Listen to the painting: Soundscapes at the National Gallery

There are exhibitions that change the way you see life – Soundscapes at the National Gallery was one of them. I found myself tearing up, every sense heightened, the hairs at the back of my neck starting a wave of goosebumps that enveloped me whole. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
Let me start from the beginning. I wanted to go see Soundscapes for a long time but was always putting it off – mostly because of work, life and everything in between. The exhibition invites visitors to experience the paintings in a different way – you hear them as much as you see them.
So, yesterday I got up quite late, quite hangover and quite determined to stay in and drink my body weight in water. Then, it happened. I remembered it was the last day for the exhibition. So, I jumped in the shower (which massively helped the hangover), got breakfast and jumped on a bus.
Half an hour later I was in a dark room, a painting illuminated in front of me, the space filled with a heart wrenching sound and the intermingling forms of art weaving into one and becoming everything.
I started with Chris Watson‘s natural soundtrack to Lake Keitele from Akseli Gallen-Kallela, transporting you to the painting as if you were really there.
I then stopped on my tracks when I entered the room housing Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘the Ambassadors’). The room was filled with the sounds of Leila Akhmetova‘s violin in a piece by Suzan Philipsz and the effect is impossible to describe. Emotional, raw, visceral, deeply unsettling but immensely soothing at the same time. Based on the broken string of the lute that is in between the two men (symbolising discord), the piece was powerful beyond words.
Then I was wowed the scale and intricacy of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s work of Saint Jerome in his study by Antonello da Messina. They constructed a real life diorama of the painting in impressive scale, truly transporting you in the painting.
Then Nico Muhly (whose passionate intro video fascinated me) created a universe of sounds around The Wilton Diptych, creating a piece that never ends and is never the same – a mosaic of obsession and beauty.
Gabriel Yared created an ethereal world for the girls in the Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) which I strangely found disturbing, as if the women were in danger instead of being safe in their own company – almost as if something was amongst them and they did not know it yet.
Jamie XX‘s room was the last one and it was very popular with younger people. He chose the Coastal Scene from Théo van Rysselberghe, a piece painted in the pointillist style. He created a piece that mirrors the style of painting – the closer you come, the more deconstructed the sound becomes. Go further back and you hear the track as clearly as you see the painting.
I sat on the flood and looked at the piece. I felt at peace. After looking at it for some time, the field came to life, danced with the music, became one and I was one with it, a spectator that engages every sense in every sense.
I left inspired – paintings, photographs, art works are not silent worlds. They have sound – we just perceive them on mute. Next time you see one, turn up the volume.


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