1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
San Diego Museum of Art’s Art of Music exhibit welcomes visitors with a giant ceramic auricle and protruding ear trumpet that, upon detecting the voices of passersby, proceeds to emit Beethoven’s “Grosse Fuge.” It’s a fitting introduction to an installation (running through February 7) that explores the ways in which the visual arts have portrayed and been influenced by music over the ages.
The first room demonstrates the musician as muse in Greek and Roman mythology. Most prominently, The Triumph of Pan (2004), by local artist Eleanor Antin, is a vivid chromogenic print based on a 1636 painting of the same name by Nicholas Poussin. Antin’s interpretation places live models over a backdrop extracted from the original piece engaging in a bacchanal of wine, sex, snakes, and sacrifice in brilliant, sharp color.
The next gallery sees the musician as portrayed in renaissance Europe, where music assumed a religious, educational, and even decadent role when taken to excess. Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione illustrates this last concept in his mid-1600s oil on canvas Allegory of Vanity, in which a dancer is surrounded by instruments, flowers, and other transient superfluities. The painting suggests that the passing pleasures of the world are secondary to eternal salvation, though the accompanying text box acknowledges that the artist “had a reputation as violent scoundrel who had numerous run-ins with the law.”
In the same room we see the musician in the Asian world, where they were perceived as embodiments of virtue and played an indispensable part in social gatherings. The concept is exemplified by a 19th-century qin — an acoustic, stringed lap instrument noted for its subtle, graceful timbre. The mastery of the qin is noted as “one of the four essential arts in the literati class in imperial China.”
Moving on, the viewer is presented with “Musical Instruments in Art and as Art” by way of international paintings and sculptures celebrating the form and function of instruments such as the lute, mandolin, and violin. The space is dominated by an oil on canvas from Diego Rivera contemporary Rufino Tamayo, titled Sleeping Musician (1950), in which a guitar is illuminated by an eclipsing sun as shadowed musicians sleep in the fore- and backgrounds.
Among the more vibrant spaces, “Social Intersections of Art and Music” showcases a nonlinear exploration of the overlap between visual and musical arts with examples including an ornate African lyre and handcrafted gongs and whistles. This segues into “Music in Festivals and Popular Ritual,” highlighting the centrality of music across time and space in social functions. The radiant, ever-puffy figures of Fernando Botero depict bowler-capped, mustachioed musicians playing for a disproportionately miniature couple in his giant 1980 oil on canvas, Dancing in Colombia.
Similarly, “Music, Dance, and the Stage” takes a look at the fascination of secular entertainment with the arts spanning kabuki theater, Parisian opera showbills, and Broadway and West End posters. Of special interest are the huge 1891 Moulin Rouge advert for “La Goulue” and Dalí’s piercing 1942 Project for Romeo and Juliet, a proposed surrealist set design for a ballet production of the Shakespeare classic.
A listening station titled “Jazz Visualization” invites you to interpret a Miles Davis tune with paper and pens as a primer for a Henri Matisse set of primary colors and wild, near abstract cutouts in his mid-19th-century Jazz series. “Mood in Music and Painting” continues in visualizations of music with examples from Indian ragas, the modern modality of keys, loud colors, and visceral forms.
Around the corner, the striking Filles de Kilimanjaro III (Miles Davis) (1976) by Argentinean painter Kazuya Sakai interprets the 1969 Davis album of the same name with the flippant but focused use of interwoven lines and colors, which resonate with the bold improvisation of the muse’s tunes.
One of the more engaging sections is “Synesthesia,” where an interactive electronic rendition of John Sennhauser’s 1951 Synchroformic #18-Horizontal Duo allows you to rearrange the components of the painting to create spastic jazz tunes, emphasizing the super-sensory correlation between sight and sound.
Moving further into the avant-garde, “An American Quartet: Collaborations and Dialogues” demonstrates the works of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, beginning with Rauschenberg’s 1955 Music Box, a staple of early noise and chance music in which three stones and feathers sit inside a wood crate riddled with nails. The dissociative works lead into a room of psychedelic rock posters by visionaries Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, and Alton Kelley, along with a film by no-wave experimentalist Christian Marclay. In a starkly different style, Hans Burkhardt’s 1981 Sex Pistols sees the band’s name smeared across the canvas in a font suggestive of graffiti and a charmed nihilism.
The Art of Music, running through February 7, 2016, at the San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado,
Balboa Park, 619-232-7931; sdmart.org