Earlier this year I took the opportunity to revisit the Bonnard exhibition at Glyptoteket shortly before it closed. I had briefly visited the exhibition before, but hoped to spend a little more time with his wonderful paintings and listen to the soundscapes created by Peter Albrechtsen and Sun Hee Engelstoft, once again.
It was exactly those soundscapes1 that a guide, who had been sharing some fine insights on Bonnard’s paintings, was clearly irritated by. She felt that they talked down to the viewer. I too found that the spoken parts didn’t quite match the erudite explanations of the guide in their depth and provision of context, and that the attempts to simulate dialogue tend to pull one out of the painting rather than into it. But while I would prefer it if the soundscapes only included the ambient sounds, I do find them interesting and valuable as an extra element. Perhaps in the same way that a photograph can provide some interesting context and perspective on the painter’s choices, as is the case with one of Bonnard’s bathing scenes, the sounds can open up/add to the sense of space in the paintings (something Bonnard is already playing with).
I’m also simply curious as to what the environment Bonnard painted in sounded like? This is an aspect the Chris Watson picks up on in his audio ‘repsonse’ to Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s Lake Keitele
Painters are affected by the acoustics of their environment. The sounds in and around Lake Keitele will have been impressed into that painting… One of the things I’d like people to take away from the experience of looking at the painting and listening to my soundscape is to browse round other landscape paintings, particularly landscape paintings in the National Gallery, and imagine how they might sound. These aren’t silent worlds, they’re full of sound, so I’d encourage people to go and listen, to tune in for themselves.
On the other hand, thinking back to David Toop’s lecture on sound in paintings, I find many of Bonnard’s canvases almost solely visual. Unlike the Vermeer that Bonnard had pinned up on his wall, I don’t find much invitation to conjure up the sounds. It’s a very strongly visual universe.
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Glypoteket’s new special exhibition, The Road to Palmyra, on the other hand, benefits greatly from the soundscapes added to it. Some, as in the sequence outlining Palmyra’s history are perhaps a little too illustrative for my taste, but in an exhibition that is so much based around sculpture, the sound contributes a lot to the experience. It’s also more tightly integrated into the exhibition – I particularly enjoyed being able to hear some snippets of Arameic up against Greek versions of the same text, for example.
In another section sculpted heads of individuals that were placed in front of their tombs, were paired with spoken fragments, emphasising the very personal nature of these works. Here the sound aspect and its presentation is on the verge of transforming the whole into something new in its own right, almost like some kind of Cardiff Miller installation.
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