Poulenc & Joosten: works of the painters

Synaesthesia is the ability to see colours when hearing sounds or to hear sounds when seeing colours. In 1956, the composer Francis Poulenc wrote Le travail du peintre – The Work of the Painter. Poulenc was inspired by Paul Éluard’s collection of poems of the same name, which, in turn, was inspired by avant-garde paintings, including by Picasso and Chagall, with whom he was friends or known. Maybe this is not literal synaesthesia, but it is mutual influence.

When the corona pandemic broke out, intendant Waut Koeken thought of having the song cycle Le travail du peintre performed with a visual interpretation by painter and set designer André Joosten, who designed the sets for the postponed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Opera Zuid. The crisis did not leave Joosten out in the cold. ‘When the pandemic broke out in the Netherlands, I was working at the National Opera on a production of Die Sieben Todsünden by Brecht and Weill. I would paint live on stage during the performances. When I got over my nerves and stage fright, we were told a few days before the premiere that we could go home… These are strange times, and I’m just about over the worst of it.’

Joosten knew he wanted to do this project. ‘I wasn’t familiar with the Le travail du peintre cycle, but I’m already fond of Poulenc. I wanted to make an artwork live for every song, like with the Todsünden. That format proved difficult because the music only lasts about twelve minutes. I wouldn’t have enough time for anything. Nevertheless, I immersed myself in the material, also felt Éluard and Poulenc’s inspirations: Picasso, Chagall, Braque, Gris, Klee, Miró and Villon. What names! And the music of that world-famous gentleman and that famous poet…’

The result was slightly different than intended. Joosten: ‘While listening, reading and watching, I made some artworks, seven reactions to seven songs.

Joosten’s seven artworks have their own colour and identity. You might recognise a vague hint of Picasso’s or Klee’s style, but they are each artist’s autonomous responses to the other. A large yellow-red eye is reminiscent of Miró, but Joosten always transforms the similarity into his own style. ‘It is an interesting reaction to this material in bizarre times. That’s why I take Le travail du peintre – The Work of the Painter – very literally!’