This semester, things are looking a little different at the museum from what we are used to. While we cannot guide tours and run in-person programming, there are still fifty pieces from the museum’s permanent collection on display. To guide viewers’ experiences, members of the Museum Club and SEAM have compiled a playlist inspired by these important works. Scan the Spotify code above and listen along as you read our members’ song recommendations and see eight of the pieces on display!
Swiss Mountain Scene by Albert Bierstadt and “The Sweetness” by The Nields
“Albert Bierstadt’s Swiss Mountain Scene depicts a serene, beautiful Swiss mountainside, and two boats full of workers transporting materials across the river bend. The area seems almost untouched by humans, except for a small cluster of cabins on the shores of the river. I imagine that in this painting, we are seeing the beginnings of early industry, and perhaps this small town’s location along the water will make it an important hub later on. Swiss Mountain Scene was painted at a time of transition in Bierstadt’s life: After this work was completed, he went to the United States for the first time, painting many mountain ranges on the western side of the country. The Johnson Museum has previously noted that Bierstadt paints natural scenes with ‘an overall sense of beauty and majesty without the dangers of the wilderness.’ It seems as though Swiss Mountain Scene represents the beginning of a new life for both Bierstadt and the figures on the boats, but also a sense of naiveté.
A running theme in ‘The Sweetness’ by the folk-rock band The Nields is that people tend to reminisce on earlier parts of their lives focusing on their regrets, but also forgetting many of their negative memories. The Nields end the song by singing ‘I’m a singer, measuring the sweetness that I pull, we only need a little but we’re always wanting more.’ Depicting the Swiss Mountains without any potentially dangerous wildlife is a decision by Bierstadt to see more ‘sweetness’ in the world, even if the mountain range is beautiful as-is. One lyric, ‘once that sweetness passes, you can never get it back,’ makes me think of pivotal moments, or times when you experience big changes that alter your outlook on life. Swiss Mountain Scene is one of the last moments of ‘sweetness’ in Bierstadt’s work before he goes to the United States and is exposed to new techniques and points of view. It isn’t necessarily bad to move on in life— it’s simply a different experience.” – Clara Enders
Almeh Performing the Sword Dance (or, Sword Dancer) by Jean-Léon Gérôme and “Woman” by Kesha
“One of the big problems in the art world is how white men paint people of a different genders, races, and cultures. They have often over-sexualized people they see as being different, and their pieces cater to problematic stereotypes. It reminded me about how Kesha wrote a song claiming her power, as a woman in an industry dominated by men.” – Ariana Garcia-Cassani
Pink Hills by Georgia O’Keeffe and “Pink + White” by Frank Ocean
“The song “Pink + White” by Frank Ocean came to mind when I saw the Pink Hills because of this motif of the color pink. In both instances, the color pink serves as a motif or symbol of natural beauty and the feeling of serenity that it invokes. The vast pink landscape illustrates the notion that nature is infinite enough to explore for an eternity. indeed, both the song and the painting by Georgia O’Keeffe serves as an ode or love song to our expansive world.” – Ax Ortiz
Camera Obscura Image of La Giraldilla de la Habana in Room With Broken Wall by Abelardo Morell and “Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14, H 48: V. Songe d’une Nuit De Sabbat” by Hector Berlioz
“The image Camera Obscura image of La Giraldilla de la Habana In Room With Broken Wall is in black and white, and it is flipped upside-down by the camera obscura. The landscape teems with blurred shadows as the image took hours to develop, so any subject that moved in reality became distorted in the photo. Therefore, the image subverts our expectations of the real world and instead presents a haunted landscape.
I paired this photo with a portion of Berlioz’s ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ because the composer intended to tell the story of an artist who poisons himself with opium and enters an eerie and disruptive dream-like reality. In the fifth movement, Berlioz employs the Latin sequence of Dies irae, originally a medieval 4-note sequence that was used at funerals to evoke images of Judgement Day. To me, the dark, flipped upside-down landscape Morell creates reminds me of the disturbing reality Berlioz crafts in his music.
It is interesting to note as well that Morell’s image features the statue of La Giradella, which is a weathervane shaped in the form of a woman that sits atop Castillo de la Real Fuerza–– a fort created during an era in which Cuba was colonized by the Spanish. His photo intends to call attention to what he believes is the ‘decay’ of present-day Cuba, and Morell uses this colonial-period statue to convey this theme of an altered reality. This fascination with the female subject also reminds me of Berlioz’s piece, as he wrote ‘Symphonie Fantastique’ after his persistent (and creepy) efforts to win the affection of a Parisian actress failed. In Berlioz’s piece, the woman is simply an object for which the artist crafts his despair and melodrama on top of; she represents disembodied fantasy. In Morell’s piece too, the upside-down statue of a woman likewise represents a fantasy, a longing for an intangible and imagined past for which the artist builds his haunting reality atop of.” – Madison Albano
Earthships and Their Neighbors by Lisa Sanditz and “I Dreamt In Commercials” by Beverly Kills
“I connected the song ‘I Dreamt in Commercials’ to Earthships and Their Neighbors because both make me think of the juxtaposition between reality and fantasy. The painting depicts a natural landscape intruded by whimsical, manmade features, while the song is about the surreal blurring between idealized dreams and reality. Both pieces make me feel thoughtful and creative.” – Alicia Gonzalez
Cosmos by Leo Villareal and “City of Stars” from La La Land
“The lights of Cosmos evoke stars in the same way the lights of the buildings of Los Angeles do. The song captures the edge of opportunity, which is topical for both the characters at that point in their lives in the film, and college students getting ready for their lives at Cornell. It’s the balance between the fear of the unknown and the excitement for it. The composer described the tone as ‘hopeful, but melancholy at the same time,’ capturing both ‘[the] great moments and… [the] less great moments in life.'” – Victoria Reiter
Jar with lotus design, unknown artist and “Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Felix Mendelssohn
“‘Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream’ makes me think of the plants in the forest bending and swaying in the mysterious breezes of the forest primeval. The bursts of string and percussion remind me of the large lotus blossoms that punctuate the piece. The repetitive nature of the themes also calls to mind the radially repeating pattern.” – Jenna Israel
Red Rose in a Tumbler by Martin Johnson Heade and “Gymnopedie No. 1” by Daniel Varsano
“This painting feels very calm and mellow to me. I think that ‘Gymnopedie No. 1’ is very peaceful and conveys a similar sense of softness that the painting does.” – Sophia Miller
We hope that our playlist inspires you to consider other ways to tie art into your daily life. Be on the lookout for more information on our virtual Take ‘n Make activities on October 17th and November 14th, and for more fun events to help you stay connected with the Johnson Museum this semester!