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Art and Low Vision: The Sound of Monet’s Weeping Willow Series

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Hear the audio version of this blog post. Narration: Kevin Gillins. Music performed by La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations; conductor: Jordi Savall.

I am looking at Monet's Weeping Willow series and want to describe these works to people who cannot see. I think music, with its sensual and dramatic language will most elegantly convey the power of these works.

In 1791, Mozart composed in Vienna parts of what is now known as the Requiem Mass in D Minor (K. 626). Mozart died that year on December 5, leaving the work unfinished. The following eight bars from "Lacrimosa" were among the fragments discovered in the wake of Mozart's untimely death. It is a short passage written for strings and choir.

The opening bars of W. A. Mozart’s "Lacrimosa" from the Requiem in D minor KV 626.The opening bars of W. A. Mozart’s "Lacrimosa" from the Requiem in D minor KV 626.In the opening bars the melody traces a curved move from C sharp to the upper D, and then back again to the same C sharp. A similar move, though more condensed, can be heard from the choir, specifically from the sopranos who sing, "La-a-cri-mo-sa, Di-ies-il-la…" What do these curved melodic lines express? A glance at the text that inspired them might answer this question: Lacrimosa dies illa (That day is one of weeping). These melodic curves, which provide the structural motive for the development of the entire passage, evoke the character of a mournful atmosphere.

Claude Monet, Weeping Willow, 1918–19, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 47 1/4 in. (99.7 x 120 cm), Kimbell Art MuseumClaude Monet, Weeping Willow, 1918–19, oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 47 1/4 in. (99.7 x 120 cm), Kimbell Art MuseumLooking at Monet's Weeping Willow series, one sees that the shape of the falling branches and the way the painter composed them on the canvas echo a movement strikingly similar to that of Mozart's melody. Monet's figures extend their bodies from the ground up toward the sky, then down again toward the earth, casting shadows over whatever lies beneath their branches. It is only during the sunset or sunrise that one can see spots of light coming through this darkness for a brief moment, like a fire or an explosion – a tragic crescendo that ultimately lacks power and energy, remaining weak forever. Monet scholars argue that the Weeping Willow paintings share a tragic and disturbing mood because they were created in mournful response to the mass tragedy of World War I.

In Mozart's "Lacrimosa," the sense of melancholy is not evoked by the sequence of the pitches alone. The sorrowful tone relies equally on many other elements such as the range of durations and, more importantly, the distribution of the tones in the non-accented locations of the 12/8 meter; these are but two elements that make these melodic attempts at elevation sound temporary and weak.

Similarly, in Monet's works, the lack of vanishing points and of the horizon line, the curvature of the branches and the use of dark colors suggests just this kind of emotion. With this overarching mélange of visual elements, it may be said quite rightly that one sees the intangible emotion of sadness become manifest in the Weeping Willow paintings.

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