Berlin Biennale 2014

Listening to the sounds of a classical string quartet on the terrace of a beautiful lake-side villa in Berlin’s affluent Zehlendorf neighbourhood evokes an image of the past; somehow reminiscent of Berlin’s Golden Twenties. This grand venue is however, not the setting for a glamorous garden party, but part of this year’s Berlin Biennale. The sound is part of Carla Zaccagnini’s installation Le Quintuor des Negres (2014), inspired by an interest in the reconstruction of history, in particular the idea of the noble savage as featured in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Zaccagnini’s work pursues the question of how idealisations of the primitive featured in the music of German Romanticism, and the piece is based on a fragment by Nepomuk Hummel she discovered during her research, transcribed for string quartet by Frankfurt-based composer Theodor Köhler.

This sort of scholarly investigation provides a good example of the manner of conception behind the majority of the works at this well thought-out Biennial curated by Juan Gaitán. The research process is the starting point in the creative process, which is then condensed into an aesthetic form.

Tonel - "Commerce" (2014)

Tonel – “Commerce” (2014)

The traditional centre of the Berlin Biennial – the grand hall in the KW Institute of Contemporary Art – sums up the principle of this biennial exhibition. It resembles an artistic research centre, in which Tonel (like Zaccagnini, an art historian turned artist) engages with commerce from a Cuban perspective. But the emphasis on research does not prevent visitors from aesthetic encounters. In fact, one can discover a lot if one looks closely. For example, the installation Weltall by the artist group Kartenrecht. Do these broken wooden balks comment on the fragility of borders, or do they allude to the garbage flying around in the Weltall? There is definitely space for imagination…


Kartenrecht – “Weltall” (2014)

Judy Radul’s Look. Look Away. Look Back (2014) provides an interesting cross-reference from the top floor of the KW to a further venue of this year’s biennial: the Museen Dahlem. Radul’s vitrines touch the controversy of the relocation of the ethnographic collection from Dahlem to Berlin’s Mitte. Gaitán’s decision to exhibit well-known artists, such as Tacita Dean, Goschka Macuga, Anri Sala and Wolfgang Tillmans, in Dahlem raises awareness for neighbourhoods other than the hipster-esque Mitte, Friedrichshain and Kreuzkölln. Gaitán here makes a clear statement against Berlin’s urban planning.

Zarouhie Abdalian - "a caveat, a decoy" (2014)

Zarouhie Abdalian – “a caveat, a decoy” (2014)

Those mourning the lack of aesthetic seductiveness at this biennial ought to climb up to the last step in the KW, where Zarouhie Abdalian’s owl watches over the buzzing city. Her gaze is directed at the TV tower, lovingly called ‘Alex’. Might this be the owl of Athena, an attribute of the Greek goddess of knowledge? Maybe it is exactly this: the beauty of knowledge, which transpires through the 8th Berlin Biennale.

Sarah Hegenbart is a PhD student at the Courtauld.

The Eighth Berlin Biennale ran from 29th May to the 3rd August 2014.

The Visual Arts and Music in Renaissance Europe c 1400-1650 (Second Annual Postgraduate Renaissance Symposium, 18 January 2014)

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

It is not every Courtauld conference that starts off with a concert in an authentic Gothic interior. But the Renaissance Art and Music programme has been an exploratory endeavour throughout. On a moonlit Friday evening, the Amaryllis Consort regaled an audience in the Temple Church with music from the high Baroque, Burgundian Gothic and English Renaissance schools to much applause. However, visual references were confined to our programmes, and it was not until after the next dawn that images would take the commanding focus of the lecture theatre’s projector.

Professor Thomas Schmidt’s keynote took as its main theme a giant choirbook in Jena, considering an illuminated folio of a chant of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin beyond a usual iconographical analysis. The arrangement on the page of the four parts, their page-turning rubrics, and how the donors’ figures would work as ever-present supplicants to the Marian prayer being sung all went together to manifest the sort of four-part polyphonic performance we had witnessed in the Temple into a tangible artefact.

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

These themes were restated and developed throughout the day. Moritz Kelber’s paper picked up on the meeting of note and page with a “singing shield” at the beginning of some printed musical scores for the diet of Ferdinand I. A coat of arms emblazoned with a solmized representation of the name of German Emperor was presented as “eye music”, where the score itself could make visual play with the musical script. Brian Keene’s paper on a dismembered antiphonary from the Carmelite Friary in Florence placed it within the daily life of the church, but also explored its creation through the agency of the friars, lay confraternity members and of course the artists who laboured on the church’s manuscripts and frescoes.

But the day was not just about objects that were at the centre of musical performance, but also reflections of it.  Alex Robinson’s consideration of paintings of balls and ceremonies in the court of Henri IV showed how bands of musicians were more often convenient cultural signs than accurate records. Kelly Lam’s analysis of The Music Lesson, a National Gallery canvas newly attributed to Titian, also showed paintings as untrustworthy documents: the bass viol (which Titian himself holds in Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) is held in a near unplayable position. Both Simon Jackson, on the metaphysical poet George Herbert’s creative links to the courtly masque and Daniel Walden, on the Garden of the Villa di Pratolino, relied heavily on textual accounts and documentary evidence to recreate even more ephemeral displays and the intellectual and musical culture around them.

Titian - The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

Titian – The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

This conference by no means solved the inherent epistemological problems on how much we can ever know about creative links between visual artists and musicians, and how the dual experience of their outputs was received by contemporary audiences. Like the concert the night before, the truth of the experience can only be completely accessible to those who were there.

Architecture and Music in Renaissance Venice (Thursday 21st November)

Howard1They say architecture is “frozen music”, but this week has been a particularly noisy one for this art historian. First there was the Liturgy in History study day at Queen Mary University, where both the seminar room in Whitechapel and then St. Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield were filled with beautiful singing, including us lay people lending our voices to provide the drone of Perotin’s thirteenth-century Viderunt Omnes. Then at Mellon Centre on Wednesday, the rector of Ranworth provided those gathered with a rendition of the Gloria attached to his church’s medieval lectern in a round table seminar about the great rood screen.

This means that the Art History and Sound series, organised in the Courtauld Research Forum by Ph.D. students Michaela Zöschg and Irene Noy, is in very good company of a consideration of the sonic environment of the visual arts. This Thursday marked the second of three autumn lectures after a successful series of workshops last year.

Deborah Howard, the co-author of Sound and Space in Renaissance Venice, came to the Courtauld to demonstrate the methodology behind the book. Did the great architects, Sansovino and Palladio, while designing their temples to Counter-Reformation piety, allow provision for the Gabrielis and Monteverdi to achieve the same with their ground-breakingly sophisticated polyphonies?

Howard3Although audience surveys were used in the project, rather than this subjective evidence, much attention was given to presenting the results of computer modelling simulations to actually show what was happening to the sound in these churches. There was little problem in a shoe-box like the Ospedaletto – the sound quickly reverberated from off the roof to seem like it was raining down to the audience without any dissonance.

The monumental Il Redentore however proved more of a problem. It was fine for the daily offices of the Capuchin friars in the enclosed choir. However, for the great festival day when the choir were stationed under the mighty dome, the simulation showed how it would reverberate the sound waves like “a giant food processor”, throwing down the carefully orchestrated polyphony that had been composed specially for the day as an utter muddle of sonic hummus. But it was shown how on such days, the church would be covered in tapestries, draped in hangings and filled with robed bodies, to give a much more promising situation, and that the composition would not be destroyed by the architectural setting. The same was demonstrated in a festally adorned San Marco, the sound given a clarity and vibrancy when the harmonies would have been all but obscured in an empty church. All well and good for Renaissance polyphony, but was this a happy accident rather than design? Did Palladio really reassure a frustrated Gabrieli at rehearsals it’d be alright on the night?

Howard2Deborah did admit that the results of the project merely reinforced their expectations. But the real achievement of this lecture was to make people aware of the methodology behind it. An architectural historian may wish for a silent, empty church when wielding a tripod, but now a building resonating with “molten architecture” should also prove equally rewarding for interrogation.

For more information and music tracks related to the project, visit

Irene Noy, ‘Why Only Look? Aural and Visual Representation of Female Identity in West Germany’

Mary Bauermeister, In Memory Of Your Feelings, or Homage à Jasper Johns, 1964-65, mixed media, 24 x 30 x 7 in.

Of the many Research Forum talks I attended Spring semester, I found Irene Noy’s ‘Why Only Look? Aural and Visual Representation of Female Identity in West Germany’ to be one of the most engaging and eye opening. As the title suggests, Noy encouraged those of us in the audience to not only look but also listen—that is, to audio work that seamlessly accompanied her visual presentation, as well as to the words of her talk.

I came to Noy’s talk with a fairly thorough knowledge of the geographical region and time period, as well as an interest in gender studies, yet Noy’s topic was still completely unfamiliar to me. It was a welcome reminder of just how vast and complex the discipline of art history is. While I found her talk compelling on an intellectual level, it also made me realize, on a more personal level, where I had become complacent with my own knowledge, and reminded me that there are further artists, perspectives, and even media to discover.

Noy’s talk concerned female artists creating artwork at the crossroads of aural and visual art in West Germany, working at the time of the rise of second wave feminism. Particularly intriguing to me was Noy’s presentation of sound art in relation to visual art: the possibility of shared compositional processes, as well as their differently gendered aspects—for example, the electronic implements used in recording and playing sound as being aggressively masculine. I had never before considered the possible dichotomy between aural and visual art (with one occupying space and one occupying time), though Noy presents this dichotomy as false.

I am grateful to Noy for introducing me to the work of Mary Bauermeister, which I found incredibly compelling and promptly investigated further after the talk. Bauermeister, an artist connected with Fluxus, is best known for her ‘lens boxes’ of layered glass that magnify and distort the textured surface below. They simultaneously seem delicate and dangerous, and draw the viewer’s attention to the optical devices improving and modifying our perception of the visual, perhaps parallel to the electrical devices used to create and record sound. Noy emphasized the connection between Bauermeister’s visual compositions and her understanding of musical composition; an important example being her joint show with Karlheinz Stockhausen, in which her visual works were paired with his sound compositions, allowing for a dialogue between the two.

Tim Barringer, ‘Aspiring to the Condition of Music’

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre (The Creditor), 1879, oil on canvas, 186.7 x 139.7cm. Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco.

In 1879, infuriated at having been denied full payment for The Peacock Room, the daring interior design scheme he had created for the London townhouse of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland, James McNeill Whistler satirised his miserly patron in a remarkable portrait. The Gold Scab: Eruption in Frilthy Lucre transforms Leyland, shown wearing one of his beloved frilly shirts (hence ‘frilthy lucre’), into a deranged peacock playing a piano loaded up with money bags. While the piano is included here for satirical effect, mockingLeyland’s pretensions to the role of talented amateur musician, it also points to an important if largely overlooked connection between music and art in late Victorian culture. In a lecture this past October, Tim Barringer drew our attention to this neglected subject, using a series of visual and musical case studies (the latter relayed at impressive volume via the robust speakers in the seminar room) to give a more complete picture of the sensory worlds within which artists and collectors moved.

By the time of the Whistler-Leyland spat, the music room equipped with a grand piano had become a key space within the home of the connoisseur, where music and painting were enjoyed together as a single aesthetic experience. For artists sympathetic to the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, moreover, music could serve as the model for a radical kind of painting in which formal concerns take precedence over social or political ‘content’ (something which throws light on Whistler’s use of musical terms in his titles, such as nocturne, harmony and symphony). Yet, as Barringer went on to argue, works by late Victorian artists often acknowledge the alarmingly powerful effect of music on the emotions. In The Awakening Conscience (1853) by William Holman Hunt, a piano is employed as a weapon of seduction by the male philanderer, who fingers the keys in order to spice up the atmosphere in the claustrophobic room where he is entertaining a female companion, probably his mistress. The young woman, though, wears a rapt, distant expression which suggests that her ear has been caught by sounds of a higher order – reformed preaching, perhaps, or the stirring harmonies of an edifying hymn.

William Holman Hunt, The Awakening Conscience, 1853, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 55.9cm. Tate Britain, London.

In discussing the aural dimensions of The Awakening Conscience, Barringer made the interesting remark that certain groups, including women, were believed to be particularly susceptible to the impact of music. One question left unanswered by the talk was whether contemporary scientific accounts of how sound operates on the mind provide additional perspectives on the visual material considered here. Possibly this is an area that will be dealt with in Barringer’s forthcoming book, one that the author admitted he is finding difficult to finish because the research is so fascinating.