Of music and painting


Dear Artist,

Naturally, when Leonard Cohen came to Lucca we went to see him. To quote daughter Sara: “These days, if you happen to be a poet you have to sing your words to get your ideas out.” Cohen is beloved in Europe. You can see why — genuine concerns, fearless confrontations, sensitivity and a realist understanding for the eternal questions of love, intimacy, fidelity, weakness and freedom. A smile under an old fedora doffed frequently to thank his enthusiasts and to re-announce his brilliant collaborators — the guy’s real.


Leonard Cohen

His songs of hope and pessimism, his simple words delivered slowly and clearly, cross the Babel of languages. Italians understand him — they laugh, cry, and sway to the familiar beat.

Music moves us on a level that visual art does not. It’s knitted in a prescribed time and is not editable like a passage through the Uffizi Gallery. Goodness, I spoke to a chap who went up to Florence and “did” the Uffizi in an hour. The gilt of guilt, the miracles of legend, the holy wars, and the soft arrival of the free spirit take application to digest. Many cannot take the time. Music will always be a quicker fix.

Visual art is, of course, all in the same language for all mankind. In the Uffizi, audio-guides can be had in multiple languages. Guidebooks are available in at least eight. The majority of visitors go through without the benefit. They let the paintings and sculptures do the talking, bypassing what they find to be the less talkative. Many of the most appealing works are simply the familiar stars — Botticelli’s Venus, Leonardo’s enigmatic smiles, Fra Filippo Lippi’s cuddly Madonnas.

While the performing musician may eventually come around to the familiar and desired themes for the listener, he essentially controls what he wants you to hear and in the order he wants you to hear it. Lingering in, or especially when blasting through, the Uffizi, you get to edit the 10th to the 17th centuries.


by Leonard Cohen

Ah the wars they will

be fought again

The holy dove

She will be caught again

bought and sold

and bought again

the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)


Leonard Cohen in Lucca

Best regards,


PS: “Poetry is superior to painting in the presentation of words, and painting is superior to poetry in the presentation of facts. For this reason I judge painting to be superior to poetry.” (Leonardo da Vinci) “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: Cohen says he was blessed with a golden voice. We are all blessed with something or other. We gather our blessings and use them as best we can. “We are so lightly here. It is in love that we are made. In love we disappear.” (Leonard Cohen)


Mystery and reverence
by Dr. Richard W. Willson, Los Angeles, CA, USA

Leonard Cohen attends my synagogue in Los Angeles. For months, I didn’t realize it was him, sitting ten feet from me. Once I did, his presence ignited longings to know him and to place my art in a more central position in my life. I found that he is a perfect gentleman, but not looking for a new best friend.

Reacquainting myself with Leonard’s poetry (check out his psalms in Book of Mercy) and music changed me; his work dominated my thoughts to the extent I attracted deserved teasing from those around me. A 51-year old with a crush… My rational mind could not fathom why the attraction was so strong, as if I was meeting my “other” father. Finally, I had to accept that it was a mystery. I think that is the gift that Leonard gave me… making room for mystery and reverence.


The power to avert dismissal
by Ellen McCord, Grass Valley, CA, USA


“Caught in the Solar Wind”
original painting
by Ellen McCord

Thank you for writing about Leonard Cohen and including a stanza from one of my favorite songs, Anthem. Another set of powerful lines: “I can run no more, with that lawless crowd, while the killers in high places say their prayers out loud…” Leonard Cohen’s gifts include the ability to select particular words and put them together to both delicately and powerfully describe his ideas. (There’s a beautiful documentary honoring Leonard Cohen and his music, called I’m Your Man — highly recommended.) For visual art to do what he does takes mastery of every nuance in color, shape, texture, form and theme. As you indicated, a casual viewer can overlook such mastery because the deliberate construction of visual art must capture the viewer at an initial glance and hold attention for long enough to explore what’s there. Familiar images, “Oh that’s a landscape” “That’s a harbor scene” can be quickly dismissed by the same left brain language function that provides the point of entry for the singing poet. In my work, the constant challenge is to find an entry point while adjusting the image and technique to defy the viewer’s tendency to label and thereby dismiss.


Analysis of art forms
by Nicholas Simmons


“Nassau #1: Discount Warehouse”
watercolor painting, 41 x 41 inches
by Nicholas Simmons

Your latest letter reminded me of a letter I received from a dear departed friend, Randy Kentfield, many years ago:

“It seems to me the various art forms are at varying stages of spiritual development, which I take to be a progression from identification with finite biology to a union with infinite physics. Dangling from the lowest rung of Jacob’s ladder are the verbal modes of expression. Poor, harried humanity, in order to deal with the world at the level of animal survival, has invented labels for what it sees, and has become attached to those names; the underlying processes are hidden from dull men’s eyes by the dead weight of their illusory forms. The visual artist is somewhat more liberated. He can transform an animal’s limited eyes into totally new ways of seeing. But the musician – that man has forsaken folly and revels in God, deals in a fluid medium unseen and unfelt but ecstatically experienced.”

As a lifelong musician, visual artist, and occasional writer, I’m inclined to agree!


Rooms of the Masters
by Manuel E. De Leon, Tucson, AZ, USA


“Flint Creek, Montana
oil painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Manuel E. De Leon

You’re in one of my favorite areas on this earth. I spent several happy hours in Lucca, but especially in the Tuscan Hills and my beloved Firenze. Go across the river from the Ponte Vecchio. I tried to rent this charming home several times, on several trips, but it was always occupied. It seems that many others knew it was the birth home of John Singer Sargent in 1856. As a very young child he remembered looking down on the Ponte Vecchio where a young Leonardo da Vinci once studied and the Scoalo di Bella Arte where he studied when he was 16 and where I studied in 1956. I visited the Piazza Donetello often to honor the lady who is buried in the very middle and to recite her poetry for the tourists. I lived in the apartamentos Florentino, a short walk behind Santa Maria del Fiore where Michelangelo gave birth to David. I wanted to stay in Fiesole the rest of my life but I had too many ties to the real world. The best meal I ever had was in Fiesole in 1981 with my son and four other students. I conducted over 30 tours to the art of Europe from 1961 to 1995 and Italy was always my favorite. In music, Puccini has always been my favorite. Have a wonderful adventure. Note the della Robia designs above the door as you walk into the art academy. Where else is there a million dollar masterpiece decorating an entrance? Be sure to go into the second floor room of the Pallacio Vecchio where the murals by Michelangelo and Leonardo had to be completed by Georgio Vasari. Visit Michelangelo’s room, where he lived as a young man, in the Medici Palace and be sure and visit the Sinopias he did in the Medici Chapel while he was hiding out.


Perfect imperfections
by Andrea Pottyondy, Fall River, NS, Canada


“The color of time”
mixed media, 40 x 30 inches
by Andrea Pottyondy

I was fortunate to be able to attend Leonard Cohen’s concert in Montreal in June and have loved his poetry and music forever. He is a true artist, being able to expose humanity’s weaknesses and strengths, combined with the ability to capture us and make us participants, not just observers of his art form. As a mixed media artist that is something I always strive towards in my work, the inward significance of something rather than the outward appearance. It can be a very elusive endeavor! Thanks for quoting a few lines from Anthem… my very favorite Cohen song, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” are words that really speak to me as an artist!


Sculpting in Lucca
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA


oil painting, 36 x 48 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

I’m so delighted to hear you spending so much time in my beloved Lucca! I spent 2 months there in 1989 in sheer heaven, carving with marble maestro Professore Roberto Bertola, learning the ins and outs of carving with air tools after ten years of hand chisels. It’s truly a magical town — just the Wall alone is a treat. It was the first place in the world where people looked at my work and said, “Ah! Bravo, Angela, bravo!” That one utterance completely shifted my self-confidence from then on. I loved Ilaria Del Carretto, went to see her every week as she was quite close to our studio. Give Lucca una bacchia for me — one day I will be back!


Poetry is alive and well
by Clare Cross, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

As a reader and writer of poetry, I have to disagree with both Leonardo and your daughter Sara. First, to Sara, poetry without music is alive and well. In the US, a new poet laureate has just been chosen. Poetry books continue to be published (and people continue to buy them). Journals that publish poetry abound. If you live in even a medium-size city, there are poetry readings in your area. Granted, you probably won’t see a lot of poets on TV or find them in the popular media, but we are everywhere just as painters are everywhere. As in all arts in all time periods, there’s a lot of dross, but there’s also a lot of gold. All you have to do is look — and you don’t even have to look very hard.

As for Leonardo’s statement that poetry presents words and paintings present facts… what!? Saying that poetry presents words is akin to saying that painting presents colors (or facts, for that matter — is there a translation problem here?). While it’s strictly true, it’s also incredibly reductive. Poetry presents joy, mourning, solace, and love — the range of human emotions.


Music for the eyes
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA

Artists like Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Frantisek Kupka have tried to paint what I’ll call ‘visual music,’ or music for the eyes. The visual and the musical are two different worlds, and one should not be expected to be like the other.

Musical vibrations can readily tug at the heart or bring a tear to the eye. The visual is silent and wordless, its vibrations are subtle, and is demanding of the viewer. To see the visual with awareness and sensitivity requires years of observation, looking long to see the appearance of things, for the eye is slow to wake up to the details artists include in their work and to the immense subtly naturally existing in the everyday visual world.


Drawing breaks from songwriting
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Ontario farm”
pencil sketch
by Lynn Harrison

Yesterday I took a break from songwriting and pulled out my sketchbook instead. It’s a relief to let go of words and the sound of my own voice. I’ve always loved Leonard Cohen’s lyric from Tower of Song, which you refer to in your Esoterica: “I was born like this/ I had no choice/I was born with the gift of the golden voice.” He’s being tongue-in-cheek about the golden voice, I think, but he’s serious about not being able to escape the poetic urge. For me, drawing and painting offer a temporary exit route. I also find that when the career side of my artistic life feels challenging, it’s a pleasure to create in a medium that has no commercial attachments for me. When I’m drawing, I’m doing many of the same things I do when I write a song (aiming for harmony, balance, truth…) but I’m free to do it just for the joy of it. I’m “ringing the bells that still can ring,” because they’re not muffled by thoughts of how any audience will or will not respond.


Vocabulary of nature
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA


“Waiting for teddy”
oil pastel
by Martha Faires

I read an article about Nelson Shanks in which he made this statement: “A language not based on universal symbols or sensations is gibberish, a pitfall of modern art, no longer modern.” On his web site he says, “Nature is the best and really the only real vocabulary that an artist can legitimately work with.” Is it only with using the vocabulary of nature that we can say that “Visual art is all in the same language for all mankind”?




Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Of music and painting



From: Madeline Bishop — Aug 04, 2008

Ahhh….. Leonard Cohen. I was soothed by his voice, just reading your letter, Robert.

Maybe Leonard expresses what the painters’ creativity is, in contrast to a strictly photographic representation. We “alter” things, leave unfinished certain lines, change the color a bit to intensify and express our emotion. even misrepresent. Some people would judge what we do to be imperfect, because it is not an exact likeness. But, according to Cohen, “There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light comes in.”


From: Katherine S. Harris — Aug 05, 2008

I don’t agree or understand with Leonardo when he said that our own opinions deceive us. I find that when I arrive at an opinion, it strengthens me. Anyone care to elucidate?

From: Jan Verhulst — Aug 05, 2008

Your words about Leonard Cohen are right to the point imo. I saw Cohens concert in Bruge, Belgium at the beginning of July. You can believe it or not but after a whole day of pouring rain the late evening sun came through the clouds (it was an open air concert) when he sang: “”There is a crack in everything. That’s where the light comes in.”

From: Jan Verhulst — Aug 05, 2008

Dont get me wrong: I’m not superstitious or something…it was just a nice magical moment :-)

From: Lynda Kelly — Aug 05, 2008

Robert, when you said “music moves us in a way that visual art cannot do”, it reminded me of a cd about sound that I have been listening to “Giving Voice to the Heart” in which she (Pam Gerrrand) reminds us that sound connects right to the heart, but visuals are connected to the brain. I think from there it is a choice if we let (the art) go to the heart!

From: Chris McDonell — Aug 05, 2008

I believe Leonard Cohen was being sarcastic when he said he was “blessed with a golden voice.” He has commented on his lack of vocal skills, laughing a few years ago that “only in Canada” could he be named Male Vocalist of the Year. Despite these limitations, or maybe because of them, his voice and words ring true. I have enjoyed listening to many of his songs sung by “better” singers, beautiful music beautifully rendered. Yet I prefer Leonard’s versions. Interpretations of art can be magnificent, but the authentic is usually the most satisfying.

From: Joan Fisher — Aug 05, 2008

Leonard Cohen…What an amazing man…..he says it all. and so articulately……. In this piece the fact that History repeats itself and that there is nothing new under the sun (but oh how he says it)

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 05, 2008

True poetry is art, true art is poetry. Both sustain the heart.

From: Claudia Parish — Aug 05, 2008

I think that painting is greater than poetry. . . note, I said “poetry”, and not “music”, because language is not static, and the meanings of words, and phrases changes over time, while the painting remains exactly as the artist finished it. The painting gives us a glimpse into the state of the artist’s perception of the scene, exactly as he saw it at the time of the labour. Therefore, painting is better.

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 05, 2008

At one time I looked at a painting and immediately thought I got the message. It seemed clear to me what the image was trying to say. But is that really the case? Was I actually getting it or was I, as we all sometime do, see what we wanted to see. I’ve since learned that if twenty people look at a picture, it’s quite probable to get twenty different opinions of what is being looked at. Also how certain are we that we are getting what was intended by the painter? I’ve sold many paintings and I can’t tell you the amount of times and different responses I received from buyers. Some tell me that I captured the mood, or the expression was right on the mark. The “sadness,” “happiness,” the “quiet contemplation,” or whatever was captured perfectly. I didn’t paint those images with those particular moods in mind. Maybe the “words in my picture” are misleading or conversely give a message different than I intend.

I give much thought to naming my paintings appropriately, but I wonder in so doing am I not cutting off some contact with some people in the process. A connection to someone who will look at a piece and not respond due to the name I’ve given it. Maybe we should never give names to paintings. They should just be painting #1,#2,#3. I’ve given names to painting only to find the client calls it something related personally to them. My “Girl in Chair” of instance becomes “The Pensive Moment”.

What message do we imbue in our art? What are we trying to say with our painting? Are we saying anything? I believe we need to say something, not just make pretty pictures. But that’s just me. If a picture still speaks a thousand words, we may need to choose our words more carefully.

From: Susan Avishai — Aug 06, 2008

I heard the concert in Toronto before he left for Europe and thought it was 2 of the best hours I’ve ever spent. The man simply touches the soul. You leave uplifted, believing in language.

From: Debra Bickford — Aug 06, 2008
From: Rick Rotante — Aug 06, 2008

Katherin S. Harris – An opinion is a person’s idea or thought about something. It’s an assessment or judgment. It is not a fact. You can’t falsify an opinion nor can you prove or verify an opinion. This is what I think Leonardo was talking about. We form opinions on things that may be based on incorrect or limited information or information we choose to believe. If we take our opinions for fact, therein lies the danger of which Leonardo speaks.

From: Diane Arenberg — Aug 06, 2008

Visual art doesn’t have to be silent if you have the right friends!

My friend and flutist, Ginger Armstrong, took a painting I had created in the White Place in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and created music from it. She put 5 strands of dental floss across the image, picked a line in the painting, and then played the notes where they crossed the staff. As the notes resounded in the canyon, I wished I had made the painting five feet long instead of two feet!

I would love to relive that moment.

From: Terry Rempel-Mroz — Aug 06, 2008
From: Cherie Hanson — Aug 06, 2008

Always, the exploration of art leads inward to an exploration of self. The interaction of the exterior field of action, technique and externalizing vision makes the “statement” of perceived reality. The magic of art is that it is not discrete. It contains so many elements that the artist who gets very quiet at the centre, comes to see. Music, dance, kinesthetics and aesthetics do, indeed, become one form.

The process of creating visual art has been a path of self-discovery. One can liken it almost to archeology or the uncovering of the bones of self with brushes. Removing that which one does not identify as part of the central form leaves a true definition.

It is with this “archeological exploration” in mind that I suddenly had an epiphany. My work has always had a movement across the surface and a shifting of planes. Movement transforms the background, mid ground and foreground as they exchange dominance on different areas of the canvas.

I assumed that this was from my history as a dancer and choreographer. However, when someone asked me, “How do you get these vision?” I found myself understanding. “When I was very young, I began to see visions of colored shapes dancing whenever I heard music. Now, as a sixty year old, I have been able to reproduce the synergy of art, music, dance that I saw behind my eyes all of my life.”

Not unlike the process itself, I discovered the answer to what drives my work by turning off the rational mind and simply answering the question.

As in physics, all forms partake of all other forms. The flow of language, the clarity of visual impressions, the dynamics of music are all one. It is only someone who cannot “speak” the language of another manifestation of aesthetic, who places one form above others. They are all the soul’s work. They are why we are here… to discover self and find the beauty of life.

From: Janine — Aug 06, 2008

I consider myself an artist but my passion is poetry/lyrics. Leonard Cohen is a genius. I don’t think anyone can say poetry is better than art or art better than poetry…if it speaks to you then it has done its job.

From: Harry Bell — Aug 06, 2008

As someone else has pointed out, Cohen is blessed with a sense of irony (and no doubt a wry smile) when he sings “I was blessed with a golden voice.” However, what a lesson he has always presented in rising above his limitations.

From: Anonymous — Aug 07, 2008

I have to agree with Clare Cross’ statement that poetry is alive and well. My chiropractor is a poet. He writes prolifically and reads at many local establishments. And much to my delight and well-being, he reads his new stuff to me while I lie face down on the adjustment table, TENS unit on my back. It’s the only doctor appointment I actually look forward to and besides the benefit of his skills as a chiropractor, I find that his creative energy fuels mine.

From: Linden Morris — Aug 07, 2008

I think his “golden voice” comment was about his writing ability…like my art is my voice or my music might be my voice…

From: Janine — Aug 08, 2008

I just remembered that years ago now, my sister sculpted her idea of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” He inspired her to sculpt for the first time. She was holding a mirror. I love his use of biblical connotations.

From: Kathleen Zann — Aug 08, 2008

Robert, I disagree with your statement that “Music moves us on a level that visual art does not”. I am moved to tears by Zubaran, my heart leaps up at Rembrandt, I am soothed by Manet and awed by van Gogh. Sure, some race through the Uffizi but they are untouched by art. Some are untouched by music. It all depends on your sensibility.

When I paint, I choose my music depending on the feeling of the painting. Usually I listen to world music, sounds in another language that I can feel but not understand. It is less distracting and I can channel the sensuality of the music into my work. I suppose I would say that art moves me in a different way than music; although I can get lost in both.

From: Caroll Drazen — Aug 08, 2008
From: Gwen Purdy — Aug 09, 2008

As having an artist’s nature, I find that my sanctuaries number three, my little cubby-hole studio, my very feminine bedroom, and any part of the out-of-doors available to me as I age. Lately its been my tiny backyard pool and enclosure, there I write haiku and feel I am in a magic garden away from the world. All these places are essential to the health of my imagination. So sanctuaries can be very simple and close to home. No travel needed.

From: Joyce Goden — Aug 16, 2008
From: Liam Jones — Sep 16, 2008

Isn’t Leonard awesome fodder for thought? To me, art, music and poetry all sing with the same voice. Any artform comes from the same corner of the human condition. The same side of the brain, the same spark of human thought and expression. To express an idea, one could use a paint brush or a palette knife, a guitar or a violin, a haiku or a limrick. This is one of my favorite subjects to muse on. I interpret music in paintings– it’s an endless well of inspiration.






The Trip to Town

mixed media, 48 x 89 inches
by Joel Miller


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Rand Teed of Craven, SK, Canada who wrote, “And the men they dance on the polka dots…”

And also Lorelle Miller of CA, USA who wrote, “Art and music intertwine like roots of neighboring trees both planted in the soul of our gifts. Words and visions bloom forth from experience, sweet and sad. Rich are those who notice, who take the time. Others will pass and perish unknowing.”

And also Sam Liberman who wrote, “I used to have some difficulty with assigning titles to paintings, but when I started using song lyrics it became very easy. Sometimes the lyric comes into my head before I finish the painting.”

And also Ron Gang of Kibbutz Urim, Israel who wrote, “It is much harder to get together a piece of music so it can be performed flawlessly, as it must be played flawlessly all at one shot in front of a sometimes critical audience. Especially true if done with a band, getting it all co-coordinated and tight. A painting can be worked on over time, making modifications until it is right.”

And also Warren Giles of France who wrote, “I am a journalist working in Geneva staying a few kilometers east of Lucca for the rest of this week with my wife and kids and have been making some efforts of my own at painting in the area, dodging the sun and consistently failing to find the right register on the palette.”

And also Carol Beth Icard who wrote, “My goal in my first serious art class was to learn to paint as well as Paul Simon wrote music. I’ve been on a wonderful, creative journey since then, enamored of life, of paint and all things Italian and now vary my music while I am in my studio. Leonard Cohen is one. Paolo Conti, another. From Pavorotti to “Three Mo’ Tenors,” music is still an inspiration.

And also Diane Morgan of Indian Wells, CA, USA who wrote, “I love Leonard Cohen. His lyrics and melodies are so mysterious, and unexpected characteristics are also admirable to strive for in a painting. Thank you for reminding of his genius.”

And also Karuna Johnson of Hoquiam, WA, USA who wrote, “Somehow I got over the idea that only the “talented” are privileged to paint. I am 51 so I still have some time to devote. It’s a joyous idea.”

And also Anita Eliason of Iowa City, IA, USA who wrote, “I have loved Leonard Cohen for years. When I first heard him it was like hearing someone I should have known or had known for a long time, and at last he was there.”




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.