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

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Click figure 5 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  

It is interesting to note that the flutist's left hand stands out and is perfectly framed by the open score: this hand executes the notes, reproducing in sound and transposing the written notes for the listener, who is not necessarily a musician. The curved fingers move, slightly contorted. Theirs is the humour of a comic strip, reflecting the "implied smile" of the flute player. At the same time, the hand laughs at the score it is so merrily playing, turning its back to it, and the fingers dance the music on the flute. The viewer's attention is drawn to this hand, contrasted against the unbroken background of the music stand rectangle. The viewer is invited by the palm turned toward him to enter with the flutist into the pleasure of the music. This little fantasy introduces us into the dreamlike universe of the art of sounds. Linked to the source of the sound by their same physical contact with the flute or object, the two musical hands contrast and call out to each other.

We have been looking at the right hand for a long time now, without realizing what colour it is, without knowing whether its treatment is purely pictorial. We have not looked at the back of this hand, which could very well turn the page if it were extended just a bit farther. The flutist's right hand, farther away from him, is not treated with the graphic accuracy that generally characterizes the drawing of this musician. The style of the right hand has more in common with the fluid decor filling in the area between the music stands. It is as if the serious professional wanted to maintain a small corner of the unexpected, the imprecise, of dreams. The realm of imagination, thus given prominence, may tie in with the harmonization of the other instruments - for a visual analogy has grown up between the right hand of the flutist and the musicians' surroundings.

The link between the hand at bottom right and the rest of the composition is developed in several ways. And so we find our gaze drawn toward the figure in the upper left corner of the drawing - for the lines of the sketch radiating along the solid lines all come to an end around this musician (fig. 5). This may be why the viewer's eye cannot escape or break away completely from a sort of spell, but ever returns to rest on the upper musician. It cannot be ignored that this figure alone takes up the entire upper left portion of the composition, while three heads share the space of the upper right half. The triple-lobed motif that acts as a crown or ruff against the empty background accentuates the uniqueness of this instrumentalist. This decorative addition is reminiscent of the alternating and curving motifs of Art Deco architecture and furniture. (10) We feel justified in making an association here between the musician and statuary: the curving motifs around the head would seem to suggest, as was common in the Art Deco movement, the wings of an angel. Apart from the sculpted wings of allegory and religious art, there are other factors supporting our argument for statuary resemblance. The wash of colour on the face rounds out its surfaces, and the "blank" eye produces an effect perfectly in keeping with that of the classic features of Greek sculpture. Between the nose, the mouth, and the cheek is a squiggle of black ink, rather like a crack or a vein in marble. The sculpted angel's head appears to pose like a capital on the column of the bassoon - indeed, a similar beige runs from one into the other.

If we did not know the profile squeezed in along the left edge to be that of the bassoonist, it would be easy to see in it the likeness of a long-ago Renaissance donor, kneeling, almost in prayer. This respectful attitude before a statue confirms the hagiographic undertones. Yet the "angel" has still more to tell us. His music, so far, has remained a mystery, for we cannot see what instrument he is playing! Closer examination shows that he is blowing into the mouthpiece of what is probably a brass instrument, and that his cheeks are puffed out. Off hand, one would say it is an angel playing the trumpet, a traditional theme of religious iconography. In that case, however, the instrument would be angled upward and played by the right hand, whereas here it's the left hand that is playing. This last consideration is a determining factor, for there is only one brass instrument that uses the left hand to work the valves, and that is the horn. This instrument has a tube over three metres in length that rolls up in a spiral. It is therefore possible to interpret the rounded motif at the end of the musician's fingers as being a portion of that tube. The tones of the horn have nothing of the brashness attributed to the other brasses: its music has instead strong cultural connotations, or a social memory, of distance, an echo or something pathetic, moving, and sad. One has only to think how the autumn air vibrates long after the rending calls of the hunters' horns are given. And it is the sonority and low pitch of the horn that makes possible such interesting combinations with woodwinds such as the flute, bassoon, and oboe.

The fact that the music of the horn is not visually apparent in this sketch, that the viewer must wonder about it and search for it, means that it refers to something far off, of difficult access. The motifs that have turned our horn-blower into an angel also conspire to make him an ideal, hence inaccessible. Situated in an empty corner of the composition, he stands out as against a deep blue sky (or like a stamp of approval on the page of child's scribbler). Here we enter the realm of dreams and intuition and see the spectator's reaction as a fair contribution to the work, as response, mirror, and echo to the candid and decisive notes of the flute.

This openness to dream indicates a willingness to leave unanswered one last question, that of the identity of the instrumentalist. Cultural history instructs us that expressiveness and feeling are values that tend to be attributed to women. Here, the hair (encircling the head, the seat of reason) is almost the only element that could induce us to believe that the instrumentalist is a woman. Although the feminist views of artist Pegi Nicol are no secret, we find her pictures to be very subtle. There is in this work a fundamental uncertainty in this respect, an uncertainty that appears to be intentional; just as with angels, there is something unknown and mysterious here.

Difficult though it is to leave this key figure, we now turn to the two musicians who appear facing us in the "portrait gallery", and adorn the upper area of the sketch. (Row tempting it is to refer to them as the last detail!) The eye of the oboist is unseeing: he is listening. His gaze is fixed on the middle distance, betraying intellectual concentration and a clearly aura} preoccupation. Studying him, one becomes aware of just how intensely he is listening. The musician half-hidden to the right plays an instrument we cannot see. It is instructive to note that, while his glasses are bent toward the score like a microscope, his ear is obscured by shadow, and that it is the music stand and score that block him from view. Is it not peculiar that all the barriers erected to prevent one from hearing (or enable one to hear) are so visible? The confusion between sight and hearing is perhaps meant to indicate silence.

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