THOROUGHLY MODERN MAN: Soundscapes, National Gallery

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It does no harm to look at familiar things in unfamiliar contexts; in fact, it can be enlightening, stimulating even. In ‘Soundscapes’ at the National Gallery, six much revered pictures are displayed alone in darkened rooms with aural accompaniment – musical, descriptive or atmospheric – created by invited composer/sound artists.

One cannot help but reconsider the works whether one approves of the sounds or not. In some cases the accompaniment is impressive on its own, sometimes it takes a supporting role…

Gabriel Yared’s Satie-esque response to Cezanne’s Bathers is exquisite, seeming to conjure up voluptuous fin-de-siecle France while also hinting at a darkness, echoing the way Cezanne introduces a psychological chiaroscuro into a sensual Impressionist subject.

Nico Muhly’s Long Phrases for Viola da gamba encourages one to contemplate the Wilton Diptych more closely and more profoundly, and for a longer time. The otherworldly cry of the viol enhances the heavenly aura of this strange, diminutive altarpiece.

Chris Watson’s soundtrack to a Finnish Symbolist landscape by Gallen-Kallela initially naturalises the mystical scene with birdsong but then with the eerie chant of a shaman reinforces the mythic atmosphere.

Jamie xx’s electronic installation,Ultramarine, highlights the alarming modernity of van Rysselberghe’s pointillist technique. Even 120 years after its creation, the atomist deconstruction of this coastal view appears new – digital, pixellated.

The most minimal aural intervention comes from Susan Philipsz who focuses on a broken lute string in Holbein’s Ambassadors emphasising this omen of discord with three extended notes from an anxious violin.

Canadian sound artists, Cardiff and Miller, respond to Antonello’s Saint Jerome in his Study more substantially with a large wooden reconstruction of the complex architectural space of the picture. This is impressive and amusing but less affecting than the ambient soundtrack of horses coming and going, crickets chirping and the gorgeous singing of a medieval chanson by Dufay.

It is brave of the National Gallery to risk the scorn of conservatives who wish the collection to be frozen in reverential aspic. It is not only instructive but also essential to occasionally reassess its masterpieces. Furthermore, despite the nervousness engendered in some people, no works were harmed in the making of this exhibition.

Exhibition continues until 6 September 2015, more information and book tickets here.

Written by a Thoroughly Modern Man, Chris Kenny.

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