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

Yet this musician, we feel, is far from representing an absence of sound. Rather, he is density, force, depth, and reflection - all fundamentally positive values that play a role in the dialectic of the picture, just as does music. This realization picks up our argument and brings us back full circle to the instant of blowing, the pivotal instant of life and music. The musician, who generates within himself the air to be blown through the cylinder of his instrument, needs a split second to respond to the conductor's signals. Thus there is always a minute gap between breath and sound. This is particularly true in the case of instruments with a double reed, such as the oboe and bassoon. Silence is indeed a positive value, if one thinks of the natural phrasing written in music and of pauses for breathing. Furthermore, we see an inevitable link between this silence and the suspended profile, without an instrument, in the upper right-hand corner of the sketch. Who is this figure? Any and every hypothesis is plausible: conductor, rapt listener, far-off and mysterious muse, symbol of music imprinted on a medallion, the guiding star or patron of music and musicians. This profile in itself would appear mute, to judge clinically by the closed mouth; yet is it not tempting to see in it the signature of the artist? Sparingly drawn presence, significant size, and accomplished contrast - this empty and incomplete outline brings to our attention a closed mouth, and what this mouth says is the sketch in a nutshell. There is no ear, no seeing eye. It is the mouth that enables us to hear, through its own silence, the music depicted below. An early warning sentry, this presence remains, nonetheless, discreet. It is the QED of the rational theorem, the seal, the artist's trademark.

Nowhere in this exploration of images have we mentioned how the iconographic motif of instruments and musicians consistently contradicts the subject matter. We have not yet mentioned how the general application of the ink, the lines of the sketch, and the running wash make themselves felt in the comprehension, signs, and symbols of the sketch. Nor have we drawn the reader's attention to how the rare and tenuous colour flows between a bluish-grey and beige, to the fact that the sequence of sketches from life was not sparingly executed, the corrections of features being clearly visible. We know that the artist preferred to use watercolour for her initial sketches and then compose oil sketches on the same theme on wood panel, before attempting them in oil on canvas. (11)

If the moment of Pegi Nicol's sketch is wedged in between music and silence, if the human breath is at the point of producing sound, it is because the artist's sketch has taken on a burst of speed and snatched from music the precious instant belonging to it, the "split second before" that unleashes the marvellous and makes everything possible!

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