This summer Beyonce and Jay Z made international headlines filming a music video inside the Louvre with some of the most dramatic art masterpieces from across three millennia. See Zuzanna Stanska’s article for a fascinating exploration of this.
This celebrity couple are known to be art collectors, but let’s remember that the relationship between visual art and music has been around for much, much longer.
Visual art has inspired songs from many different musical genres. From classical to heavy metal, from opera to old crooners, from musicals to hip hop. Let’s take a whistle-stop tour of some of the best, and worst!
Nat King Cole ‘Mona Lisa’ 1950
“Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa? Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?”
Nat King Cole’s melting voice croons to us about love and the beauty of the mysterious Mona Lisa. This slow piano ballad, sung with that warm voice ruled the charts in 1950.
David Bowie ‘Andy Warhol’ 1971
The enigmatic Bowie celebrates the wide-ranging Pop Art career of Andy Warhol, but contemporary anecdotes tell us that Andy Warhol didn’t like the song. When Bowie played it for him for the first time, there was an awkward silence followed by Warhol saying to Bowie, “I like your shoes.”
Interestingly, 25 years later, in 1996, Bowie played Warhol in Julian Schnabel’s film about artist Jean Michel Basquiat.
Don McLean ‘Vincent’ 1971
“You took your life, as lovers often do, but I could’ve told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.”
The very same year that Bowie sings of Warhol, American singer/songwriter Don McLean pens a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. The haunting lyrics specifically reference the blue and dark tones of ‘The Starry Night’ painting contrasting with the golden shine of the stars in the background.
Van Gogh also inspired classical musicians. Henri Dutilleux’s orchestral work ‘Timbre, Space, Movement’ references the very same ‘Starry Night’ painting, and Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara wrote both an opera and a symphony about Van Gogh’s life.
Ottorino Respighi ‘Botticelli Tryptich’ 1927
This symphony was inspired by three paintings by Sandro Botticelli. ‘Spring’, ‘The Birth of Venus’ and ‘The Adoration of the Magi’. One of Botticelli’s most famous paintings, ‘Primavera’ (‘Spring’) is an early Renaissance work featuring mythological figures like Venus, Cupid and Mercury, and is considered one of the most popular and most controversial paintings in the world.
Brian and Michael ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’ 1978
“I’m sure he once walked down our street, cos he painted kids who had nowt on their feet”
This made number one in the British music charts and played for 19 weeks, much to the consternation of trendy young pop fans who winced at the sentimental chorus sung by the children of St Winifred’s school choir. The ‘one hit wonder’ song was a loving tribute to artist L. S. Lowry who had died two years earlier. Laurence Stephen Lowry was an English artist who painted distinctive figures from his Lancashire homeland.
Coldplay ‘Viva la Vida’ 2008
British rock band Coldplay play fast and loose with artistic imagery in their 2008 single and album, both called ‘Viva la Vida.’ Claiming to be inspired by the final painting by Frida Kahlo, Coldplay front-man Chris Martin said that the idea behind the album is Frida Kahlo’s strength to face hardships and yet still celebrate life. He told ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine:
“She went through a lot of pain, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said ’Viva la vida’ I just loved the boldness of it.”
The lyrics to the song contain historical and Christian references, but no mention of their original inspiration. The magpie instinct of ‘borrowing’ from other artists continues on the album cover and music video, which both pay a debt to ‘Liberty Guiding the People’ by Eugene Delacroix.
‘Rake’s Progress’ An operatic libretto by Igor Stravinsky, W. H. Auden, and Chester Kallman 1951
‘The Rake’s Progress’ is a narrative series of paintings by William Hogarth. The story is that of Tom Rakewell, a young man who inherits his father’s vast fortune but squanders it away on drinking and gambling. His life collapses around him and in the end, he is incarcerated as a lunatic at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Stravinsky had seen the Hogarth paintings in 1947 in Chicago and collaborated with Auden and Kallman on an opera based around this tragic tale.
‘La Mer’ Claude Debussy 1905
This iconic classical piece by the famous French composer was apparently inspired by the equally iconic ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Katsushika Hokusai. One of the most recognisable pieces of Japanese art, ‘The Great Wave’ is one of a series of panels focused around Japan’s Mount Fuji. Debussy produces a rich and evocative aural depiction of the wild and natural force of the sea.
‘Isle of the Dead’ Sergei Rachmaninoff 1908
After viewing the painting ‘Die Toteninsel’ by Arnold Bocklin in France in 1907, Rachmaninoff composed a brooding and ominous symphonic poem named Isle of the Dead. Bocklin, in fact, painted a whole series of these images, but all show a similar scene of a desolate island with a grove of cypress trees, and a small rowboat carrying a coffin and a white-clothed mourning figure. The painting has also inspired other visual artists like Salvador Dali, and even featured in the 1933 RKO film ‘King Kong.’
Stephen Sondheim musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ 1984
Seurat painted ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of Grand Jatte’ in 1884. This very famous painting is a perfect example of Seurat’s technique of pointillism, a technique using simple dots of varying colour grouped together to form a discernible image. The painting shows a peaceful scene at a park near the River Seine in France. One hundred years later Stephen Sondheim is inspired by the painting to fictionalise the life of Seurat into an award-winning musical.
So, that’s just a handful of examples. You may disagree with my choices, or if you feel I’ve left out your own personal favourite, please share it in the comments! The artistic inspiration highway goes both ways of course – Wassily Kandinsky had synesthesia which allowed him to create amazing paintings based on the music he listened to.
Now there’s an idea for another article – paintings inspired by music! Any suggestions?!
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