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

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Click figure 3 here for an enlarged image

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

by Francine Sarrasin

Pages  1  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  

The dialectic between the lower violinist and the singer is one of rupture rather than linkage. The angular aspect of the lines of the fingerboard and the bow echo those of the music stand rectangle. The latter breaks up the space and, by isolating the voice from the strings plucked, constitutes a sight and sound barrier. The instrumental music of the two violinists accompanies the vocal solo of the one singer. The supremacy of the voice is affirmed by the weight of the colour given exclusively to the singer and by the physical position she occupies in the composition. The singer virtually touches three sides of the drawing, and through the reach of her gaze and her voice, she also occupies, in a sense, the fourth and left side. The juxtaposition here of coloured pencil, graphite, and pastel and the repeatedly redrawn outlines, as if on second thought, is entirely characteristic of the artist's approach. Paradoxically, this light touch, both hesitant and quick, produces a finely profiled, clear, and accurate likeness, as can be seen in the upper violinist. Lillian Freiman uses mixed techniques to create a dual visual effect: that of movement and rest, of music and pause, of precision and confusion.

At first glance, judging by the postures of the figures and the sketches as a whole, it is the representation that appears to stop the musical movement and freeze the instant portrayed. None of the three musicians appears to take any more notice of the viewer than he does of the others in the picture. In choosing the moment, the artist here creates a dual scenario: she tells us a story we take to be true (the three musicians apparently playing music together), while writing an imaginary story (the music of the trio). The music-makers do not pose for the artist; rather, she makes sketches of them and then arranges these in a single structured composition. This approach, in relation to the moment to be singled out, does after all fit in with Freiman's working methods, where she begins by gathering sketches and only later arranges them together.

Although we cannot know whether or not the music truly links the same psychological instant of these three musicians, there is no question that music is there. The moment of the picture therefore encompasses a broader timespan - that of music in general. The production of sound is already under way: the singer is singing, the upper violinist is applying his bow; only the pizzicato is, perhaps, less convincing. It would therefore appear that the musical moment of this representation merges with a certain musical reality that is almost philosophical in nature. The subject's past does not exist and the future, in image, has no reason to come about; only the present is manifestly accentuated, and even at that it is a present with symbolic rather than realistic value.

Just as the temporal aspect extends to music in general, so the physical aspect is transformed into a space more psychological than tangible.

Given the complete absence of setting and geographical surroundings, attention is naturally focused on the three figures in the drawing. The lighting does not have the expected dramatic effect; on the contrary, it plays around angles and reflections, cancelling itself out and blithely contradicting each of the preceding effects. It is therefore somewhat inaccurate to speak of "lighting." A specific role may be attributed to the white highlights; applied in careful relief to the left hand of the upper violinist, they almost simulate the movement of the vibrato (5) and the tension of the hand in the seventh position on the fingerboard. Highlighting also, paradoxically, brings out the negroid features in the face of the violinist executing the pizzicato. Overall, the highlights are used to round out the volumetric spherical shapes and accentuate certain reliefs.

Lighting as such is non-existent here: the blue shadow is much more a physical reality than it is a lack of light. It is a splotch on the paper, or better still, the halo of the music! What, then, is the perspective of such a work? Bach musician expresses himself within his own universe; he moves beside and across from the others. It is difficult to establish a single vanishing point. The perspective shifts from the music stand to one musician or the other. The eye of the viewer, while seeking a resting place, is forced to move incessantly. It is as if each person, within his arrangement in the picture, resists inclusion in the triangle.

We note that with this work the eye of the viewer is forced to trace a path quite different from its usual movement from the nearest to the farthest object. Instead, it goes back and forth, following a horseshoe path from the singer to the violinist in the back, by way of the lower violinist (fig. 3). The open space in front of the singer facilitates access to her and bestows upon her a role of capital importance. This open curve has a hint of feminine symbolism to it - further confirmation of the singer's importance. The right elbow of the back violinist, exaggeratedly high, can also be taken as a sort of pointer. Indeed, starting from the signature (a pictorial mark par excellence), the elbow may trigger toward the singer the visual movement that ends at the shadow, the double blue of this central figure.

We see that our right to hear their music does not mean that the musicians must look at us: their universe remains closed and almost inaccessible. As far as composition is concerned, it could be claimed that the music here is contrapuntal, in the sense that the melodies are autonomous prior to their being juxtaposed, independent prior to being combined. In the same way, each musician is a complete image unto himself prior to his being placed with the others, as in a collage. Moreover, we know that the collage technique is used frequently by Lillian Freiman.

The choice of violins and one voice as the subject of the picture has an eminently melodic connotation, that is, one note is played at a time. Indeed, the music created by this trio has a linear quality. Here, as in her works generally, Lillian Freiman shows, through her choice of instruments, a distinct predilection for strings (violin, harp) and the fineness of certain sounds (transverse flute, the female voice).

The treatment of the hands in this sketch deserves special attention. All are brought out in some way, with the white highlights that imply the intonation being shared by the musicians. We have already spoken of relief and three-dimensional effect. The hands of the violinists are active, alive, and an essential part of the scene. The accent is on their activity, posture, position, technique, and interpretation. Had the artist wished to impart the emotion of a musical improvisation, she would not have decided to intensify the hands. The agility and dexterity, indeed the virtuosity, of the musicians' hands would have taken second place to the expressions on the faces, invention, the surprise of the sounds produced, spontaneity. The face of the lower violinist, although highlighted, has the impassibility of a statue.

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