Art review: Soundscapes add new dimension to old masters

Theo van Rysselberghe's pointillist Coastal Scene (1892)
National Gallery | ★★★★☆

“Discover a new way of experiencing paintings,” says the promotional material for Soundscapes, the new exhibition at the National Gallery. Such proclamations risk any soundscapes being drowned out by a cacophony of tutting from critics. “Do we really need a new way of experiencing paintings,” you can hear them imploring. “What’s wrong with plain old standing, looking and thinking?”

That the answers to these questions are “no” and “nothing at all”, doesn’t mean the National Gallery shouldn’t be inventive when thinking of ways to broaden its appeal. Why not experiment? Great art can clearly take it.

For Soundscapes six contemporary sound artists, composers and DJs chose and responded to a painting within the National Gallery’s permanent collection – with the express purpose of seeing what happens. It’s an experiment. And, on the most part, it works. It’s not about music enhancing painting, or painting enhancing music; to listen and look at the same time gives rise to a wholly different aesthetic experience, one that’s not visual or aural, but almost meditative.

The majority of the composers react in thoughtful ways to their chosen paintings, enlivening them, amplifying their atmosphere and subjects. DJ Jamie XX, reacting to Theo van Rysselberghe’s pointillist Coastal Scene (1892), conjures a pointillist masterpiece of his own with a luscious electronic track made from multiple bleeps and plinks. Walking towards the painting in the darkened room, one is given a sense of fragile balance between detail and totality. The painting acquires a new rhythm, the music feels vivid and colourful.

Composer Nico Puhly’s hushed, minimalist response to the Wilton Diptych fills the room with ceremonial reverence. Turner Prize winning sound artist Susan Philpz achieves a similar affect with her discordant split-note response to Hans Holbein’s the Ambassadors, which subtly brings the latent conflict to the fore.

The experiment works less well when the artist merely recreates what it would literally sound like inside the painting. Chris Watson responds to a pastoral scene by filling the room with the sound of birdsong – hardly a great imaginative leap.

The exhibiton owes its impact to the fact it comprises only six paintings, allowing visitors to indulge their attention on each of them. The paintings look phenomenal in rooms devoted entirely to them, their pigment glowing beneath spotlights, appearing almost to hover in the pitch-black.

The argument can and will be made that the silence we reserve for paintings is necessary, not as a mark of obeisance, but because it is only in a state of quiet repose that we leave ourselves open to receive all the things that great works of art express. That may be true. But in coming up with new ways to present its grand old collection, the National Gallery is bearing the responsibility implied by its name. It’s the National Gallery and, if this exhibition encourages a single new visitor, then it’s a worthwhile operation. It’s not often you get the chance to consider great paintings in as generous a space as this, suspended under spotlights and haunted by music. It’s an experience bordering on the holy, and one that’s especially welcome in the rush and rattle of London in 2015.

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