The first time I walked into the huge room with high ceilings at the Winnipeg Art Gallery where artist Stephen Hutchings‘ installation Landscapes For the End of Time is displayed my mouth literally dropped open in awe.
Hutchings said he’d like people to come away from looking at his Landscapes For the End of Time with a sense that life is a mystery and we are all a small part of the unknown. His paintings certainly had an air of mystery about them for me. I found myself looking at each one and thinking ” I wonder…………….” and imagining what was under the water, or behind the trees or down the road or over the hill in each gigantic landscape.
By reading the book that accompanies the exhibit I learned Hutchings created the 18 feet wide and 8 feet high pieces by first taking photographs. After manipulating the images on the computer he projected them onto a canvas and then using charcoal blocked in his landscape. He used an eraser to give the paintings varieties of light and greater sharpness. Then he applied a color glaze and eventually used paper towels to take away some of the color and add definition.
Hutchings says his inspiration for the Landscapes for the End of Time came from a piece of music by the French composer Olivier Messiaen called Quartet For the End of Time. Messiaen who played the piano for the premiere of the quartet, wrote it while he was in a German prison camp Stalag VIII during World War II. He chose the instruments he did, because they were played by three brilliant fellow musicians who were also in prison with him, clarinetist Henri Akoka, cellist Etienne Pasquier and violinist Jean Boulaire.
I just finished reading For The End of Time by Rebecca Rischin which tells the story of how Messiaen wrote the quartet. It was possible thanks to a music loving prison guard named Karl- Albert Brüll who brought him paper and ink and excused Messiaen from work detail so he could hide out in a latrine and compose the quartet. It premiered on a bitterly cold night in the barracks theatre to three hundred or so prisoners and German officers. Later three of the musicians were released from prison because of Brüll who doctored their documents. The clarinetist Akoka could not be released because he was Jewish, but later managed to escape by jumping off the roof of a moving train.
There are eight movements in the Quartet for the End of Time and Hutchings has created eight paintings in his series Landscapes for the End of Time. This painting is called Abyss and Messiaen’s quartet contains a section called Abyss of the Birds. Apparently composer Messiaen and cellist Pasquier were often put on night watch together when they were serving at a French military camp before they were captured by the Germans. They looked forward to the dawn chorus of the birds that would signal the end of their shift. Messiaen, who was a devoted amateur ornithologist, could identify 500 bird songs. Pasquier recalls, ” We’d hear a ‘peep’, the small cry of a song bird, like a conductor giving the pitch, and then all the birds, the whole orchestra of them would be singing. It was deafening.”
Messiaen a devout Catholic based his famous quartet on a passage from the book of Revelation 10:6 which in the King James version ends with the words …..there should be time no longer. Messiaen’s widow says he was enthralled with the idea that at some point there would be no time…….that time and eternity would merge.
Hutchings’ paintings have a sort of timeless quality about them. It is hard to determine if they were painted to depict an era in the distant past, the present day or some point in the future. Hutchings has said he wants his landscapes to show the continuity of life and time.
In Rischin’s book she quotes Messiaen as saying that whenever he hears music he sees colors. Two of the colors that came to mind when he wrote Quartet for the End of Time were gold and brown. Interestingly gold and brown are the main colors in Hutchings Landscapes for the End of Time as well.
Landscapes for the End of Time is an art installation well worth seeing for its beauty, mystery and grandeur alone; but it is made all the more intriguing because of the story behind the music that inspired the paintings.