When Gordon Goetemann first heard Gustav Mahler's "Second Symphony" as a college student in 1956, the music and lessons of the 19th century composer transported the young artist into a new philosophical world.
A half century later, the professor emeritus sought an artistic and intellectual challenge that which led him to devote nearly six years to create his own visual interpretation of the musical work, also known as the "Resurrection Symphony."
His challenge would be to share his vision with others in a series of paintings in which he weaves the two fine arts of music and painting together after decades of contemplation of the state of man and his place in the world.
Now, that series — titled "A Narrative of Life and Glory" — is on exhibition at Gloucester's Cape Ann Museum.
Goetemann found the "Second Symphony" entrancing with its intrinsic ideals of finding "freedom in the face of adversity, courage in the face of dislocation, and eternal life in the face of human decay."
"Mahler's canvas was the world; human emotion were his colors, sound was his vehicle. His music vibrates the soul. It pierces, shatters and terrifies. It nurtures and transports. It is joyful, mournful, satirical, dramatic and above all, romantic to its core," Goetemann wrote in his artist's statement.
The artwork that emerged is larger than life, with 15 paintings, depicting a wide range of content and emotion.
The canvas for "Movement One," depicted in somber tones, illustrates a funeral rite. In contrast, the final canvas depicting "Movement Five C" glows in warm yellow and golden tones.
"Faith is our greatest gift," said Goetemann. "Without faith, there is no relief from the daily anxieties and suffering that life can bring."
When Goetemann first heard Mahler's musical masterpiece, he knew next to nothing about classical music.
"But I did a lot of listening from that point on," he said during an interview at his home in the Rocky Neck Art Colony.
Goetmann was a young man of 23 at the University of Iowa working toward a master's degree in fine art. His roommate was a timpanist with the university symphony who arranged for Goetemann to attend the dress rehearsals for the concert featuring Mahler's "Second Symphony."
"This was the first time I was on a secular campus and exposed to secular ideas. Up to that point, I had 17 years of Catholic education," recalled the artist, now 76.
"The prevailing philosophy at the time was existentialism" he said. "I was getting over a certain shock at my naivety and whether it was OK to start experiencing things that come out of that climate. I was full of this tremendous sense of idealism and Romantic ideas."
Goetemann continued to attend the rehearsals and listen to the university conductor speak about Mahler and read about what Mahler had said.
"I was impressed with the heroic grandeur and romance of the project and impressed with Mahler's proactive position," said Goetemann. "Mahler's message was faith — believe. If you believe, your prayers will be answered and your life will become meaningful and you will achieve eternal life. I liked that idea."
The music and these new ideas made a profound impact on the emerging artist.
"It played a major role in the formation of my values and how I behaved as a painter," he said. "I was entering into the world as a professional artist and I wondered what that meant.
"I came to believe that art — if it's going to be great — has to be about something more than just subject matter. Mahler had a take-charge philosophical view in that you have to make choices and your values will be established by the choices you make."
Goetemann finished his education and spend a lifetime teaching. For 40 years, he worked with Benedictine monks and sisters in liberal arts colleges in the Midwest.
But he married a Gloucester girl, Judith, whom he met when he came to Cape Ann in the summer of 1954 to study with Umberto Romano, a noted New York artist. When he retired in 1998, he settled permanently in Gloucester, where he immersed himself in new artistic endeavors.
He continued to contemplate Mahler's "Second Symphony," about life and death and eternal life.
Goetemann describes the work as a "heroic narrative of life and glory." The 19th century composer wrote the work between 1888 and 1894. The work often is performed with an orchestra of 48 musicians playing 23 various instruments, with a section featuring a chorus of more than 200 voices.
He listened to Mahler's "Second Symphony" dozens of times.
"I got to a point that I could hum just about any part of it," said Goetemann. "I don't read notes so I had to develop my own language."
The artist talked about the seminal work that led to the greater collection of paintings.
"It all began with a 10-minute computer sketch," he said. "I have a philosophical belief that what I do first is what I intend to do. But the challenge was to tell the story conveyed through the music. At that point, I was sated with my feelings and impressions by the music I heard. So when I sat down and tried to say it all, this sketch is what came out."
That was the beginning of a long process that led to what he calls a "didactic" exhibit — that is, both educational and entertaining.
The creative process has two parts, he said. The first part was an intellectual evolution as Goetemann expanded on the ideas until he came to understand the subject matter in a narrative form.
"The second part is going from narrative to allegory. I moved from the subject matter to the content and meaning of that narrative. I'm going to use the idea of going from the corporal world to the spiritual world," he said. "That bridge in the process, from subject to allegory, some of it came about because of the grace of God."
He strived to transform the musical notes into spatial dimensions, creating a visual record of the work, which transcends the corporal world and death, emerging into a spiritual realm.
"Mahler saw man in his earthly form as being entrapped, the dichotomy about having a body that is in a state of dying from the start and decay and having a mind that allows you to soar with the angels," said Goetemann.
"Mahler thought the world makes no sense. It was only his faith that would save him," said the artist, who talked about how his faith propelled him through this achievement.
Goetemann's challenge would be how to illustrate as an artist what Mahler conveyed through music.
Seeking to understand a spatial understanding of the music, he had an interesting encounter with his neighbor, Ruth Mordecai, a classical trained artist and sculptor now working in the abstract.
When she first saw that initial small computer work, she exclaimed to Goetemann that image contained a chai, the Hebrew symbol for life. She was referring to a trapezoid-like shape that Goetemann would come to see as symbolic and a unifying element in the series.
"I remember making that line of dark blue, and I remember being shocked at the intensity of that blue and yet it never got painted out. It stayed there and now I know why," he said. "It gives an edge to the corporal world. By the time I got to the 'Fourth Movement,' it became purely spiritual."
At the time, Goetemann had no idea what a chai looked like or what it meant.
"I think God did that," he said. "I intended to use grubby earthlike color, but that blue emerged. Part of the challenge was how do I present something so grand with a singularity about it. The unity is presented through the repeated use of that shape."
That shape represents both the entrapment of man in his corporeal form or the physical world, as well as the enveloping spiritual realm.
As he developed his ideas, Goetemann had the challenge of keeping an intense focus on his work.
"I prayed a lot. I prayed for insight on how do I solve this problem and how do I express what I feel," he said. "I felt satisfied that I always got an answer to my prayers and I could progress on my work."
The musical movements he sought to paint are diverse, from lyrical and pastoral moments to intense crescendos as well as notes of longing, all ending in a monumental finale.
Ronda Faloon, the director of the Cape Ann Museum, said the museum is excited to host this exhibition, which is a departure from its historic fare.
"This is the culmination of many years work by an artist pursuing a passion — it is very personal work, both introspective, almost meditative, and triumphant," she said. "A visitor can experience the exhibition by sight alone with the music expressed in bold strokes and colors, or by listening to excerpts of the symphony paired with the artist's discussion of each painting."
The exhibition is being shown in a gallery generally used to exhibit the museum's permanent collection.
"This is the first time that we have shown a special exhibition in the space," she said. "But it is well-suited for this work — this is a place for contemplation."
When Mordecai saw the finished work hanging at the museum, she was pleased at the achievement of a fellow artist.
"It's almost not about Mahler for me. It's about a mature artist putting all his energy for five years into doing a body of work that is both intellectual and emotional," she said. "That's the integration you look for your whole life. Here is a man who has devoted his whole life to art — making and teaching — and in a way it's a summary of what he has thought about."
Mordecai's favorite canvas is the one representing the final symphonic movement.
"I felt that it was transformative," she said. "I felt transported into another place in that painting.
"That last piece speaks to me of faith. It's like a meditation — a fabulous mediation."
Gail McCarthy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
What: A gallery talk about the current exhibition "A Narrative of Life and Glory," inspired by Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony as created on canvas by Gloucester artist Gordon Goetemann
When: Saturday, Jan. 16 at 10:30 a.m. Space is limited and reservations are required; call 978-283-0455, x11.
Where: The Cape Ann Museum at 27 Pleasant St. in Gloucester.
In Gustav Mahler, Goetemann found both a kindred spirit and a muse, whose musical masterpiece is the basis for these paintings. The exhibit is on view through Jan. 31. The Museum is wheelchair accessible. For more information call 978-283-0455 or www.capeannmuseum.org. For more information on the exhibit, visit goetemanngallery.com/mahler.