Life to the Fullest: a comparison of artistic works by Dmitri Shostakovich and Lee Krasner
The mind continually identifies and categorizes observed images. Even when images are merely suggested in works of art instead of clearly defined, the human brain subconsciously strives to match the examined image to similar shapes previously observed. As the mind seeks to identify images, it also seeks to interpret sounds. An ear familiar with the meter differences between a march and a waltz will be able to identify these distinct meters in a variety of musical works and aural settings. Connecting what is heard with what is seen creates an even more complex system of subconscious categorization. Such a mental exercise yields unique results when abstract contemporary paintings are paired with contemporary music. The mind is occupied with the task not only of identifying abstract shapes and colors, but also of determining how our interpretation of those shapes is affected by the piece of music being heard.
The following comparison will focus on the perceived connections between the second movement (Allegro con brio) of the Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 by Dmitri Shostakovich and the painting Right Bird Left by Lee Krasner. Both are twentieth century works: the Trio (comprised of a violin, cello, and piano) was composed in 1944 and the painting was finished in 1965. Both works display characteristics of boldness, intensity and motion. Each could be said to have fragmented and recurring themes. These two stimulating works complement each other. Shostakovich’s harmonic and rhythmic organization gives a sense of purpose and stability to the perceived images in Krasner’s painting, and the painting lends a chaotic and spontaneous air to the movement of the Trio. Together, Krasner’s Right Bird Left and the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio create a unique and enlivening experience for the senses.
Krasner was an abstract expressionist painter. The spontaneity of her work is evident in dripping lines of paint and sweeping strokes of color in Right Bird Left. Nothing seems to be in the background or foreground of this painting. Rather it is an “all-over” painting in which all colors and shapes demand attention. The artist noted that though floral and ornithic images are evident in this work, they emerge from the general aura of the painting instead of a conscious premeditated effort to include them. Vibrant colors suggest a bright mood. Blood-red, bright pink, neon orange, forest and bright greens, sumptuous purples and earthy browns saturate the larger-than-life canvas of Right Bird Left. Perceived images include semblances of birds, butterflies, wings, buds, petals, mushrooms, feathers, flowers, fish, fins, and foliage. These fragments of images are tightly packed within the large space but they are also separated by swift strokes of white paint.
Shostakovich’s compositions around the 1940s maintained a strong sense of organization in form, harmony and rhythm, but with the inclusion of jarring dissonances. One could argue that Shostakovich’s Trio has a traditional foundation inlaid with chaotic elements, while Krasner’s Right Bird Left was begun spontaneously with only hints of conventional images evident in the finished product. The second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio is characterized by a rousing triple meter, which gives a rhythm to the chaotic colors of the painting. The accented notes, strong repeated chords in the piano, sweeping descents, and passionate slurs cause the painting to dance in the eyes of the observer. Although in a major key, the strident bow strokes, dissonances and wide melodic leaps of this movement are ironic. Thus the movement could be interpreted as joyous only on the surface, with a surging harshness moving subtly beneath the brilliant exterior.
The motion of the Trio along with the packed colors of the painting seems to suggest that what we perceive on the canvas is not a picture but an event. The driving rhythmic motion in the music seems to propel the painting to life. The beginning of the movement, with its swift and strong piano chords, is more reminiscent of a march than a waltz. Several of the perceived bird images seem to be in motion as the detached marching of the piano commences. The majority of perceivable bird figures and fragments are on the right half of the painting. Contrary to the suggestion of the title, instead of these “right” birds facing left, they seem to be facing right, as though this is the direction in which they must go. The images that suggest foliage and feathers tend to face left, creating a sea of distractions through which the birds must navigate. As the Trio movement progresses, one can almost sense the strivings of the birds in the midst of the torrent of lovely but profuse foliage.
When viewing Krasner’s painting from a close proximity and listening to Shostakovich’s music, the swift and forceful strokes of color seem to suggest a flurry and bustle of excited action and turmoil. Nature is compressed, creating little room to breathe, and the perceived images are displayed in segments. The brilliant colors and the proud music suggest life in the midst of this odd fragmentation of parts. The competition for attention between the cello and the violin as they exchange snippets of the melody can be compared to the competition of the images in the canvas, striving for recognition. The life in the canvas cannot be properly communicated in clearly defined conventional objects. The overarching theme of the pairing is that of abundant life in spite of the confines of the crowded canvas and musical form.
The recurring melody in the second movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio can be compared to the presence of the “birds” in Krasner’s painting. The plucking of the strings, the grace notes, and the prolonged, measured trills in the piano emphasize the birdlike images of the painting by simulating a rustling of feathers and repetitive bird calls. The drips of paint across the canvas could be perceived as trickling beads of sweat, verifying the exertion of teeming life. Once bird-like images and other creatures are found, it is difficult for the eye to view any other object as a focal point in Krasner’s Right Bird Left. The observer’s attention is drawn to the tumultuous journey of these perceived birds and creatures on the canvas.
When analyzed within the context of Shostakovich’s movement, Krasner’s Right Bird Left exhibits a variety of moods as the images journey within the canvas. The work begins as a strident march in a major key with flamboyant leaps in the violin melody line. By the time the melody is heard the second time in the violin, dissonances can be detected, creating a sense of harmonic unease. The violin and cello lines become increasingly strident and repetitive. There is a struggle sensed in the minor and dissonant chords that ensue. Such hints at conflict cause the colors in the painting to swirl menacingly for a few moments. The observer is left with the feeling that if given the proper impetus, the canvas might erupt in a violent outburst of passion and anger, giving a sickeningly new meaning to the blood-red colors on the left part of the canvas. This abrupt change reflects the temperament of birds, whose actions are swift and aggressive and whose possessive natures sometimes lead to violence.
This suggestion of turmoil strives to be forgotten in a carefree dance-like section in the middle of Shostakovich’s Trio movement. This triumphant major section is characterized by high grace notes in the violin and a lilting accompaniment. The key is raised by a half step, causing the entire section to rise above the conflict. Perhaps the bird images seek to ignore for a time the turmoil of their canvas. This trivialization of conflict stems from the triumphant will of the spirit to endure. The forceful, descending two-note slurs that are evident near the end of the movement suggest that the strivings for space in the midst of the crowded canvas continue. The perceived fragments of images shove each other in aggressive competition. The Trio movement ends with a major chord that abruptly follows the shoving slurs. This major ending seems to suggest that the fighting is over. The abruptness of this major chord suggests that the conflict has come only to a temporary standstill, and that a truly satisfying resolution has yet to be reached.
The combination of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio and Krasner’s large canvas generates a sense of excitement and anticipation. The longer one listens to the Trio and observes the painting, the more lively the event on the canvas becomes. Colors splash and feathers fly. Conflict slowly escalates with the dissonances. When the musical tension is at its height and conflict seems to be getting out of hand, the music insanely breaks into a dance. Though life can be chaotic, tumultuous and crowded at times, the lively spirit of the fragmented images will continue to thrive. In spite of conflict and even in the midst of it, the teeming force of life musters the strength to move forward.
Krasner, Lee. Right Bird Left. Oil on canvas, 1965. Painting label. David Owsley Museum of
Art Collection: Muncie, IN, 2014.
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