The Arts, the Senses, and the Imagination
by Robert Millar on October 18th, 2014

Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven
by Oswald Barrett ('Batt'), oil on canvas, 1937
Royal Academy of Music Collections
This is one of my favorite portraits of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), painted by Oswald Barrett (who used the name “Batt” in his work) in 1937. It is the result of five years of research, and was intended to be one in a series of works depicting him in 1800, 1812, and 1826. The painter wrote:

“… one has to be an artist, musician, and detective rolled into one --- I searched back into time through every scrap of data, letters, biographies, etc., until I filtered out the very essence of the man and arrived at an aspect which must have been some phase of his existence as a human being, without any superimposed romance, legend or imagination. When I set to work on it I got so absorbed in it, partly because of my interest in the subject, and partly because I experienced difficulties of an abnormal kind. Because of the intensity of the vision I had, I dared not use any sort of model, and had to 'paint from life' without doing so. With a living model before me, a confusion between the character of the model and the character of my vision, which had been growing for five years, would have been inevitable. So I had to achieve the conviction and vitality of a painting from life without painting from life! ... I know there is probably more of the real Beethoven in it than in any other portrait, with the possible exception of the Klein bust, but that doesn't go all the way. But it is such a limitless subject that whatever one achieved, there would always be something more. The complete Beethoven could not be put into one portrait ... there was too much of him, and he changed so much; that is why I wanted to paint a series of him.”

The following work also appears to have been part of his continuing work on the series:
Plate 14 from The Oxford Companion to Music
by Percy A Scholes, Ninth Edition, Oxford University Press 1960
I am particularly fond of these portraits because they show so clearly how the composer must have appeared to the world during his time and yet, ironically, how little that outer appearance revealed of the inner man. Oh yes, this is the Beethoven of the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, the first movement of the Opus 13 “Pathetique” and last movement of the Opus 14 “Moonlight” piano sonatas. But buried beneath the granite, angst, and drama of those kinds of works there existed a realm of very refined and poignant sensibilities wherein beauty, delicacy, longing, loneliness, hope, and even sublimity resided. In a previous post called BEETHOVEN’S STUFF I wrote about my personal experiences with some of Beethoven’s material possessions and how inadequate they proved to be in getting closer to the spirit of the man. And in the final analysis, isn’t the body just another “possession,” another material thing that we employ as a vehicle to carry out our daily activities? Isn’t it only as fully expressive of our inner worlds as we allow it to be?

Seeing the real-life Beethoven of these illustrations, many people were at least a little put off by him during his own time. They were often frightened or intimidated by both his appearance and his larger-than-life personality, as he could indeed be harsh and intimidating. And he appears to have been reluctant to let his softer side show for fear of ridicule, criticism, and rejection. So to “complete the coin,” so to speak, to show both sides of this incredible musical personality, here is an intimate peek into the other side of Beethoven’s nature to help give dimension to these portraits of the outer man. For Beethoven was not merely a man, he was an unfathomable pool in whose work we can all find our deepest selves reflected.

by Robert Millar on October 9th, 2014

I received an intriguing note from a student in one of my music classes today and thought I'd share my response.

Hi professor,

Since I am working on an honors project which is about the beauty of physical laws in nature, I also would like to know other different types of beauty besides science. I think the biggest motivation for scientists to do scientific research is the elegance of nature. I believe so do musicians. So I just wonder what the beauty of music is in your mind, or in other words why do people think music is beautiful and powerful? 

 Thank you:) 


Hi Stephan,

 Yes, I have heard these kinds of statements before when it comes to the arts, including music. My understanding of the scientific approach to beauty is that while it may include some appreciation for the innate aesthetic value of a subject, the concept of “elegance” is primarily based more on a keen appreciation for the amazing patterns, interrelationships, and apparent order that exist in nature. While all of this can produce feelings of awe and amazement, the experience is basically an intellectual one. The intellect perceives order (sometimes accompanied by aesthetic pleasure) and is gratified by the experience.

 In the arts, on the other hand, while the pleasure one takes in the perception of form and design definitely play a part in an artistic experience, the real core of their appreciation lies in the communication and experience of emotions and feelings. That is primarily what the arts are all about at their best. Simply put, an artist’s chief objective is to capture emotion, mood, feeling, atmosphere, etc., in such a way that it communicates clearly to an observer or, in the case of music, a listener. An individual encountering a work of art is challenged by the work to try and receive whatever the artist has tried to capture in the work, and he does this by referencing his own experiences in the realm of feelings, moods, etc. Finding his inner world reflected in a work of art is greatly satisfying --- sometimes profoundly. Yes, there is intellectual pleasure in the perception of design elegance in the arts, but the essence of the greatest artistic experiences is fundamentally not intellectual, but emotional. The experience of “beauty” in the arts is probably impossible to explain, although many have tried, because it transcends the intellect. It goes deeper into our souls, into terrain where words fail us and the only currency is feelings. Why is a certain phrase of music, or painting, or statue, or play, or novel beautiful to us? Because it speaks deeply to us in some way and mysteriously moves us by its expressive content.

 I am reminded of the attempt on the part of many people to correlate music and math. The assertion is usually made that they have a lot in common. Well, no they don’t. While there are mathematical elements in music, they are very basic and have little to do with the true purpose of the art --- expression. Math can never be expressive in the same way, it can only quantify and explain. Math turns back helplessly at the portals of emotion, mood and feeling.


Robert Millar

by Robert Millar on September 25th, 2014

Today is the birthday of the Russian composer, Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). He is one of my favorite composers for a number of reasons, but chiefly because in some of his music he had the ability to plunge very quickly and deeply into the soul of a listener, pushing aside all human defenses and arriving finally at a region of profound seriousness. There, he immerses us in an atmosphere of great gravity and intensity. It is a landscape marked by feelings of darkness, loneliness, and loss. Not a nice place to live, but strangely satisfying to visit. Most of us have been there at one time or another, and for him to have captured something of it in sound is a remarkable achievement. One of the great assets of classical music is its ability to pinpoint and explore areas of human experience rarely addressed by the more superficial aspects of life. Seeing our own inner lives understood and reflected back to us in music is somehow reassuring, for in that moment we come to understand that we are not alone.

This example is a Prelude from his Opus 87 collection of 24 Preludes and Fugues for piano. It is #4 in E Minor, played by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

by Robert Millar on September 23rd, 2014

Each year when Fall comes around , I am reminded that it’s  not just me who savors the season. At one time I thought my acute appreciation of Autumn was probably somewhat unique, as likely as not a natural occurrence related to the fact that my birthday is on the cusp of the season, and then I began noticing an ever-increasing avalanche of blog posts remarking on this time of year by people apparently no less appreciative of it than I. So much for uniqueness. Nevertheless, I can’t resist a post of my own for one of my favorite seasons.

Earlier in the life of this blog, I wrote at some length about Autumn, and one of the works presented here was included there but with more commentary. Rather than repeat myself here, I will simply supply a LINK to that previous post for anyone who may be interested.
For now I’d like to share the following two works. They’re so similar in affect that they might have been created by the same person. Each is illustrative of the other. Each powers straight through the senses and into our interior world of feelings, conveying volatile, barely-constrained passions.

Arthur Hacker- (1858-1919)
Oil on canvas - 1907

by Robert Millar on August 19th, 2014

I’ve always enjoyed exploring alternative ways of engaging with the Arts --- techniques that involve more than the use of the intellect alone. So many works seem to be trying to express something beyond the thoughts and concepts our intellects have the capacity to detect. These works invite us to rely on other ways of perceiving, ways that draw us intimately and immediately into a work of art --- sometimes bypassing the intellect completely. For example, here are five paintings for your consideration…

Woman in an Interior with a Mirror (1898)
by Carl Holsöe 1863-1935

Woman at a Sunny Window
by Carl Holsöe

Woman in Interior
by Carl Holsöe

The Milkmaid (circa 1658)
by Johannes Vermeer 1632-1675

Girl in the Mirror (1954)
Norman Rockwell  1894-1978
They are candid scenes of four women and a girl, all very adeptly painted. But there is apparently nothing much going on in them, no action to draw us in and command our attention or interest. If we were to encounter them in a gallery, we might be inclined to regard them briefly, remark to ourselves “Pleasant enough,” and without further ado move on to something more “interesting” and dynamic. If we were to do so, might we have missed anything important in them?
Sometimes in our eagerness to fit all of our “bucket list” items into our lives, a few good things we encounter on our path go unnoticed. Bucket lists seem mostly to be made up of experiences that promise to provide us with a sensational, lasting impact so strong, so deeply memorable that our lives will be forever changed ---- the WOW! moments of life. But hidden among such high-profile encounters there are often subtler ones which may be more understated but are equally rewarding in their own way, like tiny wildflowers growing unobtrusively in the seams and crevices of a magnificently forbidding granite crag. For example, all five of these paintings hold secrets that we won’t begin to penetrate if we give them only a cursory glance; subtle attributes that make them entirely worthy of our continued attention.
To begin with, they all have at least one thing in common besides the obvious fact that their subjects are all female….. and that is the silence that serves as a backdrop for each work. Is it a static, stagnant silence… the kind of silence that is mostly tedious and boring? My impression is that it is not. The silence in these works seems more like a stage upon which other elements come out to play their parts --- to engage in the action, so to speak. There is action in each of these paintings even within the apparent stillness, but it is action of an internal kind, rather than that of the external, physical variety. It is the gentle, nearly imperceptible action of thought, contemplation, reflection, feeling, and reaction to the sensory and psychological influences in each environment, both within the person in each painting and within us as we regard it. And although we cannot always identify the precise thoughts, feelings, and reactions being experienced by the subjects in these paintings, in each work we are able to enter into the ambience and mood of the surroundings that gave rise to them --- to vicariously experience the context that induced the feelings. In effect, each painter has set the stage for us and is now asking us, “Have you ever had an experience like this? Have you ever felt this way?”
The fact that Carl Holsöe has depicted the subjects in his works with their heads turned away from us, each individual preoccupied with her own thoughts, creates an intriguing air of mystery that gently beckons us to use our imagination to quietly step over the threshold of the frame and into the picture, to stand by invisibly, slowly absorbing the ambience of the room. If we allow ourselves to do so we will notice that in each of his works the lighting, in particular, has been marvelously reproduced to suggest a time of day. You will know about this if you have ever turned your attention to the qualities of natural light as it changes throughout the daytime, from the brilliant richness of morning, to the garish bleakness of the midafternoon, to the softer, gentler hues of late afternoon and early evening. Also, given the evidence of the women’s apparel we may hazard a rough estimate of the air temperature. And we can easily imagine what each room sounds like.  If we put those bits of sensory evidence together while taking note of each woman’s thoughtful bearing, and allow it all to simmer in our consciousness for a while, we find ourselves in a good position to begin to receive what Holsöe was trying to convey to us. This is not just a superficially decorative image intended to blend harmoniously with the other furnishings in someone’s home. He is not trying to convey an intellectual concept, nor a story, nor even a cogent thought. Instead, Holsöe’s expressive intent lives within an amorphous swirl of barely-perceptible, quite elusive feelings and impressions, and we can experience those feelings and impressions only if we will give ourselves over fully to their discovery. But we may find the necessary giving over to be difficult because it requires us to settle into a state of silence, stillness, and thoughtfulness and to try and perceive subtle states of feeling and mood that are taking place in our own interior lives.
A recent article in the New York Times by Kate Murphy, entitled “No Time to Think,” reminded me of these paintings and others like them, and also brought to mind the famous quote of Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” These writings remind us of the necessity for periods of introspection and quiet reflection in our lives if we are to absorb our experiences fully and understand the significance and wisdom that may be gleaned from them. The paintings go even further, however, by inviting us into the imaginary context of such active stillness, reminding us of what it feels like to be engaged in that contemplative process.

So let’s do that now. Pretend you have stepped into the first Holsöe work, Woman in an Interior with a Mirror.
What does it feel like to stand there witnessing the quality of the light, hearing nothing but the silence, feeling the air temperature, absorbing the effects of the hues and the shadows? What feelings or moods are created within you by it all? Linger in that world for a while --- however long it takes for you to fully gather in the whole experience. Luxuriate in the delicate enchantment of that atmosphere of softness and reflection. Can you enter fully into it? Have you ever experienced anything similar in your own life?
And there are other more superficial features to admire in this work while we are coming to terms with its atmosphere. I am always struck by the ways in which painters are able to suggest the surfaces, composition, and contour of objects merely through the clever application of colored paint on a flat surface. In this work the “illusions” of the mirror, the silver dish, the marble urn, the wooden chest of drawers, the sheen of the painted door, and the apparent softness and warmth of the woman’s skin are all cases in point.
The other two Holsöe paintings show a consistent style and choice of subject matter, but if you look carefully at each one and rest in its presence for a while, you will discover minute shifts in atmosphere that make each one of them unique in its expression. These shifts are almost wholly the result of the artist’s treatment of the light and color.

The calm surface of Vermeer’s, The Milkmaid, is similarly deceptive in its apparent lack of action.

 The painting as a whole does communicate a wonderful sense of serenity similar to the Holsöe works, only now the fact that the milkmaid is turned toward us allows us to witness her state of mind more clearly. Here we have her facial expression to give us more of the story. Again, even though she is poised in the act of pouring milk, it is not primarily the physical action, but the internal activity that becomes important. Her face suggests that her mind is engaged in careful concentration on the task at hand, and the inclination of her head also suggests the presence of as yet undefined possibilities. Is she ruminating about something --- perhaps the circumstances of her own life? When her current facial expression changes, which way will it go? Will it become an expression of sorrow, or is there the faintest hint of a smile already developing around her mouth? Or is she simply experiencing momentary pleasure in the hushed performance of her task?
We are drawn into this work by the strong mood of thoughtful serenity that it projects. Vermeer’s rendering of the light to this end is at least as evocative as that in Holsöe’s works (Vermeer was a primary influence on Holsöe), but Vermeer increases his demands for our active sensory involvement in this painting by presenting us with extremely lifelike depictions of objects made of various materials, like metal, wicker, ceramic, and fabric, all of which invite our attention. And then there’s the food. If we use our imagination we can almost feel the rough textures of the rustic bread and smell its freshly-baked fragrance. Finally, the single sound in the painting, created by that delicate stream of fresh milk falling into the bowl, produces an atmosphere in the room that goes beyond peacefulness --- it is almost sacramental.

Norman Rockwell’s Girl in the Mirror, for all its apparent inactivity, is actually the most dynamic of all these paintings.
Not much going on? Hardly. As in so many of his works, here Rockwell captures a moment of poignant significance that hovers uncertainly at the top of an arc between past and future. But because it has not yet come down on either side of that divide, it seems to be a work less immediately established in its full feeling and mood than the others we have seen. Instead, the scene is littered with objects that we must interpret and use for evidence in determining what may have led up to this moment and what may happen next. While the other works we have seen have made their way into our consciousness primarily through our senses and feelings, this scene slips into our realm of understanding a little more indirectly --- via our intellect. Feelings do come quickly, but the fullness of the expression becomes apparent only after some rapid detective work.
Our eyes are initially, almost involuntarily, drawn to the girl’s person because of the striking whiteness of her garment. But it is not long before we notice the wistful expression on her face and the angle at which she is holding her head as she assesses herself in the mirror. What, we ask ourselves, is she contemplating? It is only after we begin to scan the image more closely that evidence appears, supplying answers to our question. That evidence comes in the form of traditional symbols --- and lots of them. Here’s a list:

The doll: childhood
The hairbrush, comb, lipstick, etc.: adulthood
The white of her garment: purity, innocence
The red of the brush, lipstick, and stool seat: romantic love, passion, danger, sexuality
The green of the carpet: youth, inexperience, jealousy, hope
The dark obscurity of the background: uncertainty
The mirror: self-consciousness
The face on the magazine page (recognizable as Jane Russell, a 1950s film star bombshell): the ideal

As we begin to fit all these clues together, a scenario something like this emerges:
Here sits a nearly-adolescent girl assessing herself amidst the trappings of two worlds --- the world of childhood and that of adulthood. Self-consciousness has dawned upon her only recently, and it has prompted her to begin thinking about herself in ways that did not concern her as a younger child. Her childhood doll and the grooming items lie near her on the floor. When this moment ends, which will she pick up? Which will she prefer? As she examines the ideal of adult female beauty in the magazine on her lap, she simultaneously examines herself in the mirror. It is a bittersweet instant of insecurity, the touching scene of a difficult decision in the making. To go forward toward adulthood, or to retreat --- which will it be? Her mind is in action, and our minds must take action to interpret the painting. Action all around, you might say, all of it internal, and all of it occurring within the realm of silence and stillness.
By bringing all of the above to your attention my aim is to suggest the continuing applicability of that tired old maxim, “Still waters run deep.” They don’t always; sometimes they are merely stagnant. But perhaps in light of what we have just seen, we might consider giving works like these the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps, if we occasionally take the liberty of spending a few extra moments with those works of art in which nothing overtly active, dramatic, or sensational seems to be occurring, we may begin to discover subtleties that speak to us quietly and gently, gradually arousing latent memories, feelings and impressions in us that resonate in our consciousness. And as that resonance becomes perceptibly reawakened within us we may find, often to our great relief, that we are not alone in our most innermost experience of life, that like souls have lived throughout history feeling about existence much, sometimes exactly, as we do. In that realization there lies both pleasure and comfort.