[Creating a New Discipline]Art Historian Combines Idols and Images to Understand the Facts of Lives

By Hal Karp

Alessandra Comini's research has given rise to a new discipline -- musical iconography, the study of pictures and images related to music. Comini, University Distinguished Professor of Art History in Meadows School of the Arts, has combined her two loves -- art and music -- into a multidisciplinary approach to history unlike any other. She is a pioneer into the past, searching out new ideas and concepts, and ultimately, the truth.

Comini's research focuses on idols, images, and environments that surround historic artists and musicians. She theorizes that by looking beyond the art itself to the images that created the environment it arose from, one can gain a multitude of knowledge on many levels.

"For me, the connection between the artist and the images that filled his or her life is everything," Comini says. "I call it the cultural content of artistic form. If I study the idols and images that created a composer's life, what will they tell me? What I've discovered -- the slides and pictures, the travels, the knowledge -- no one else possesses these things in this context."

Comini's passion has led to her latest endeavors, which include expansive studies of Scandinavian art and music. During the past seven years, she has traveled throughout Scandinavia, allowing her journeys to take on lives of their own. "Often things evolve. I generally don't know where my work is headed; I only know I better photograph and collect, and allow the truth to surface," she says.

An example of her modus operandi is an adventure that led Comini to Finland four years ago. After presenting a lecture at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York City, Comini was approached by a man who introduced himself as the great-grandson of Axeli Gallen-Kallela. "He was surprised that I knew of his great-grandfather, who was Finland's greatest male painter at the turn of the century," she says.

Comini eventually was invited to visit the family; she stayed for a month. During her visit, she encountered an overlooked moment in history -- three hours to be exact. In 1907 Gustav Mahler came to Helsinki for five days. His visit, performance, and time spent with Sibelius are well-documented. What is not commonly known is that on the Saturday morning of his stay, he was whisked away in a motor boat by Gallen-Kallela for a three-hour tour of Helsinki's skerries and an excursion to a log-and-stone home on the shore of Lake Vitträsk.

On record, Comini says, are only two letters that Mahler had written to his wife, Alma, about his visit to Helsinki. Comini decided to dig around and explore the artistic circle that Mahler touched in Finland in hopes of discovering some untold treasures from his trip. She struck Scandinavian gold.

"The Gallen-Kallela family provided me with a photograph of the actual motor boat," she says. "I also found the actual hotel where Mahler stayed. No one else had ever been able to figure that out. I did it from a description in his letter to Alma of Gallen-Kallela's motor boat arriving. And I sat in front of the same fireplace Mahler sat in front of at the home that Gallen-Kallela took him to. It was there the Finnish artist sketched him, creating a stunning portrait. And I have pictures of it all." Comini published her discoveries in 1996 in the Dutch musicological journal Muziek & Wetenschap.

Also in the Scandinavian vein, Comini has pursued her other chief interest under musical iconography -- revisionism. "I'm working hard to resuscitate the women artists of Scandinavia."

True to her mission, in a 1995 issue of Women Artists Journal, Comini published a major review of the oeuvre catalogue of Helene Schjerfbeck, a Finnish painter and contemporary of Gallen-Kallela. Schjerfbeck has been chiefly ignored because "while Gallen-Kallela painted large murals, she painted small portraits," Comini says.

Other women Comini has successfully brought to light are Alma Mahler, who was a composer herself before her marriage to Gustav Mahler, and German artist Kūthe Kollwitz (1867-1945). In an article, "Kollwitz in Context: The Formative Years," published in 1992 by Yale University Press for a retrospective of Kollwitz' work at the National Gallery of Art, Comini examines the context of Kollwitz' life. Kollwitz used "art as a hammer with which to shape reality," she says.

Comini has published the results of her work in numerous reviews, essays, and articles for national and international publications. She also has published seven books, many of which have garnered awards and critical acclaim, including her pinnacle work in musical iconography, The Changing Image of Beethoven: A Study in Mythmaking (Rizzoli, 1987). By utilizing paintings, sculptures, prints, and verbal accounts, Comini examines the contradictory images of Beethoven during his life and beyond.

"The myths about Beethoven were the largest," Comini says, "because he was the great one. In addition to exterior images of Beethoven, such as various forms of art, there were also interior images of Beethoven, held by composers who followed him. And those images strongly affected them, their music, their conducting, and so forth."

Before Beethoven, however, there was Brahms, Comini's first composer of contextual study. When she joined SMU in 1974, Comini came upon a most unusual find: a portfolio of pictures taken of Brahms' apartment in Vienna shortly after his death. "An enterprising friend of Brahms photographed every wall of the place where Brahms lived for the last 25 years of his life," she says. "And those photographs had lain fallow for years."

With a magnifying glass, Comini examined the photos, and her finds were one of a kind. For example, Brahms still displayed his childhood toy soldiers. The color schemes of his apartment were representative of the chromaticism of his music. On his walls were prints by contemporary artist and friend Max Klinger. Most interesting were two effigies found in the apartment that attest to the greatest influences in Brahms' life -- Bismarck and Bach -- the Iron Chancellor of Germany and the master contrapuntalist of Baroque.

In an article, "The Visual Brahms: Idols and Images," published in Arts Magazine in 1979, Comini explains how Bismarck and Bach lay at the poles of Brahms' life: on one end, politics and North Germany, and on the other, his musical heritage and roots. From that comparision, musical iconography was born.

Of late, Comini contributed to Stagebill for the Metropolitan Opera, writing essays on such works as Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel and Wagner's Ring Cycle. Her lectures have been requested by orchestras, universities, and symposia around the globe, including the Leipzig Gewandhaus Symposia under conductor Kurt Masur. Her awards and honors are numerous, including the Grand Decoration of Honor from the Republic of Austria in 1990 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women's Caucus for Art in 1995.

In between her research quests, Comini continues to do what she loves the most -- teach. "The true joy of my research is that the information filters back into my classes," she says. Her classes are filled not only with students, but also with auditors that range from Dallas Museum of Art docents to local physicians. In turn, Comini's students have shown their appreciation for her devotion to teaching by selecting her "Outstanding Professor" eight times during her SMU career.

Comini, who earned a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. in art history, respectively, from Barnard College, University of California-Berkley, and Columbia University, originally planned to major in philosophy. "But when I took my first art history course at Barnard, I was hooked. The whole world was suddenly revealed to me."

For the future, Comini hopes to delve into the life and images of Mendelssohn. Ultimately, she will bring it all home to the classroom.

"It is the teaching that matters most," Comini says. "I'm far more interested in imparting information that will allow my students to develop their character and humanity than giving them knowledge they can just as easily look up. The ignition of the soul is what I'm shooting for. That's where true fulfillment lies."