10 August 2015

Stop, Look & Listen
Soundscapes @ The National Gallery
8 July – 6 September 2015
by Sally Bennett, Hello Yellow Limited


LONDON — Following a lapse of judgement in diary management, I found myself on the evening of the Murray-Federer Wimbledon semifinal in a darkened room with no strawberries or Pimms, but instead savouring the sensory experience of Soundscapes at the National Gallery. For those that have seen the tube posters, the National is encouraging us to “Hear the picture, see the sound”. Put simply, the National is displaying pictures with sounds.

The idea of merging artistic disciplines is not new. Film has been putting sound with pictures since the early 1900s. In the 1960s, art and music just “happened” and more recently, companies such as Punch Drunk and Secret Cinema have gained a cult following by putting the audience at the heart of a multi sensory live performance. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the National has dragged its heels somewhat by maintaining a more traditional stance on displaying paintings alone.

But while the idea is not new (well, not in this century), it is ultimately satisfying. Through Soundscapes, the National is recognising that art is more than just a visual experience and boundaries that exist between artistic disciplines have only been of their making.

Although I missed the tennis, thankfully I went at a very quiet time.

Upon arrival, I was ushered into a small cinema where a film about the exhibition played. Although the intentions were good, this felt a bit like hearing the punchline before the joke and armed me with an intellectual response to the exhibition before I’d had chance to experience it. I would encourage you to go into the exhibition first, watch the film, then go back to the exhibition.

There are only six pieces on display. And they are all very very different. More than the idea of putting sound to pictures, it is the few number of pieces that feels like the National’s bravest decision here. The pieces were chosen from the vast collection at the National Gallery by the sound artists commissioned to compose for them. Again, this also felt brave and by giving the sound artists free reign, their choices are as diverse as their resulting compositions.

The paintings span several centuries; the earliest a double-sided wooden altarpiece, The Wilton Diptych, circa 1395-1399 (artist unknown) created during the reign of King Richard II, to the most recent, Lake Keitele, 1905, by Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela. Most of the pieces aren’t works I would ever linger on outside of the exhibition. Anything prior to 1860 normally leaves me a bit cold. But here’s where the success of the exhibition lies: listening to the soundscape makes you stop and look at the artwork.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele, 1905 Oil on canvas, 53 x 66 cm. The National Gallery, London.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lake Keitele, 1905
Oil on canvas, 53 x 66 cm.
The National Gallery, London.

Each darkened room is a world devoted to the individual piece and – to varying degrees of success – the composition heightens the visceral response to the artwork on display. In the first room, echoed birdsong intensified my focus on the island within Lake Keitele, 1905. Although seemingly tranquil, Chris Watson’s natural soundscape depicted the island as a darker place where the peace was intermittently shattered by the disturbing cry of the Sami people.

The discordant strings from Susan Philipsz’s composition underlined the hidden symbols and made the tension palpable when looking at The Ambassadors, 1533 (Hans Holbein) and installation and sound artists, Cardiff & Miller, succeeded in not only creating a sound world but a physical one too, with their 3D response to Saint Jerome in his Study, 1475 (Antonello da Messina).

The Wilton Diptych – the oldest piece on display – is given new life by Nico Muhly. The tracks in his composition are looped so that it will almost never be heard in the same way twice and through his soundscape, I felt persuaded to join Muhly in finding something fresh about the artwork; a piece I wouldn’t normally look at once, if at all.

Paul Cézanne, Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), about 1894-1905 Oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm

Paul Cézanne, Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses), about 1894-1905
Oil on canvas, 127.2 x 196.1 cm.
The National Gallery, London.

My favourite soundscape was Gabriel Yared’s seductive composition, written in response to Paul Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses, circa 1894-1905. Siren-esque melodies from piano, voice, clarinet and cello floated around the room, beckoning me to look at the painting until the forms and colours merged in a sea of blue. Then in the last room, the club like beats of Jamie xx’s fragmented composition, Ultramarine, succeeded in depicting the pointillist technique used in Théo van Rysselberghe’s Coastal Scene, 1892. Precise electronic sounds were like the dabs of paint on the canvas or the drops in the ocean of the image and with speakers in the room playing separate tracks, depending on where I stood I could hear a part of or the whole of Jamie xx’s composition just like I could see the individual dabs of paint close up or the whole of the painting when further away.

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene, 1892 Oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm

Théo van Rysselberghe, Coastal Scene, 1892
Oil on canvas, 51 x 61 cm.
The National Gallery, London.

Soundscapes is not groundbreaking, but it is also not, as the Telegraph described, “painfully unambitious”. In fact, I found it a welcome departure from other crowded conveyor-belt exhibitions. By recognising that art can be enjoyed by multiple senses, Soundscapes is an exhibition to be built upon; the question remains, however, where will the National go next?

Soundscapes runs until 6th September at the National Gallery, London.