top of page
  • Christian Hain

A Summer Hit Less Annoying than Despacito? Try Kupferstichkabinett

(Berlin.) For the fourth time already, Berlin’s public drawing collection stages a summer exhibition. This, of course, is just a title; you may visit exhibitions at Kupferstichkabinett (Coup-fah-stee”chchchch”-cah-bee-net) all year round, and those in summer are not fundamentally different – a group show is a group show. But who would complain, it’s hot outside! At least, the Berlin rain feels warmer than usual.

Last year’s topic was “travel”, and once you arrive at the beach, what will you do? Except staring at bikini tops and bottoms. No, even if you care to elaborate, “contemplating abler bodies than mine, while I’m beheading a coconut, holding a cocktail, and rolling Jamaica’s finest between my fingers" – that’s not the expected answer. Besides, how many hands have you?! Kupferstichkabinett is more interested in the one thing you missed to mention so far: You turn up the bass. Music is an essential ingredient of summer. Supposing we still remember how to get somewhere nice, Kupferstichkabinett provides us with the soundtrack to the season, put to mute. We Set the Tone is dedicated to music and art, or art on music, throughout the centuries. Drawing and noise have more in common than you might have guessed - not only can both get very annoying when met on the streets, but did you know, lithography was invented to circulate musical notes? Thus tells Kupferstichkabinett. And composers capture the fleeing thought, the vision, or: audition, much like draughtsmen, they fix it on paper in sketches, studies, and études.

There’s huge names from the museum’s well filled treasure chambers, from Mantegna to Lichtenstein, Rembrandts and Matisses (two of each!), and a Wolfgang Tillmans photo from Berghain - ah no, that’s Picasso with a Danse des Faunes of 1957. In short, the curators have selected every paper that somehow relates to music. Immediately, questions of definition, and classification, arise: What is visual art on music? How “musical” can the depiction of a concert hall be? Should musical/visual (musi-sual?) art include works in which "music" would be interchangeable for any other topic – or, on the contrary, nothing but synaesthesia, creations that try to capture, and recreate, one by the other, and merge both? Kupferstichkabinett (ok, a last time, from now on, it’s “KuStiKa”, or, even better: “KSK”) decided to keep it vague.

The art of We Set the Tone can be summed up in three categories: 1. Depicting the creation, the means to make music, viz. musicians and musical instruments. 2. Depicting the reception of music, the audience, dancers, and venues. 3. Depicting “music itself” in a try at synaesthesia. Overlapping with the first and second category, music may also function as an allegory, or belong to the sphere of mythology (which otherwise could do for a category by itself).

The Ones

A majority of images is descriptive of circumstances without touching the thing itself. We see (and don’t: hear) Flute, Cello, Mandolin, and Organ Players, and learn, violists have never been taken seriously (unknown artist, Caricature of a Viola Player, 1858). Some of the portrayed are anonymous, others (have been) famous, and occasionally even painters make some noise in their free time (unknown artist after Johann Kapetzky: The Painter David Hoyer playing the Lute, ~1700). Musical folks' social position has evolved over the years, and an initially upheld distinction between creator (composer) and performer (musician) got lost, as jesters (unknown artist: Three Jesters Accompanying a Monk, 1496) turned into personalities. Among the first of the latter count Paganini (Carl Begas: Niccolo Paganini with Violin, 1829) and Mozart, here shown a child, giving a concert with his sister (JB Delafosse after LC Carmontelle, 1764). That scene might describe a casual soirée at home, just like the piano lessons and singing families in other drawings. Professionalization killed that for good.

Around 1900, Alois Kolb translated Beethoven’s Eroica to erotica with a dwarfish couple cuddling on the composer’s cranium. A pity, we don't get served the portrait of a later pop star, the closest being an unidentified concert scene with a bare breasted beauty (back to the beach!) and an unidentified singer who could be Jimi Hendrix if Claus Weidensdorfer had drawn it twenty years earlier than 1980/85. But those stars are falling, their product life cycle shortens increasingly (20th Century stardom might have merely been a passing phenomenon to prepare for the statistically dissected anonymity of the swarm). Other than that, there’s angels, peasants and beggars, and even a bear playing the bagpipes. Bagpipes in another context (->Molenbeek, see below) are described as a hellish instrument – most non-Scots would certainly agree -, but is the same valid here? Master Bruin has been associated with all sorts of powers, good and evil, over the years.

To Jan Saenredam, listening was playing, contemplatio and actio fell together: Hearing (1595-1600) from a series on the five senses shows lovers with their instruments (don’t get that wrong!). KSK’s “studies” section, intended to compare spontaneous creation, has mostly drawings of musical instruments (Giovanni da Udine: Study of Musical Instruments, ~1514-1515) in a different style than Braque’s Bass Guitar (1911). Not to forget: Man is a medium, an instrument himself; with a broken arm, the music stops: unknown artist, Injured Musician, unknown date, looks old, much. Maybe listeners did not appreciate his skills?

The Others

The audience is not always as focused as it should be (Adolph Menzel, Concert at Bilse, 1850; Listeners at A Concert, 1850; Emil Orlik, At the Beethoven Concert, 1922), even when supposed to, for various reasons (Hans Weiditz, Emperor Max Attending Mass, 1512 vs. FA Börner, The Flute Concert of Frederick the Great, 1902).

For others, all the fun lies in a less behaved reception: Dance belongs to music, although the one is not essential to the other, deaf dancers have a word to say, or signal, here, as do mimes and other performance artists. Dance embodies a Dionysian power, the invitation to excess. That’s different from the academization, rationalization, perfection, and taming, of sound in occidental high culture. Israhel van Meckenheim’s The Moresca Dance (1475-1500), the latest hype of the late 15th Century, appears less orchestrated than you would an orchestrated folk dance expect. And here come the Epileptics of Molenbeek (today the go-to city for a further education course in Suicide Bombing), unknown artist/forger of Bruegel, ~1565, documenting a local tradition. Female epileptics believed to be obsessed were invited on a pilgrimage to Belgium in order to be freed, or have a ball at least. It recalls antique bacchanals with maenads and bacchaes where satyrs stood waiting; girls gone wild.

Mantegna’s Bacchanal with the Satyr seems more like a s̶a̶u̶s̶a̶g̶e̶ ̶p̶a̶r̶t̶y̶ gentlemen’s club with piggyback races. Sure needed much drink to participate in this Platonic symposium. Dionysius and Bacchus are the patron saints of dance. Who would not need the odd glass (/bottle) to get into the mood? Or something different. Since the beginning of time, music is linked to substances that heighten its enjoyment, as it heightens the high. Excess, trance, disorder, the reasons, authorities don’t like it in general. There lurks an abyss in music, in one drawing, a devil is offering a guitar.

That’s a Myth

On the other hand, you get the already mentioned angelic concerts (but no shamans or dervishes). And a medieval bible with a beautiful picture of David playing his secret chord. The ancients knew more than orgies, enter Euterpe and Tepsichore with their sisters. The Muses belong to the most-portrayed celebrities ever, at KSK we find them summoned by the Master of the E-Series Tarocchi with – what else – a Tarocchi di Mantegna, Series E, ~1465-67, and Wolfgang Kilian’s The Nine Muses of 1612, among others.

Hendrick Goltzius' The Judgement of Midas (1590) tells of a competition to determinate whose is bigger: Apollo’s lyre or Pan’s flute. When King Midas corrects the referee’s decision and attributes the victory to Pan, Apollo resorts to violence. Greece got talent. Would not an orchestra of all participants have been the better idea (considering it, that’s what Paris should have suggested in his jury duties, too)?

More mythology with Orpheus, and Jörg Breu’s Merkur of 1515-20 could have featured in that alchemy show of late (maybe it has).


Morgan O’Hara contents herself with the inexplicable: Her minute account of a flutist’s hand movements over the course of a concert won’t answer any questions, and yet seems rhythmic enough. There’s music in his motions, his body orchestrated by the sound he makes – and you would have thought, Stephen Hawking could play the flute!

Damien Hirst’s My Way, 2002, is the image of a vinyl record, potentially Frank Sinatra. The form seems perfectly adapted to imprison circular sounds. Quite similar: Diether Krieg in an untitled work of 1927. He adds an extra-medium: Language. The written term “Ton” should resonate in you, here it appears surrounded by movement, in a circle. There’s a play on words involved, as German “Ton” translates to “tone”, but also “earthenware” with which it shares the colour in our case. A galaxy of sound, wholeness, a circular movement, captures what is happening in other terms. Is it possible to describe music silent? A medium transfer is different to the simple translation into another language. It’s like writing on visual impressions, and sound becomes image becomes word (well, many). Those of you who know to read musical notes will remember, the signs don’t tell the whole story, there still needs to be that epileptic with a stick.

One more sense with William Engelen whose drawings don’t show amoeba, but taste in music. The artist composed pieces for chocolate flavours (apparently not commissioned by Nestlé, Mondelez, or...). The preparatory drawings at KSK signify the taste he perceived, before he put it in sound. It’s personal. Just like Otto Griebel “translating” ten pieces of a composer into abstract drawings. It might be a good translation – for him. There’s no interpersonal standard, each of us might hear something else in front of the drawings. Others who illustrate sounds, do it right next to the original. Max Slevogt decorated Mozart operas while Eduardo Chillida did the same to Bach. To me it’s all lines and dots, on both sides. There’s no Hanne Darboven, but Rolf Julius (Black Listens to Red, 1999) takes care of repetition, repetition that lies at the core of music. And – you did not think you could get past her in a show like this? - there’s Jorinde Voigt.

Something else

Wolf Vostell’s stage directions for a performance – Vietnam Symphony, 1971 - denounce music as entertainment, a distraction, opium of the masses. The poster features an image of the moon landing, equally useful to turn all eyes away from Vietnam. You can continue a song in unique ways, and focus on the purely visual aspects of a score, like the hieroglyphs of an untitled abstract Hanns Schimansky of 1981, halfway between musical notes and barb wire.

And that’s it, a different tour of We Set the Tone, a remix of the exhibition design.

A show I really liked – maybe because I know sh— about music. And don’t buy the catalogue, there’s not all works in.

We Set the Tone, Kupferstichkabinett, 21 July-05 November 2017

World of Arts Magazine - Contemporary Art Criticism



bottom of page