CONNECT THE DOTS #1: “A WALK IN THE PARK”

Prokofiev Lowell Seurat.jpgWelcome to the first episode of Connect the Dots! This is a series where I connect the dots between three seemingly disparate art pieces (one each from the realms of visual art, music, and literature) that are linked by their shared poetic impression. New episodes are published every Wednesday at 8pm (EST). If you haven’t already, hit subscribe at the bottom of the page to get new posts delivered straight to your inbox.

Today, the 3 works in focus are:

1. “Bath” from Spring Day by Amy Lowell. Published in 1916 America, “Bath” is a prime example of imagist poetry, which emphasizes clear and simple language that captures reality in its true, unadorned essence. For copyright reasons, read it here.

2. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. This painting, from 1884-1886 France, is one of the largest and most famous examples of pointillism.

Housed at the Art Institute of Chicago, the enormous painting measures 2 by 3 meters. Here it is, via Wikimedia Commons:

4096px-Georges_Seurat_-_A_Sunday_on_La_Grande_Jatte_--_1884_-_Google_Art_Project

3. “Comodo” from Vision fugitives (Op. 22) by Sergei Prokofiev. Composed in 1915-1917 Russia, “Comodo” (sometimes spelled as “commodo”) is one of the twenty short piano pieces, or “visions,” that make up Visions fugitives. Lasting no more than two minutes each, each vision paints entire worlds of coloristic impression.

Here is a beautiful recording by the great Russian pianist, Boris Berman, via YouTube (“Comodo” is at the 7:27-8:45 minute mark).


Connections abound between this trio of works. Let’s get right into it…

Connection 1 – Expansion of time and resulting feeling of neutral contentment

Despite differences in subject matter, all three works make the audience feel a similar way. Specifically, each work conjures a feeling of neutral contentedness, brought on by the slowing down of relative time as experienced by the audience.

For example, the poem evokes an expansion of time through the use of a free-flowing meter along with the languid subject matter of a daytime bath. As we read the poem, we are transported to a bubble universe, suspended from the worries that concern our daily lives. We are led by the speaker to take the time to notice the details that we often overlook in our constant hurry — details such as how sunlight fractures bathwater in gemlike patterns. When we are woken back into our own reality by the crow flying outside the window, mentioned in the final line, we have effectively taken a bath alongside the speaker. For just a moment, time seemed to stand still as we washed ourselves in neutral contentment.

Time stretches out in a similar way in the painting. A Sunday on La Grande Jatte is not an image whose full effect can be taken in all at once. Instead, the winding placement of the people and objects invites our eyes to take a meandering walk into the picture plane, the process of which can take many minutes (see Fig. 1 below). Because the people are faceless, and because they are not all looking at one shared focal point, each character in this picture seems equally interchangeable with another. Thus, as we take our visual walk into the park, we do not linger on any particular spot for long. The resulting slow but steady flow of our gaze creates a sense of time expanding.

Comparing eye pace between Goya and Seurat
Fig. 1: Notice how the eyes are hit with an instantaneous impact from the painting on the left  contrasting with how the eyes are forced to meander slowly through the painting on the right.

Similarly, Prokofiev’s piano piece creates a sense of spaciousness and flow through its tempo marking of comodo — literally meaning “comfortable,” the lack of development of its theme, wheel-like patterns of the accompaniment figures, the prevalence of consonances instead of dissonances, and the starting of phrases on the upbeat rather than the downbeat (see Fig. 2). Taken together, this minute-long composition sounds like something out of a music box that could keep winding on forever. There is no climax, no strong pull towards a single point. As a result, we are led into a gentle, flowing walk, where barlines and deadlines are of little consideration.

Themes entering on upbeat in Prokofiev's Comodo
Fig. 2: Notice how the themes are entering on the weak upbeat instead of the strong downbeat of each bar. This creates a gentle sense of flow.

Connection 2 – Play of light and balance of colors

Another commonality between the poem, painting, and piece is the way in which each work focuses on the play of light and balance of colors, altogether creating a calming mood that is free of extreme emotions.

For instance, the poem describes how the light cuts the water like a jewel as well as how the water is so many different shades of green-blue. The attention to light lends an airiness to the poem, whereas the predominance of green-blue brings on a sense of calmness. As a result, we experience a feeling of calming lightness.

How light interacts with matter is further expounded in the painting. The pointillistic technique that Seurat used here draws the audience’s attention to the the play of light. Furthermore, the choice of green and blue as the colors of the environment, just as in case of the poem, evokes a feeling of peace and well-being.

Seurat went a step further in enhancing this sense of balance by dotting the scene with complementary colors: the red accents balance out the green plants, and so forth (see red arrows in Fig. 3).

Yet another step further, Seurat painted a colorful frame around the scene of the park.  The colors he used are not chosen at random, but are in fact complementary colors to whatever that part of the frame is directly adjacent to. For instance, if the frame is near a green tree, that piece of the frame would be red (see yellow boxes in Fig. 3). As such, even though the scene is so busily peppered with all kinds of colors and shapes, the balance of complementary colors both inside the scene and between the frame and the scene maintains a sense of neutrality, calmness, and harmony.

Complemetary colors balancing each other out in The Grande Jatte
Fig. 3: Red arrows: Observe how for all the green there is in this painting, there are anchors of red to balance it out. This is because red is complementary to green (opposite on the color wheel). Yellow boxes: Notice how each part of the drawn-in frame balances out the color directly adjacent to it. Thus, there is a red frame adjacent to a green area of the painting, an orange frame adjacent to a blue area of the painting, and so forth.

Speaking of harmony, the piano piece plays with light and color in its own special way. The accompanying figurations shimmer in undulating patterns, much like how the “[l]ittle spots of sunshine… wobble deliciously over the ceiling” (Lowell 5-6) in Lowell’s poem or how the pointillistic brushstrokes bring airiness into Seurat’s painting. Especially in the final iteration of the theme, cast in high register, we can really hear the kaleidoscopic accompaniment glimmer gently like little dots of light. The effect for the listener is a feeling of lightness.

Furthermore, much like how Seurat balanced out the cool tones in his painting with warm ones, Prokofiev grounded the shimmering accompaniments with an unflagging, distinct melody in a warm, middle register. The result for the listener is a feeling of comfortable stability, balanced by the lightness mentioned before.

Connection 3 – Individual and its environment

Third, all three works feature a distinct individual surrounded by its atmospheric environment, with the focus always on the sensorial world outside rather than the psychological world within. The effect on the audience is the feeling of gently flowing in the present.

In the poem, the speaker is an individual that is distinct from the water and light that surrounds him/her. Yet, even though the entire poem is narrated in first person, we do not learn anything about the speaker except for the fact that he/she is taking a bath. There is no internal reflection, nor yearning for the future or memories of the past. The speaker is tethered to us only by his/her sensorial experience of the present. Indeed, the opening and closing of this poem both elude to smell, the sense that is borne most of all by the ephemeral present. As a result, we brought into an awareness of the present that is free from past or future.

Likewise, the painting depicts multiple individuals, each with their faces slightly blurred, and each keeping to only themselves and their immediate surroundings. We take in the scene of the park without knowing anything about the internal worlds of any individual. Instead, we are led to focus on the outward, superficial appearance of each person in his/her surrounding.

In much the same way, the musical piece presents a melodic theme that is neither minor nor major three times, each time surrounded by a different accompaniment. We can easily imagine each iteration of the theme as an individual, distinct from its environment but continuously surrounded by it, all the while being just as interchangeable as another. Indeed, we are not concerned so much about the specific features of each iteration of the theme as we are about the superficial impressions of each present moment. Thus, the piece, like the poem and picture, focuses on the present. There is no judgement of the past or planning for the future. We are simply watching, listening, feeling… in the simple neutrality of now.

Theme highlighted in Comodo by Prokofiev
Fig 4: Notice how a distinct, melodic theme enters three times, each time surrounded by a different accompaniment. Because the theme is always presented in the middle register, the piece feels grounded and comfortable no matter how elaborate and high-pitched the accompanying figurations become.

Conclusion

All in all, the trio we explored today are linked subtly but clearly by the way they:

  1. make the audience feel a sense of neutral contentedness
  2. play with light and balance colors, thereby creating a sense of balance, and
  3. focus on the ephemeral and sensorial present

I hope that through our exploration, you learned about some new works and look upon familiar works with newly-washed eyes. Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to check back next week for more adventures in music, art, and literature!


Further Reading
The full score for Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives can be found on imslp.org or by clicking here.
A full-resolution scan of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte can be found via Wikimedia Commons or by clicking here.
A full-resolution scan of Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco de Goya (the painting on the left in Fig. 1) can be found via Wikimedia Commons or by clicking here.

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