Why paint? How pianists can create their own therapy

Guest post by Michael Johnson

I have just dusted off ‘The Writer’s Brush’, a book in my chaotic library that reproduces the artwork of 200 well-known novelists and essayists. Looking over their paintings, I can almost hear them letting out sighs of relief as their images took shape on the canvas. Writers often turn to painting for relief from the tyranny of words. It’s a form of therapy — the visual arts provide immediate respite.

Pianists seem to be perfect candidates for this same escape yet finding them and making them talk about it is like pulling teeth. I have identified a handful of pianist-painters and captured some of their thoughts, and my hunt continues, but it might be in vain. Composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote in one of his better polemical pieces, “The music profession is more secret than most … No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated.

Some of my pianist friends will even admit that too much time at the keyboard is ultimately bad for the soul. They are weary of working on muscle memory. It’s the endless repetition of notes penned by someone else that rankles them most. The late Charles Rosen once told me he dealt with this dilemma by propping a book of detective stories on his piano to read as he repeated tricky passages a hundred times. Is that art?

True artists seek self-expression, artistic adventure. They feel the urge to own their work, and written music strictly limits departures from notation. Some musicians eventually realize they are mere messengers, but of what messages? (Deciphering Chopin’s detailed dynamic markings, they ask themselves, “Why did he insist on such constraints?”) If they stray too far, their teachers steer them relentlessly back to the page.

My advice to pianists is to grab some pots of paint and start splashing. Painting has a “touch of the miraculous” about it, one artist told me recently. Of all the arts, painting will grant you the most license for creative release.

I have been collecting samples of musicians’ artwork for the past year or so, and have been surprised at how committed some of them became, often mounting

their own exhibitions and publishing their visual creations, at least on the internet.

Moreover, I find similar urges among academics, business executives, and even one magician, David Blaine.

Alexander Motyl, a novelist and political science professor at Rutgers University, Newark, N.J., finds painting a release from the straightjacket of words – much as musicians fight the constraints of music. “There are no words, no speech, no ‘thinking’ in my painting,” he tells me. “It’s just lines and colors and spaces and visual creations. Stuff happens and, suddenly, you realize, gosh, this is really good.

Somewhere among the painters I find myself, once a struggling pianist, then a working journalist, now a successful portrait painter. I get chills of the “miraculous” when one of my portraits seems to speak to me. My first book of music-makers’ ecstatic faces * has just appeared and my recent one-man show of 70 watercolors in Bordeaux attracted press coverage and a few commissions.

While frustration has driven some leading musicians to the drawing board, reasons of course vary. Among those who turned to the pot-and-brush are Felix Mendelssohn, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Arnold Schoenberg, George Gershwin, former Juilliard professor David Dubal, the British polymath Stephen Hough, the Argentine virtuoso Ingrid Fliter, Boston’s Russell Sherman, British composer-pianist Richard Rodney Bennett, the Israeli pianist Ilana Vered, The German composer-painter Heiner Goebbels, and the early work of Alfred Brendel. Some Chopin drawings are on display in Warsaw. Ferruccio Busoni, Edward MacDowell, Charles T. Griffes, and Enrique Granados all left visual art among their legacies. Even Mozart doodled funny faces in the margins of his scores.

Stephen Hough tells me in an email exchange that he finds painting more release than relief – a way to explore a different branch of creativity. In playing the piano, he says, “sounds evaporate into the air… but a painting stands as a thing, complete.” As he put it in a separate interview, “I’ve always felt that playing the piano just by itself was not enough.” Painting allows him to find a further outlet. “I feel like I need to move in other directions,” he said.

David Dubal, pianist, broadcaster, pedagogue and accomplished abstract artist, believes that drawing and painting are things we should experience “all the time”. It would “make for a more peaceful world”, he tells me. “Painting and drawing have taught me to see and remember. The hand moving on any surface with brush or pencil is a major activity of the unconscious and conscious mind. One must be absolutely ready to let the hand activate its power. It is an adventure and a gamble.”

He quotes designer William Morris as writing to his painter friend Edward Burne-Jones, “If any man has any poetry in him, he should paint …

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In one of the quirkiest cases of backward cross-fertilisation, John Cage was so inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “white painting” (blank canvasses that Cage called “mirrors of the air”) that later the same year he composed his most famous work, 4’33”, at which a pianist sits quietly at the keyboard but does not touch it.

Left-handed violinist Paul Klee was talented in music and art. He ultimately embraced art, dropping the confines of music altogether and becoming a leading avant-garde painter.

Like Hough, I too find release in painting, sometimes spontaneously. I am often seized by the impulse to sketch a player when I see him or her emotionally high in public. Musicians’ faces and body language provide great material for the artist, inspiring my approach to their portraits — joyful, tragic or just deep concentration.

There is a peculiar pleasure in portraiture. The artist must take an intimate, even intrusive, approach to detail, exploring the eyes, noses and lips – their crinkles, wrinkles and folds — to make the subject come alive. An expressive face can reveal something of the individual’s inner life, and that is what I seek. It takes time to study these faces. The English painters John Singer Sargent and Lucian Freud were known for their multiple false starts in oils, scraping away the face and starting over and over. Leonardo da Vinci invested five years, off and on, in his “Mona Lisa”.

Conductors are some of the most emotive performers in public. Yutaka Sado, Kent Nagano, Paul Daniel, and of course Leonard Bernstein lose themselves in the music. I have seen Bernstein leap so joyfully that both feet left the podium at the same time.

Studying faces puts the artist in a spooky symbiosis with his or her subject. I know I have captured the pianist when I can hear the music or see the subject come to life. I stop short of a related spookiness, however, in the very spiritual conductor Seiji Ozawa who also gets that “miraculous” chill. Intensive study of an orchestral score eventually gives him the feeling that it is his music, that he composed it.

Music can get inside you that way.

 

* My collection of portraits of musicians is available at Amazon


Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.

 

 

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