1. Nat King Cole, “Mona Lisa” (1950)
Most songs are inspired by songwriters’ emotions or a story that they want to tell, but some are reactions to other works of art. While that usually means other songs, visual art also sometimes serves as a catalyst for songwriters. Nat King Cole’s iconic “Mona Lisa,” written by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston and inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, compares a beautiful woman with the mysterious subject of the portrait. But don’t be fooled into thinking the comparison is a compliment. At one point Cole asks whether the woman, like the picture, is a “cold and lonely work of art.” Originally written for a forgotten film, Captain Carey, U.S.A., the song has remained as an ode to enigmatic women, who, like the Mona Lisa, hide secrets behind their smiles.
2. The Beatles, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (1967)
The genesis of The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” has been debated since its inception (the initials spelling out LSD was supposedly proof of it being about tripping on acid), but the song actually has a more endearing inspiration: a childhood drawing by John Lennon’s son, Julian. It’s not clear how much of the song’s imagery actually existed in the original work; if the drawing contained that much, Julian must have brought home a large-scale mural to show his father. Lennon always said that the Lucy in question was a schoolmate of Julian’s, and Lennon was so taken with his son’s work of art that he turned it into song form.
3. Pixies, “Debaser” (1989)
Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s surrealist silent short “Un Chien Andalou” opens with an iconic scene of a man (played by Buñuel) slitting open a woman’s eye with a razor. Inspired by that “film about nothing in particular,” Black Francis penned the lyrics to the opening track from Pixies’ Doolittle, a nonsense mix of shouting about wanting to show someone “Un Chien Andalou.” The opening lines, “Got me a movie / I want you know / Slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know,” couldn’t refer to anything else, and that surrealistic streak runs through the rest of the album and Francis’ career.
4. Siouxsie And The Banshees, “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen)” (1978)
Post-punk pioneers Siouxsie And The Banshees were never shy about paying homage to their cultural inspirations, from Siouxsie Sioux’s Louise Brooks-meets-Gustav Klimt style to the band’s beautiful covers of everyone from Billie Holiday to The Beatles. But the group’s most blatant reference to a work of art came in 1978 with the song “Metal Postcard (Mittageisen).” Based on John Heartfield’s 1935 photomontage Hurrah! Die Butter Ist Alle!, the eerie song refracts Heartfield’s bleakly satirical reaction to the infamous “guns or butter” speech from Nazi leader Hermann Göring. (It didn’t hurt that Sioux was aligning herself with such a legendary anti-Nazi artist after she’d been criticized for wearing a swastika, as was the punk fashion at the time.) That “Metal Postcard” appeared on The Banshee’s debut album, The Scream—named for the iconic Edvard Munch painting—underscored just how much the band was beholden to art history, or at least art classes.
5. Titus Andronicus, “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus” (2008)
The influences on Titus Andronicus acknowledge no barriers of highbrow and lowbrow. The band cribbed its moniker from a Shakespearean tragedy and then named its first album in honor of George Costanza’s least favorite part of Festivus. The Airing Of Grievances’ song titles allude to such literary figures as Hunter S. Thompson and Albert Camus, but main songwriter and frontman Patrick Stickles dug into the visual arts for the biggest mouthful on the tracklist, “Upon Viewing Brueghel’s Landscape With The Fall Of Icarus.” As that title implies, the song isn’t so much about the Flemish master’s understated illustration of a Greek myth as much as it is about the feeling it evokes, a blush of personal calamity amid a world that just keeps marching on. “All the pretty horses / All the flowers and trees,” Stickles shout-sings, with a bonus nod to Cormac McCarthy. “They will all mean less than nothing when it all has come to be.” Fittingly, the song echoes William Carlos Williams’ tribute to the painting in verse, the poet’s “a splash quite unnoticed / This was / Icarus drowning” embodied in Titus’ spaz-punk thrashings against the inevitable fall of everything and everyone.
6. Peter Bjorn And John, “Blue Period Picasso” (2009)
“Ekphrasis” usually refers to a literary encapsulation of visual art, but applying the principles to music engages with multiple senses to approximate the experience of artwork. On the 2009 album Living Thing, Swedish pop songwriters Peter Bjorn And John took a turn from the breeziness of Writer’s Block to make a more experimental sound. That stylistic departure is most evident on “Blue Period Picasso,” a pop song as dramatic monologue. The narrator is an unnamed Picasso painting from the artist’s 1901-1904 stretch, which focused on using monochromatic shades for somber subjects. It starts out as a vocal harmony as the painting bemoans its fate, “Stuck on a wall / In the middle of a hall in Barcelona,” yearning to escape the confines of a museum. As electronic touches fill out the track, the painting begs to be stolen and taken outside, to “wherever [it] originally came from.” By personifying a painting as a trapped, lonely being, PB&J emphasize the value of viewing great art—and the emotions that arise from those experiences.
7. The Stone Roses, “Guernica” (1989)
To the same extent that Picasso’s Guernica exceeds at capturing the agony and chaos of internecine strife (in this case the Spanish Civil War), The Stone Roses’ “Guernica” fails to do anything close. The song appears on the B-side of the group’s 1989 single “Made Of Stone,” and it’s merely the title track played backward with the addition of new lyrics from frontman Ian Brown—something that’s more of a lark than a work of art. Still, it’s a pretty song in a psychedelic way, and Brown’s lyrics manage to capture a sliver of the haunted tone of its inspiration. And at least the band is coming from a place of true art appreciation; not only is guitarist John Squire an accomplished painter of Jackson Pollock-esque renown (as seen on The Stone Roses’ record covers), the group’s later song “Going Down” mentions Pollock, and his painting No. 5, by name.
8. Status Quo, “Pictures Of Matchstick Men” (1967)
Status Quo went on to be one of the biggest bands in Britain in the ’70s, but in 1967 it was just another struggling group trying to milk the psychedelic trend of the decade. It did so admirably with its first hit, “Pictures Of Matchstick Men,” which was released that year. Wavering, trippy, and eminently catchy, it remains a vivid example of hallucinogenic artistry—and also of artistic reference, as the lyrics’ rubbery rush of color and quirk is Francis Rossi’s tribute to the paintings of L.S. Lowry, who humbly referred to the stylized human figures in his paintings as “matchstick men.”
9. King Crimson, “The Night Watch” (1974)
“The smell of paint, a flask of wine / And turn all those faces to me / The blunderbuss and halberd-shaft / And Dutch respectability,” sings John Wetton on King Crimson’s 1974 song “The Night Watch.” The source of the lyrics are no secret: Named for Rembrandt’s 1642 painting The Night Watch, the moody prog-rock song uses a similar play on light and shadow, even as numerous details from the rich canvas are cataloged with the eye of a connoisseur, from “the worthy Captain and his squad of troopers standing fast,” “the canvas dark with age,” and how it all remains “still living through the painter’s hand.”
10. XTC, “Statue Of Liberty” (1978)
Everyone from Laurie Anderson to, um, Laurie Anderson’s husband Lou Reed has sung about the Statue Of Liberty. But the most indelible musical mention of the monument—designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and dedicated in 1886—was by XTC. The British pop band was still in its germinal post-punk stage in the late ’70s, which accounts for the sharp angles and spiky attitude of the group’s 1978 song “Statue Of Liberty.” Not to mention the cheekiness of lyrics like “In my fantasy I sail beneath your skirt,” which led to a BBC ban on the single.
11. Peter Hammill, “The Lie (Bernini’s Saint Theresa)” (1974)
As the creative core of cult progressive-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator, Peter Hammill has never had a problem being oblique about his subject matter. But he nails it in “The Lie (Bernini’s Saint Theresa).” The 1974 song, which appears on his solo album The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage, lets the subtitle clue the listener in on the song’s subject. But with typical Hammill perversity, he doesn’t sing glowingly. “Genuflection, erection in church,” he croons dramatically, beginning a sacrilegious screed aimed at Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s 17th-century statue The Ecstasy Of Saint Teresa—and putting the “X” in “Ecstasy” along the way. Unsurprisingly, Hammill is one of the few prog artists that John Lydon would cite as influential to his irreverent work with The Sex Pistols.
12. Television, “Venus” (1977)
Television’s seminal debut album, Marquee Moon,is filled with yearning, both lyrical and instrumental, for a perfect artistic expression. Yet there’s also wariness about that form of experience, knowledge that embodying an ideal is ultimately self-destructive and even contradictory. On the record’s second track, “Venus,” frontman Tom Verlaine uses the Venus De Milo statue as a metaphor for this internal tension. With Television’s typically majestic interweaving guitar parts behind him, he sings about going on tour, and falling into the arms of Venus De Milo, the famously armless statue with the reputation of being the pinnacle of artistic expression in its medium. Verlaine stays within Venus’ arms until song character Richie says, “Hey man let’s dress up like cops / Think of what we could do!” Verlaine rejects the idea, rejects the call to become the kind of rock star who’s unconstrained by societal norms, setting himself apart from former bandmate and famous punker Richard Hell, who had recently quit Television. Verlaine’s decision seems to promise more stability, but Television, like Hell’s band The Voidoids, released one classic record followed by an uneven but fascinating second album.
13. The Verlaines, “Death And The Maiden” (1983)
“You’re just too, too obscure for me,” sings the Verlaines’ Graeme Downes at the opening of the band’s defining 1983 single. In addition to the artistic theme from which the song takes its title, Downes name-drops a pair of French symbolist poets, but it sounds as if he’s just trying to make small talk with the obscurantist object of his affections: “Do you like Paul Verlaine? Is it gonna rain today?” Perhaps it’s just as well Downes seems destined to go home alone, since the Edvard Munch painting depicting this theme includes a desiccated male figure being sucked dry by a skeletal female succubus—not exactly promising second-date material.
14. Sufjan Stevens, “Get Real Get Right” (2010)
When Sufjan Stevens contributed music to Make, a documentary about self-taught artists, he found himself inspired by the story of Royal Robertson—a schizophrenic Louisianan sign maker, folk artist, and self-proclaimed prophet. Stevens’ discovery of Robertson’s dreamlike depictions and hallucinogenic combinations of science-fiction, comic-book, biblical, and astrological imagery as well as Robertson’s many other seemingly disparate influences resulted in his 2010 album, The Age Of Adz. For most of his creative life, Robertson worked in near poverty; much of his art was composed with markers and glitter on poster board. But the story of the artist’s manic descent while struggling against his schizophrenia gave Stevens a springboard to a radical musical departure, latching onto the artist’s fantasy world and directly addressing the prophet on “Get Real Get Right.”
15. John Cale/Lou Reed, Songs For Drella (1990)
More than the pop-art imprints of Marilyn Monroe and cans of tomato soup, more than the multimedia “happenings,” more than the experimental films—including Sleep, a movie of a man sleeping for five-plus hours—Andy Warhol’s greatest work of art was Andy Warhol.His careful presentation of himself and curatorial approach to his own identity and reception (he authored a book called The Philosophy Of Andy Warhol), Warhol’s personality defined the arch self-consciousness of pop art. Lou Reed and John Cale’s 1990 record Songs For Drella is an ode to Warhol. Even its title, a portmanteau of “Dracula” and “Cinderella” sometimes used in Warhol’s inner circle, posits Warhol as a construction, a work of art. Drawing from Cale and Reed’s deep admiration for Warhol, who was instrumental in helping to break The Velvet Underground, Songs For Drella also works as a pop eulogy offered by two longtime friends.