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.
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.
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)
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
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
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
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.
by Andrea Pottyondy, Fall River, NS, Canada
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
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
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
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”?
Enjoy the past comments below for Of music and painting…
The Trip to Town
mixed media, 48 x 89 inches
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.”