For my June residency, I plan to provide museum-goers with an alternate visitor’s guide that highlights works in the de Young which contain musical or sonic characteristics. Last week, I met up with Kevin B. Chen at the museum. In addition to being an excellent curator and visual artist, Kevin is also the Manager of Artist Programs at the de Young. We explored the entire museum and found about 80 items with some kind of aural quality.
We found many depictions in painting and sculpture of music being played, such as this rattle-holding earthenware figure from Mexico, circa 6th-8th century A.D.
This 1958 painting by Ted Jones is titled “Bird Lives!” Bird was the nickname of saxophonist Charlie Parker, and when Parker died in 1955, Ted Jones inscribed the words “Bird Lives” throughout the streets of New York City.
This detail of the 1806 piece “Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique” by Jean-Gabriel Charvet and Joseph Dufour depicts dancing, drumming, and flutes played with the nose.
A flute is also featured in Jerome Thompson’s pastoral painting “Recreation” from 1857.
A guitar, the musician’s face, hands, and sheet music stand out against the dark background of “A Bohemian.” It was painted in 1885 by Dennis Miller Bunker.
A cello, pianos, and sheet music are all depicted in Edwin Walter Dickinson’s “The ‘Cello Player” from 1924-26.
In some pieces, musical features are hidden in the details. A little drummer boy plays in the shadows of William Glackens’ “May Day, Central Park,” ca.1904.
Despite claiming that music “is the enemy of painters” in his book “50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship,” Salvador Dalí included a small trumpet player in his 1942 “Portrait of Dorothy Spreckels Munn.”
These tiny drum sculptures are among the many small African pieces from the collection of Klaus and Ellen C. Werner.
This 19th century Angolan sculpture represents a mwanangara (paramount chief) playing a chisanji (thumb piano).
This detail of William Keane’s 1889 trompe l’oeil painting “The Old Banjo” shows a reproduction of sheet music which is clear enough to read.
Other paintings also imply sound that can be heard internally by the viewer. It’s not hard to imagine the broadband roar of falling water when facing these large paintings of Niagara and Horseshoe Falls by Gustav Grunewald, ca. 1832.
Janet Delaney’s South of Market exhibition features photos of San Francisco from the 1970s and 80s. A vinyl record rests on the grass in this detail of “Langton Park, Langton and Howard Streets.” I wonder what was recorded on it, and how many times a needle passed through its grooves.
A man wears headphones in “Neighbors Painting Mural on Langton between Folsom and Harrison Streets,” most likely plugged into a cassette Walkman.
There are also some actual instruments and sound sculptures in the collection. Their sounds can only be imagined now that they sit untouched by human hands. There’s a Soundsuit by the American sculptor Nick Cave, created in 2008.
(not to be confused with the Australian musician Nick Cave, although they have met)
There’s also an early 20th century harp (korikaariye) from Côte d’Ivoire, Africa. A female figure is carved into the bridge which held the strings, an embodiment of music’s ability to serve as a bridge to other states of consciousness.
A number of Bull-roarers can be found in the Oceania wing of the de Young. This one is from the Gulf of Papua.
Some works in the museum have titles that are musically evocative, such as Richard Mayhew’s 2002 painting, “Rhapsody,”
Arthur Frank Mathews’ “Song of the Sea (The Three Graces),” ca. 1909,
and Gottardo Piazzoni’s “Silence,” ca. 1912.
As we explored the museum, listening with our eyes, I also noticed how quiet or silent many of the other artworks seem. The building itself has a variety of acoustics, from intimate wood-lined rooms to large, resonant spaces. In June, the complete musical guide to the de Young will be available from my space in the Kimball Gallery, and visitors can use it to go on their own sonic scavenger hunt.
This post originally appeared on Periscope Project, the online component of my de Young residency.