Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Da Vinci’s synesthetic suggestion found favor on a recent rainy Thursday at the YUAG, where art, poetry and music came together, allowing an audience to see, hear and feel the ethos of the Romantic period.
The poetry and music were part of “The Critique of Reason”, a new art exhibition put on by the YUAG and the YCBA next door — surprisingly, the first collaboration between the two. The evening began with a concert in the YUAG’s auditorium, consisting of two string quartets performed by students from the School of Music. The audience was next treated to readings of Romantic poetry meant to complement the paintings exhibited four floors above.
After a tiring day of math class and number-crunching, I, for one, was ready to enjoy some beautiful Romantic melodies. “The Harp,” Beethoven’s string quartet in E-Flat Major, balanced melancholy with occasional and much-appreciated bursts of vigor and energy, and was followed by the haunting tones of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. The sudden shifts between tension and tranquility in both pieces evoked a strong and unique emotion, perhaps the “sublime” state that Romantic art often strove for. The masterful rendition of both quartets was uplifting, yet I could not help feeling that my enjoyment didn’t deepen or broaden my appreciation of the actual exhibition.
In this pleasant but confused state of mind, I made my way up to the fourth floor for the second (and undoubtedly more exciting) part of the evening: the artwork and poetry. Six undergraduates who had taken Paul Fry’s “Romantic Poetry” last semester stood by their paintings of choice in different rooms of the exhibition. Each recited one or two works of poetry from the same period as the painting they had chosen.
Well-matched paintings and poems gave me a new appreciation for the aura of the Romantic period. Some combinations, like Alison Hutchison’s ’15 recital of Percy Shelley’s “Clouds” against John Constable’s “Cloud Studies,” exemplified the Romantic spirit and its traditional associations with landscapes and the celebration of nature; the image that the poem created in my mind perfectly matched Constable’s painting, enhancing the effect of both. In contrast to that classic Romanticism, Devika Mittal’s ’15 subtle and poignant recital of two Byron compositions alongside Pierre Paul Prudion’s “A Grief Stricken Family” and Ary Scheffer’s “The Retreat of Napoleon’s Army from Russia in 1812” exposed me to the more human side of Romanticism, far removed from ideal scenes of natural splendor. Although the subject matter diverged from Hutchison’s pairing, the synergy remained: The wounded soldiers in Scheffer’s painting seemed to have emerged straight from the conclusion of Byron’s “Lara.”
Yet not all poems were meant to recreate the scenes they accompanied, and many made me look differently at the paintings in front of me. Eleanor Michotte’s ’15 articulate performance of Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight” against George Romney’s “Ann Wilson with her daughter, Sybil” — perhaps my favorite moment of the evening — juxtaposed a simple mother-daughter portrait with a wistful dream of an ideal childhood, untainted by industrialization, many Romantics viewed skeptically. And Hutchison’s recital of Wordsworth’s “Idiot Boy” against Gustave Courbet’s “Hunter on Horseback” breathed life into a rather still scene by weaving an imaginary story around the figure in the painting.
Despite the enjoyable music and the effective pairings of paintings with poems, the exhibition’s three components seemed somewhat scattered, and it was hard to find a single cohesive message or idea connecting the three: The music that opened the evening seemed somewhat out of place, and upon arrival on the fourth floor, viewers were allowed to wander at will, without a set order. But was this an unintended consequence or a deliberate attempt to celebrate the Romantic “critique of reason” by abstaining from a prescribed order? As the evening drew to a close, I still wasn’t sure. I guess some stories are best left untold.