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

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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  

It remains to be determined whether this sketch induces the viewer to imagine a specific type of music, whether the melody and its accompaniment are those of a lied, folk song, or jazz. Into what cultural reality do the elements of the picture lead us?

All indications lead to the conclusion that the musicians are true violinists. They are eminently serious in their attitude and primarily absorbed in their own music. Fiddlers hold their instruments lower on the chest; moreover, the pizzicato, when used in folk music, serves most often to emphasize the ends of phrases. Here it appears to be part of the melody. The bow of the upper violinist is far from being fully extended: technically, it is in the first third next to the heel.

The posture of the singer herself makes the viewer immediately think of a recital. The open throat, apparently expanded ribcage, and angle of the head all suggest a note of medium register. (6) A higher-pitched sound would perhaps have contracted certain facial muscles and inclined the head slightly forward. The hands reflect the usual mannerisms of concert singers. The clothing of this figure, although visible, provides no sociological clues. The blue of her dress, however, has the intensity of Impressionist pastels, and the coquetterie of the ribbon around her neck is reminiscent of Degas's dancers. Yet in France, as here, the clientele of a ballet studio has little to do with popular art.

The rectangle, which certainly appears to be a music stand, would argue in favour of so-called "highbrow" music. It is not unreasonable to see in a music stand an indication of music that is learned, deciphered, or read. Here we must go solely by the fact that it is present, for the reality of the music stand is accessible to us only visually: it is turned toward the viewer rather than toward the musicians, and it contains no score. This constitutes an inherent contradiction. While all the paraphernalia for making "serious" music has been assembled and put in place, this unnecessary, empty stand in effect represents a denial. If the presence of the black musician makes one think of jazz, the music stand becomes totally useless: jazz, by its very nature, is improvised and therefore not read. Nor does the music stand point to the spontaneity of folk music. Instead, it directs the viewer of the sketch toward the wider realm of music in general.

A final look at how the instruments are drawn shows the violins to be, apparently, perfectly and accurately sketched. Nevertheless, in addition to the absence of scrolls and peg-boxes, as noted earlier, the positions of the sound hole and the C meld into one in the lower instrument, and the bridge does not actually support the strings. These inaccuracies confirm that "Music" (not specifically serious or popular music) is the real subject of the picture. Even the informational value of the title itself - Street Musicians - becomes quite relative. Lillian Freiman does not invest much energy in the naming of her works; this can give rise to some confusion, as when records show one and the same work alternately being called Three Musicians and Street Musicians. Such titles as Violinist and Harpist, Rehearsal, Violinist at the Window, and Street Song abound in her production. None of these works has a setting or background; they simply show musicians encircling a single inner reality: "Music." It would seem that the artist is willing to accept any suggestion for a title that sounds at all plausible.

Just as the musician practises, playing and replaying for technique the passages to be learned, alone with his instrument, shut away from the outside world, so has Lillian Freiman chosen to work, away from currents, peaceably in her own universe, which she explores and transmits in her pictures. Viewing her work as a whole and the prominence of music in it, one might reasonably wonder why she did not herself become a musician instead of a painter. The iconograhic study of Street Musicians reveals one last, fundamental reality of music: it is a reality more ethereal than the instrument and the voice, and more intellectual than the quality of sound, register, and intonations; it is a reality somehow removed from social tension, a reality in itself. Seen in this light, music is very well served by the painting of Lillian Freiman.

Furthermore, if a musical event holds such decisive pictorial meaning for her, it is because there is a similarity between the subject and the process by which it is represented. Lillian Freiman probably sees music just as she sees the intense blue of some of her surfaces and the fine lines of her bows. Through her sketches, music approaches the threshold of the tangible: it is music that softens the curves, sharpens the angles and enables us, for a moment, to see more deeply and more fully.

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