The Violin in art – Rosenberg museum
Jon Rose at Carriage Works Sydney 2016
Dr Johannes Rosenberg is probably best known for his pioneering anthropological research specifically his extraordinary discoveries amongst the hill tribes of Papua New Guinea. One tribe he visited showed a marked disposition for producing conjoined (Siamese) twins. Such twins are usually joined at the base of the spine or the pelvis sometimes back to back. Making the most of this tendency they had built violins that could be played in a duet with the twins bowing two violins conjoined at the neck. Just such a violin forms a part of the remarkable exhibition drawn from the collections of the Rosenberg museum.
Can it be that the Australian violinist and collector Jon Rose is in fact a descendent of the remarkable Doctor? Rose certainly shares his anthropological interests and has travelled the world discovering some very strange cultural practices. In Australia he has visited out of the way pubs, truck stops, and farmsteads where he has identified musical talents such as a singing dingo and recitals on a gum leaf. Rose recorded hours of such arcana for the ABC that as rumour has it may still exist in some remote part of Ultimo. If that indeed proves to be the case it may still be possible to trace this rare archive that would be invaluable to the scientific community.
Both Rosenberg and Rose weave their genuine love of music and the violin in particular through a cultural matrix that extends the art of the possible into realms of extreme improbability. The Museum collection is filled with scarcely credible examples of the violin appearing in cinema, advertising, pornography, surreal and conceptual art. It is typical of the Rosenberg collection that at its most improbable it is based on hard fact, nothing has been invented, it is in no way a simulacrum or even a virtual museum – unlike the famous ‘Museum of contemporary Ideas’ in New York which is entirely fictional (one of Dr Peter Hill’s ‘Superfictions’).
Jon Rose has spent his professional life working with Violins; playing them, modifying them, turning the built environment into stringed instruments and working with communities in Australia, Europe and Asia. He has spent more time performing in Europe and Asia than in Australia and it was in Berlin that he first installed the Rosenberg Museum. The Rosenberg family connection was a fiction but the collection itself is real enough. Jon and the Director of the museum, his friend Jozef Cseres have continually sourced everything pertaining to violins. Joseph found the Slovakian town aptly named Violin and it was here that the museum was finally housed and displayed.
Of all the musical instruments in the classical repertoire the Violin is the most iconic and the most exploited by visual artists, designers, advertising agencies and conceptual musicians all over the world. The very shape of the instrument with its prominently cut away waist has been identified with the female human body. That in itself accounts for the semi pornographic applications of the instrument and yet the cut away is a very practical solution to the need to bow the strings across the whole arc of the belly. A modernist attempt to make a geometrical violin without the waist is in fact a very impractical object (although it was attempted by Félix Savart in the first decades of the 19th century as an attempt to rationalize the violin). Like Rose, Rosenberg and the museum, the violin embodies hard reality but evokes fantasy. Shape aside the violin embodies cultural associations of aristocratic heritage. Ancient violins are venerated (fetishized) and exchanged for millions of dollars regardless of their real quality as instruments. In fact the popular beliefs and accepted qualities ascribed to the violin are fantastical rather than real. Maybe that is why Rose was drawn to the violin in the first place.
The collection not only reveals hundreds of found images related to the violin but is also rich in sculpturally modified violins some of them created by Rose himself and these he has named the ‘Relative Violins’. Most of these have been made by deconstructing or modifying cheap Chinese violins. While performing in China, Rose realised that violin factories had been created under the inspired leadership of Mao Tse Tung. Not only did this mean any Chinese Child had a chance to learn the instrument but it also had the critical function of deflating the western fetischisation of the instrument as associated with a superior cultural class. Amongst the many variations on the form of the violin that Rose has constructed since 1977 are; ‘The 19-string Violin’ 1980 that includes a violin body bolted to a frame and amplified in stereo. Various sympathetic strings from cellos, pianos or just any available wire were strung around the basic violin form and the amplifier, the whole thing was mounted on a tripod, he was able to move all around the instrument finding new ways to bow it. The same year he performed with multiple bows on a double violin.
The use Rose makes of sympathetic strings in a number of his relative Violins may owe something to the time when he played the Sitar with its sympathetically resonating strings in the early 1970s.
Perhaps one of the most celebrated of the early modifications were the ‘Double Violin Mobile’ and the ‘Double Piston Triple Neck Wheeling Violin’ also created in the early 1980s. This series of wheeled violins were double bowed by the piston-like motion generated by the rotation of the wheel and could also be plucked and manually bowed. They were also amplified with a basic loud speaker attached to the frame. Rose took these instruments on long walks around different parts of Australia. In this way the music measured not only time but distance. The action could also be run in reverse by walking backwards thereby playing a repeat but in retrograde variation.
In the 1980s Rose also started stringing wires across architectural spaces such as the central well of the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1984. Once again the performer would animate space musically but also by bodily movement that was involved in making the resonating space sing. The violin is always resonating with the body of the musician but in the classical repertoire the movement of the player is largely from the waist up. Rose and a number of contemporary performers have changed this more in keeping with certain folk applications and the essential association of dance with music. I think of Laurie Anderson whose energetic stage presence is integral to her musical performance. Anderson has also constructed a wooden table with a seat so that a viewer can sit at the table resting their elbows on two shallow depressions in the wood and ‘hear’ sounds resonate through their elbows. The elbow is connected to the arm bone etc… and it is all linked to the head bone. It is an eerie experience to be hearing without the ear picking up vibrating air.
Rose’s addiction to motion has also led him to travel the length of the great Australian dog proof and rabbit proof fences. These fences are in various states of disrepair although in many places there are vast spans of wire running through the landscape. Each wire has its own resonance and can be played using a variety of techniques including plucking, striking, bowing using hands and feet and even using a violin as a bow. While in remote areas of central and Northern Australia Rose met locals who all had tales to tell about the fences and associated events of importance in their lives. Rose collects such stories as well as sounds and images associated with strings.
Staying on remote stations across much of the great outback of Australia Rose organized concerts that would attract large audiences who travelled hundreds of kilometers to attend. In 2009 Rose brought the experimental ‘Kronos Quartet’ to Kanimbla valley on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains introducing them to the possibilities of playing some of the farmer’s fences. Following that experience he created four mobile fences that were installed at the Opera House for a Kronos performance of fence playing.
Rose also installed a wind driven instrument in the same area in Kanimbla Valley. This installation is a modified Hills Hoist the clothes lines have been replaced by wires that can be excited by a strong westerly wind although as the excitation takes some time to get going the piece needs to be locked into position. A more animated system of producing sonic effects occurs when the hoist is being blown back and forth by the wind. Each of the four arms of the hoist have sections of metal duct attached under which six piano wires have been strung using four guitar machine heads to tune them. At the end of these arms Rose has attached four propellers that spin as the wind catches them causing the arms to rotate. Each propeller is fitted with a fine wire that strokes the tuned strings creating varying combinations depending on the wind strength and direction and the selected tuning for each machine head. Four wires built around the central column of the hoist act as plectrums that also stroke the strings as the hoist revolves but in the absence of wind this can also be made to spin manually to give some idea of the sonic possibilities of a windy day.
Motion is a constant theme in Rose’s inventions. For example ‘The Tromba –Mariner’. This contraption consisted of a resonator made from a metal drainpipe fitted with a string and a bridge. There were also six sympathetic strings and the whole was attached to the side of a boat. The sound was transformed by the amount of water that was in the resonator. ‘The Triple Hummer Bow’ made use of old magnetic recording tape and was strung along the side of a car; it looked a bit like a crossbow and was driven by the wind created by the moving car. Recently Rose has also wired up and amplified car wrecks that can be played as stringed instruments and as percussion. All of these arise out of his intrepid exploration of the Australian outback. Rose has said that in order to discover anything new in music it is necessary to engage with the materials and the inherent properties of sound, discoveries come out of doing not just thinking. This is something most great innovators in the plastic as well as musical arts have avowed. This is consistent with the need to journey without necessarily having a destination in mind. Rose has also used motion to generate feedback from sonic sampling devices placed around the stage for a performance during which Rose moved about stimulating the speakers by the movement of his electrically modified bow.
The Violin has captured the imagination of plastic artists virtually since its first appearance in the 16th century. The Italian curator Germano Celant who gave Arte Povera its name in the 1970s curated an exhibition ‘Art or sound’ at the Prada Foundation in Venice in 2014 during the Architecture Biennale. The exhibition showed spectacular inventions of sculpturally modified musical instruments dating back to the Renaissance through Futurist Russolo to Fluxus artists from the 1960s to very recent inventions with interactive technologies. Violins have appeared as the centerpiece of still life paintings and in theatrical tableaux. They have been seen as challenging forms to be decorated, mostly with highly kitsch results but also sometimes quite engaging for example ‘Skull Violin’ an electric violin designed by Jeff Stratton.
Violins in the baroque often turned up in vanitas still life paintings. In the Dutch golden age Pieter Claesz painted violins as the centerpiece of many still life compositions. One from 1628 “Vanitas still life with violin and glass ball’ includes many signifying objects surrounding the instrument. The violin rests on tattered books with its neck reaching over a human skull. Also resting on the books is a fallen drinking glass and to the left a complex piece of mechanism incorporating a clock all of which suggests the inevitability of time passing and of mortality. * Behind the clock is a dark glass sphere that reflects much of the composition but also the artist seen at his easel beyond.
In 1888 William Harnett an American trompe l’oeil painter placed a violin and a bow suspended over sheet music at the center of a composition. This illusionistic piece of rendering the appearance of objects is interesting to contrast with the Picasso cubist painting ‘Violin and Grapes’ 1912 only 24 years later. Picasso and Braque often painted violins indeed Picasso painted the violin and mandolins many times and even made sculptures based on them. It is the Analytic Cubist paintings that most exactly counter the illusion of Harnett. The trompe l’oeil image purports to fool the eye into believing it is seeing the thing itself in the tradition of mimicry that dates back to classical Greece. Picasso’s Cubism does the opposite. This is not to say it bodges the representation but far more challenging than that it unpicks the mechanisms of visual representation on flat surfaces before our gaze. It exposes the tricks of trompe l’oeil such as light and shade, overlap, perspective and so on being gradually detached from the thing represented. What we end up seeing is illusion unmasked and being encouraged to enjoy the means and mechanisms as such. I am inclined to think this is an idea that extends to some explorations in sonic art. John Cage for example removes the traditional structures and more importantly the self expression of his art and replaces it with systems that leave us facing the sound itself or just as importantly the sounds that are beyond the control of the artist. In the case of Picasso and of Cage I tend to think of this as a realist strategy to get us to confront the world of sensation unmediated by a controlling agent.
To get back to the Violin and the human body one of the most memorable of images in the twentieth century to deal with this is Man Ray ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ 1924, Ingres was obsessed by the violin and that obsession led to the French coining the phrase ‘Le Violon d’Ingres’ meaning a hobby. Man Ray made a photograph based on Ingre’s ‘La Grande Baigneuse’ a seated woman seen from the back. Man Ray posed Kiki de Montparnasse wearing a turban like the bather in Ingres and painted two ‘f’ shaped sound holes from a classical violin onto her back behind the waist just as they appear on the violin. Some years later the Italian Nouveau realist Pietro Manzoni signed the back of a similarly shaped woman partly as a gesture to Man Ray but also as a riposte to his friend and competitor Yves Klein whose ‘Anthropometries’ 1960-1961 were paintings made by impressing women’s bodies covered in blue paint onto sheets of paper as a performance. In turn Klein was making a humorous critique of Pollock and Mathieu for their abstract expressionism as performance. Klein supervised the motion of the women while a chamber group played a monotone symphony also composed by Klein in the background. Klein would be wearing a tuxedo and white gloves as were the invited audience. The high society reference combining the symphonic ensemble and the formal attire carried a seriously ironic sense of humour.
The association of the violin with high society and with precision and technical virtuosity has made it the butt of many avant-garde pastiches. Klein’s close friend and fellow Nouveau Realist, Ferdinand Arman was best known for making assemblages from found objects in the 1960s. One of the objects he used most often was the violin. He cut them into strips and mounted them or rearranged them; he smashed them to fragments and set them in resin. He did this so often that you might conclude that he was obsessed with the instrument.
Later in the 1960s Avant-garde artists associated with Fluxus also worked with violins as well as pianos. Joseph Beuys famously wrapped both pianos and violins in felt, a fabric made from animal hair and a very strong insulator. It absorbs sound so the implied transcendence of a piano or Violin tune was rendered mute by the felt.
He and Cage along with other Fluxus artists including Korean Nam Jun Paik, Philip Corner and Ben Patterson did some pretty drastic things to classical instruments. Partly as a critique of social difference that they implied but also as an exploration of what they could be made to do under duress. Rose is also a radical and loves music and instruments but has spent a lifetime escaping the claustrophobia of the classical trap. An escape I should add that can have no meaning before the classical meaning and techniques have been mastered.
One of the most charming Fluxus actions was done by Ben Vautrier who spent days lovingly polishing a violin as a performance. It came to have a mesmeric even erotic connotation. German sculptor and filmmaker Rebecca Horn made a beautiful violin case out of leather lined with silk, ‘Love Thermometer’ 1988. Not to house a violin but made to perfectly fit a giant glass thermometer. The fluid in the glass globe at the base was pink alcohol and when the tool was handled the warmth of the hand was enough to send the pink fluid shooting up the stem in a perfect image of engorgement. Once again the luxurious housing brings the erotic potential of the violin into play.
The violin has not only obsessed Fine artists throughout the ages including the avant-garde but it has flooded the world of popular culture. Examples of this are rife in the Rosenberg Museum. Kitsch objects based on the violin include toys, a set of ten plastic clocks, book and album covers, telephones and telephone directories, schnapps bottles, stamp collections, playing cards, musical boxes, pencil sharpeners, fashionable ties, a door matt, jigsaw puzzles, shopping bags, cookie cutters, opium spoons, political badges, film posters – for example of Sherlock Holmes and of Charlie Chaplin playing the violin. There are countless hundred year old postcards that use romantic subjects but are often downright pornographic. The supernatural beliefs of the Catholic Church have also inspired the manufacture of violin playing angel statuettes, a dozen examples of which are displayed in the museum.
The heights of absurdity however can be found in advertising:
Stradivarius advertises Johnnie Walker scotch; information company Paxus “provides inspired solutions and outstanding performance, Menuhin keeps time with Rolex.
Haban Diamond Jewelry music is the key to a woman’s heart, Fine tune your finances with Fuji expertise, a smashed violin and the text reads; a perfect mess becomes diminished worry when insured with British Reserve, A semi naked woman with violin is offered a Tiparillo cigar, there are countless cigarette ads, One of my favorites however is an image of a naked woman’s back modeled after Man Ray’s ‘Violin d’Ingres’ it advertises ‘Nylax relieves the discomfort of constipation’.
Rose has a lively sense of humour that invades the most serious of his artworks. In this he follows the precedent of many of the most serious avant-garde artists. Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, John Cage, Joseph Beuys and many of the Fluxus artists. An eye for the absurd without which the world we occupy cannot be understood has helped shape the Rosenberg Museum collection. All of this is underpinned by a dedication to exploring the possibilities of sound as art and the quality of music with all its possibilities.
* The original black wooden violin cases are known in the business as ‘coffin cases’. In the current Rosenberg Museum, there is indeed a full size sonic coffin to be played presumably at the appointed time by its inmate.