Can we listen to a painting?

Street name: “The house upon Richmond Green, which belongs now to Lord Viscount Fitzwilliam, was formerly the seat of Sir Charles Hedges, Secretary of State to Queen Anne, and afterwards the property of the present owner’s maternal grandfather, Sir Matthew Decker, Bart. an eminent Dutch merchant, who built a room there for the reception of George I.” (Cadell and Davies, 1792)

On 14th October last year, the Cambridge Independent carried an interview with Luke Syson by Alex Spencer:

“This week marks the great unveiling of the revamped main gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the first chance to see the influence of its new director, Luke Syson.

Most famous for curating the Leonardo Da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery where the world’s most expensive painting, the Salvator Mundi was revealed, Luke took over the reins at the Fitz earlier this year.

Now moving into his eight month as director of the Fitzwilliam, Luke says: “One of the nice things about coming here was discovering, as I already knew from my own experience, what a truly beloved museum this is locally, regionally, nationally and internationally.

“We are having lots of discussions about how we make sure a place that is really beloved can grow in ways that make it more exciting, more powerful, more enjoyable and for as wide and diverse a visitorship we can possibly reach. At the same time we don’t want to in any way damage or disrupt the things that make people so love the Fitz.”…

…Luke says: “We’re asking how we enjoy and experience works of art of all kinds through our senses and a debate that goes back over centuries as to whether sometimes that kind of enjoyment cuts out the intellect and whether these sorts of experiences can be too powerful or sexy or whatever and get in the way of thought.

At the same time we are also thinking about how some of those sensory experiences can be recreated through artificial means.

Nowadays we associate the virtual with things that are online but of course anything that tries to copy or evoke a real experience using paint or music or whatever is also a virtual experience. So, how those two words combine in works of art where we are invited to think about the rustle and the smoothness of silk or the sound of music, but we can actually hear that music or hear that silk, is really interesting.

I think lots of works of art depend on those two words – sensual and virtual – so just getting us to think about what it is that we are feeling and how it is that the artist made us feel that way through artificial means is what this theme is all about.”

The way the museum will explore the theme includes a recording of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, which will be available to visitors as they look at the manuscript for the poem.

It will also examine fabric textures in paintings and musical sounds implied by a piece of art. And it will ask how an artist can bring to life a person for us who is long dead or evoke a place.

Luke says: “How does an artist make us feel we are there? The answer is often through giving us sensory experiences that feel real even if they are not. They want us to understand what the clothes they are wearing might feel like if you touched them or give you a really powerful sense of what they might say if they spoke. We’re asking what artists do to make someone who is not really there feel as though they are completely in your presence and you are in theirs.

“We are trying to show the kinds of things around that we might do through virtual reality or holograms have always been part of the equipment and arsenal and aims of a great artist that they have always been to some degree at least persuading us that something that is not real, that they have created is true.”

The theme is further explored through *Seeing Sound, also opening this week. The show asks, can we listen to a painting? This collaborative exhibition features objects from three of the Museum’s five departments. Notable exhibits are the five autograph musical manuscripts by Brahms, Stravinsky, Handel, and Handel enthusiast, Lord Fitzwilliam, the founder of the Museum. The show also features works by Rossetti, Renoir and Picasso which demonstrate the ways in which artists and composers have engaged in a dialogue between sight and sound.”

*Seeing Sound: Music, imagery and inspiration (Tuesday 8 October 2019 to Sunday 12 January 2020)

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