prime function, a fundamental link with another artistic outlet: the making of sounds. While it is true that the general iconographic motif of musical instruments can cover several areas or categories, it always springs from the same source, the principle of sound. Thus, no matter how the musical theme is dealt with, its temporal quality - the necessary instant - is ever present.

An analysis of the two sketches in the National Gallery of Canada provides an opportunity to reflect upon this moment of sound as it is amplified visually in the moment portrayed in the drawing itself.

Street Musicians by Lillian Freiman

Lillian Freiman was born in Guelph, Ontario, on 21 June 1908. She attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal and in 1925 left Canada for France. She returned in 1938,  just be/ore World War II, and settled in New York City, where she still lives.

It was during her long stay in Paris, from 1925 to 1938, that music began to appear regularly in the art of Lillian Freiman. When considering her total production, (1) one is obliged to conclude that the proportion of works representing musicians is considerably greater than those depicting bird markets, fish markets, various street scenes, and circus scenes, and, moreover, that many of Freiman's musicians play the violin. The frequent representation of this instrument may perhaps have some connection with the painter's Russian background. The reputation of the Russian school of violin was by then solidly entrenched, the outcome of a vast movement that took shape around the turn of the century. (2) Is it therefore sheer coincidence that Lillian Freiman expresses, in her own way, the revival of the Russian spirit, and that so many of the numerous musicians in her pictures favour such instruments?

Around 1940, the artist settled in New York City, next to Carnegie Hall, which provided an opportunity to follow orchestra rehearsals closely. It is fascinating to note that her approach to painting is similar to that of a musician to music. She draws rapid sketches from life, capturing for herself the small moments that may be seen as the tune-up before the performance. However, Lillian Freiman never improvises with the likeness itself. Later, with more time for thought, she creates her work from the pictorial elements already sketched. The musicians she portrays in her groups are neither composers nor improvisers, but almost always players or concert performers.

There is a constant parallel between Lillian Freiman's painting and her music.

As with many of her works, the sketch of Street Musicians (fig. 1) is on slightly tinted paper. Physically, the paper offers minimum resistance to wear and tear, air, and time; it suggests a somewhat fragile, vulnerable reality. Similarly, sound may also be ephemeral, wavering, and fluid. In addition, the combined use and juxtaposition in one work of coloured pencil, graphite, and pastel are by now so frequent that one might speak of a choice or pictorial option, a means of expression. Lillian Freiman handles multiple effects as if they were sound values to be orchestrated.

Street Musicians is a study in colour and draughtsmanship. It is noteworthy that the only solid mass of colour is the female figure, in a dense blue, who is singing on the right side of the sketch. The violinists - drawn more than painted - seem to prefer to accompany the voice rather than impose their presence visually or aurally. The secondary nature of the accompaniment is indicated by the absence, with little pictorial justification, of scrolls and peg-boxes at the end of the violin necks. As well, the violinist in the foreground is playing pizzicato, (3) producing much less sonorous sounds than the smooth notes bowed by the second violinist in the background. It would seem that instrumental music has been reduced to the status of an accompaniment, and certainly there is a chiasmus (4) or duality between image and sound. This effect is produced by the utilization of visual procedures and by the type of music played in the representation. Although the lower violinist is nearer to us, the colour and white highlights partially fill in the spaces between the drawn lines, and some of the colour mass (which is here the territory of the singer) has been conceded to him, the fact remains that his violin is producing very light sounds, just plucked. The visual mass contradicts the presumed sound. Meanwhile, the violinist sketched in the background, despite the absence of any painted volume (apart from one of his hands), suggests a continuous, ample sound - a full sound. If his music, like the song, is essentially melodic in nature, the contrast is supported by the pictorial treatment, which opposes line and colour. This musician is linked to the song visually by his penetration of a central blue shadow belonging to the singer. The formation of similar, multiple ovoids can also be perceived in the upper part of the drawing, linking him to the singer: the arm holding the bow, the angle of his head, the shadow, the face of the singer (fig. 2). These oval shapes are related to one another by a curved line that resembles the way a melodic line can be plotted on paper. A final point is that the violinist using his bow and the singer are both in strong positions, practically facing the viewer.

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