AN OPEN LETTER TO THE DIRECTOR OF THE CORCORAN GALLERY
Dear Mr. Bollerer:
As someone who writes frequently about the Gilded Age, I’ve long been eager to visit the Corcoran Gallery to study your most iconic painting: Frederick Church’s “Niagara.” I was recently in DC and seized the opportunity, arriving one Sunday in the late morning only to discover a cellist in the atrium playing movements from the Bach cello suites. The atrium is a resonant space and the cello was loudly audible in the galleries.
A painting summons thought and feeling. It can also (in my experience) summon music. Music can equally silence the experience of a painting – Bach’s Bourees, Sarabandes, and Gigues were played (and also practiced) over and over. In between, the instrument was raucously tuned. Only during a brief respite could I discover the seething energy of Church’s rendering of Niagara Falls, unshackled by Bach.
Though neither of your gallery books mention it, Church’s canvases are of course ambitious exercises in metaphor. “Niagara” was painted in 1857 – on the cusp of civil war. The calculated play of sunlight and impending storm can only be symbolic. The broken rainbow reinforces Church’s message of a nation’s ambiguous fate. Church intended that a leisurely examination of his large, painstakingly detailed canvases would provoke conscious analysis.
An adjoining American gallery, in which Bach remained a deafening presence, displayed Thomas Eakins’s “Singing a Pathetic Song.” The parlor music of this painting is, I would say, an explicit soundtrack anathema to Bach.
A museum considers framing, placement, and lighting in displaying its collection. What the ear hears can become as pertinent as what the eye sees. Silence is safest. And yet when visual art is discussed on film or TV, a symphonic soundtrack become inescapable. For any musically sensitive person, Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” was made unwatchable by the clumsy imposition of chunks of Schubert, Debussy, et. al. I remember giving up quickly, when Delius was applied to French Impressionism.
Many years ago, in a conversation with the late Kirk Varnedoe, I discovered that this distinguished connoisseur of fin-de-siecle Austrian visual art had no ear from Mahler. And yet the profound relationship of Klimt to Mahler is mutually illuminating. As it happens, Tim Barringer – who as you know is a leading authority on Church – is a counter-example: a trained musician fascinated by resonances binding painters and composers. It’s been my pleasure to collaborate with Tim on a variety of museum programs investigating points of alignment linking Dvorak’s New World Symphony and American Suite with the “American sublime” of Church, Bierstadt, and Moran, and also with the genre paintings of Durand and Bingham.
Anyway, I’m writing this letter in Rock Creek Park as a therapeutic exercise, having fled your museum after 45 minutes of enforced listening. The moment I exited my brain began to breathe. Frankly, what I’m trying to say to you seems self-evident to me. Would you consider doing without music? The paintings would appreciate it.