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The Sound of Pictures
David Galloway
All art continually aspires to the condition of music.
Walter Pater
In the Spring of 2011, I learned that the Düsseldorf artist Hermann-Josef Kuhna had been
invited to exhibit his paintings the following year at the Opera House in Halle an der Salle,
birthplace of George Fridrich Handel. Half jokingly, I asked if the works on view would relate
in any way to the composer’s extraordinary achievements. In fact, the rhythmic structures of
Kuhna’s distinctive style, which I once described as “pointillistic abstraction,” seemed ideally
suited to such a confrontation. As the general concept took shape, I wrote to the artist, “More
and more, this seems to me a magnificent chance to produce an extensive, interconnected
cycle of paintings.” The exchanges and researches that followed would eventually lead to a
very special dialogue – one might almost say “collaboration” – between a painter and a
In April of 2011, Kuhna asked for my advice on beginning the project, and I recommended
that he listen to a new recording of Handel’s Rinaldo with Rolando Villazón in the title role.
At the same time, I suggested he might find inspiration in Giulio Cesare in Egitto – that
bloodthirsty but stately drama of jealousy, envy, and ambition that nonetheless concludes with
a triumphant public declaration of love by Caesar and Cleopatra. Completed in December of
2011, Giulio Cesare became the first work in The Handel Cycle. Together with three other
paintings – Orlando, Ariodante and Il trionfo del Tempo – it would be exhibited at the Opera
House in Halle in October of the following year. Meanwhile, Kuhna had begun to acquaint
himself with the life and achievements of George Fridrich Handel – the German immigrant
who came to be regarded as an English national treasure. Of his 42 operas, 36 premiered in
England, and the composer became a naturalized citizen of Great Britain in 1727. (His strong
Saxon accent would remain, however, and attempts by contemporaries to transcribe his
manner of speaking are the stuff of comedy.) Handel’s early fame derived from the
introduction of Italian opera to London, but he also founded or managed opera companies and
traveled throughout Europe to engage the most popular singers of the day, including the
celebrated castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi) and the rival divas Faustina Bordoni and
Francesca Cuzzoni.
Always attuned to the realities of a competitive market, he employed elaborate theatrical
effects, from pyrotechnics to flying dragons, aimed at amusing a public unaccustomed to
sitting still for long. Taking a promenade before the stage was a common practice, and
uninspiring passages in a score were sometimes bridged by animated conversation.
Honored and rewarded in his lifetime, though also crassly plagiarized and crudely parodied,
he was buried in state in Westminster Abbey in 1759 with 3,000 mourners in attendance –
including the royal family, ensconced in a box built specially for the occasion. (Together with
Johann Sebastian Bach and Henry Purcell, Handel has his own feast day, July 28, in the
liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church.) Handel would provide the subject for the first
book-length study of the life and work of a single musician – John Mainwaring’s Memoirs of
the Life of the Late George Fridrich Handel, published only a year after the composer’s death.
If his operatic achievements faded into obscurity for the two centuries that followed, the
oratorios – above all, the Messiah – assured him a continuous presence in the world of music.
London’s Grand Handel Festival, inaugurated in 1857 at the Crystal Place, was the first such
series dedicated to the achievements of a single composer, though Handel’s legacy had been
elaborately celebrated in 1784 on the one-hundreth anniversary of his birth, the twenty-fifth
anniversary of his death.
Among numerous spectacular events, the highpoint was offered by two performances of the
Messiah at Westminster Abbey, with no fewer than 525 musicians. George II was intensely
involved in preparations for the festival.
One of Handel’s first and most enthusiastic patrons was Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover,
whom Handel served as Kapellmeister at Hanover for a brief period of time, and who in 1714
became King
George I of England – another “German immigrant” making good in the British Isles. Handel,
who had settled permanently in England in 1712, composed a Te Deum to welcome the new
monarch and shortly thereafter the four Coronation Anthems, performed by forty singers and
160 instrumentalists. Numerous royal commissions would follow, though few enjoyed such
spectacular approval as the orchestral suite of twenty two movements popularly known as the
Water Music that Handel composed and performed for His Majesty in 1717. The occasion
was an excursion on the Thames with the King and his friends on one barge, Handel with fifty
musicians on another. The composition lasted a full hour, but His Majesty requested it be
repeated three times. Patronage was immensely important for artists of Handel’s time, and the
King’s enthusiastic support of the Royal Academy of Music, with Handel as director, opened
many doors for the composer. George I had long been a fierce supporter of his operas, as
Handel acknowledged when he dedicated Radamisto to the monarch in 1720. (One
contemporary, Lord John Hervey, reported that the King’s devotion was such that “an antiHandelist was looked upon as an anti-courtier.”) Nor did royal enthusiasm wane with the
death of George I in 1727. Handel, who had known his successor, the future King George II,
as a child, was quoted as saying at the time, “So long as that boy lives, my music will never
want a protector.”
Handel’s relationship to the royal family was deepened by his duties as tutor to the
granddaughters of George I, for which he received a lifelong pension, while royal
commissions had long provided a significant part of his income. It thus comes as no surprise
that his librettos often focus on the fate and legitimation of powerful rulers. With Giulio
Cesare in Egitto, two proud, passionate monarchs (premiered by the superstars Senesino and
Francesca Cuzzoni) were pitted against each other, only to be united by love in the triumphant
conclusion. Such was the emotionally charged drama that Hermann-Josef Kuhna transposed
into the first work of The Handel Cycle, which would ultimately include fourteen largeformat paintings. At first glance, there is little to distinguish Giulio Cesare from preceding
works by the artist. In an unpublished essay entitled “Tone Colors and Color Tones,” Manfred
Schneckenburger described Kuhna’s distinctive style in the following way: “Since the late
1970s, Kuhna’s painterly oeuvre has been based on a pulsating amalgam of colored flecks that
thicken to a teeming chromatic texture. All the colors communicate with each other, seeking
answers: affirming, negating, forming complementary contrasts.”
Schneckenburger’s description might be applied to Giulio Cesare, as well, and yet a subtle
structural difference emerges here: Brushstrokes are dense, even tangled, at the bottom of the
picture, but rise from there into a field more light, open, and airy. Figuratively, the
composition moves out of the darkness and into the light, mounting from confusion to
resolution – like the opera itself. Previously, Kuhna had approached each new canvas in terms
of an overall composition, working more or less randomly over the entire expanse. The
paintings in The Handel Cycle, in contrast, all adopt the basic structuring of Giulio Cesare,
building upward from a “bottom line” that establishes the colors used and the “idiom” of the
brushstrokes themselves. Establishing a color code for each work was an entirely subjective
process that began with a careful study of the libretto. “The story,” says Kuhna, “was always
more important than the music itself.” Even in the past, the artist often listened to music while
he worked – from French chansons to Pink Floyd, even grand operas of the nineteenth
century, yet he never considered transposing a specific piece of music. While producing the
Handel paintings, however, the artist listened solely to the operas he had chosen. “It just
didn’t work otherwise,” he says. “Then I’d rather have silence.” As the series progressed, the
scheme introduced in Giulio Cesare became more and more refined. “Whether the curving
streams that flow through the ocean of splotches and tiny squares can be seen as analogous to
the (moderately) ornamented compositions of Handel,” according to Schneckenburger, “is left
to the discretion of the eye and ear of the observer.”
The larger question raised by this series is that of the age-old, multivalenced relationship
between painting and music. Handel himself “had a great love for painting,” according to his
contemporary John Hawkins, who in 1776 published an astute sketch of the composer’s
career. Handel amassed a collection of 145 prints and paintings, including a work by
Rembrandt, as well as his own portraits and those of close friends. Among his most favorite
subjects were ones familiar to aficionados of his operas: historical themes, hunting and battle
scenes, mythological and Biblical stories. Musical instruments often appear in such
compositions, as they do in historical still lifes, vanitas pictures and, at the turn of the last
century, in paintings by Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Paul Cézanne.
Since the eighteenth century, visual artists have often created backdrops for opera and ballet
or even designed entire productions. The architect Inigo Jones, who is credited with
introducing the proscenium arch and movable scenery to the English stage, designed more
than five hundred theatrical productions. The most prolific artist-as-opera-designer in our own
day is David Hockney, whose first work for the stage was Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s
Progress, based in turn on a series of eight paintings by William Hogarth, which premiered at
the Glyndebourne Festival in 1975. Hogarth, who knew Handel, may well have painted his
portrait and joined him in suppor ting London’s Foundling Hospital, created biting satirical
reprises on the fashions and foibles of London – including the adulation accorded “imported”
Italian opera singers. They, of course, frequently sat for their portraits, and inexpensive prints
made them familiar to a wide audience.
The theme of music and art is thus intriguingly complex. Even reduced to the immediate
interrelationship of painting and music, the permutations are remarkable. The subject was
explored in encyclopedic detail in the exhibition Vom Klang der Bilder (Concerning the
Sound of Pictures) at the Stuttgart Staatsgalerie in 1985. On the whole, music based on
paintings is more common than paintings based on music. Artists are more likely to use music
atmospherically. Jackson Pollock listened to jazz in order to reach what he regarded as a
higher state of mental clarity. As his wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner once remarked, “Jazz?
He thought it was the only other really creative thing that was happening in the country.” In
theme and structuring and coloration, a painting (like a poem) more directly invites a
transformation. An entire oeuvre can also provide the inspiration, as in Modest Mussorgsky’s
Pictures at an Exposition. In this suite for piano, composed in 1874, Mussorgsky evoked a
musical promenade through imaginary rooms of paintings and watercolors by his friend
Viktor Hartmann, who had died abruptly at the age of 39. In the case of such iconic works as
Arnold Böcklin’s haunting Toteninsel, major compositions exist by both Claude Debussy and
Sergei Rachmaninov, while Picasso’s Guernica has inspired numerous musical compositions,
including a symphony by Leonardo Balada (1966), an elegy by Walter Steffens (1974/78),
and a soundtrack for the film Guernica, composed by René-Louis Baron in 2008. Steffens has
frequently created musical reprises on paintings, including works by Hieronymus Bosch, Paul
Klee, Franz Marc, and Jesús Rafael Soto. Because of its refined graphic quality, the original
score for Steffens’ Guernica has been exhibited as a work of art in its own right, offering yet
another crossover phenomenon. In fact, the blurring of boundaries is demonstrated by the very
language applied to musical and painterly compositions, as Manfred Schneckenburger points
out in the following essay “Tone in Tone and Other Tones.” In addition to the word “tone”
and to “composition” itself, the aesthetic mutuality yields rhythm, resonance, counterpoint,
mood, harmony, motif, chromatics, and shading. It was with the birth of pure abstraction at
the beginning of the last century that this interrelationship became the subject of extended
critical discourse. A central document in the discourse was Wassily Kandinsky’s highly
influential treatise of 1912, Über das Geistige in der Kunst (Concerning the Spiritual in Art),
in which he argued, “Generally speaking, color is a power which directly influences the soul
(i.e. the feelings). Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with
many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause
vibrations in the soul.” Under the effects of synesthesia, Kandinsky literally saw sound in
terms of specific colors: bright yellow for the trumpet, light blue for the flute, dark blue for
the cello, and so on throughout the entire orchestra. (Beethoven had described the B-minor
key as black, D-major as orange. Schubart regarded E-minor as “a maiden robed in white with
a rose-colored bow on her chest.”) In a lesser-known work entitled Punkt und Linie zu Fläche
(Point and Line to Plane), published by the Bauhaus University in 1926, Kandinsky offers an
analysis of “primal points” as the most fundamental building blocks of painting. What he has
to say about the interaction of colors and “tonal points,” in particular, is amply affirmed by
The Handel Cycle. Hermann-Josef Kuhna thus aligns himself to a tradition that is central to
Modernism itself. Furthermore, he does so with a cycle of fourteen paintings that draw
inspiration from fourteen operas covering nearly the entire span of Handel’s achievements in
the genre: from Agrappina, premiered in Venice in 1709, to his penultimate opera, Idomeneo,
first staged in London in 1740. (The actual span of operatic compositions was from 1705 to
1741.)* Yet it is not merely the size and scope of The Handel Cycle that makes it so
remarkable, but also its formal innovations. Kuhna’s distinctive signature is immediately
recognizable, and yet he has found for each opera a distinctive idiom in which figure, ground,
and color are in a continuous state of interaction. Freed of any objective duty, these pictures
approach that “condition of music” extolled by Walter Pater.
David Galloway
*It is primarily for this reason that I have chosen “the Handel chronology” in ordering the works
presented here. The month and year in which Kuhna completed each painting is indicated below the
title. A one-to-one detail from each work reveals the contours of the “primal points” from which it was