The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eighty Four
Unveiling a new exhibition of Viennese portraiture. Plus: tailor Patrick Grant sizes up Moroni and why all the best-dressed saints wear Pisanello.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.
First, our new exhibition. Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900, gathers a magnificent array of portraits from one of the great artistic centres of early 20th century Europe. Vienna was a melting pot of cultures in that period, as Leah Kharibian discovered when she met up with the show’s curator, Gemma Blackshaw. They spoke in front of Gustav Klimt’s striking 1904 portrait of a woman dressed head to toe in white. Gemma began by introducing its glamorous subject: Hermine Gallia.
GEMMA BLACKSHAW: Hermine Gallia was a Jewish immigrant – she came from the northern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and she moved to Vienna from the provinces with her husband, Moritz Gallia, who was an industrialist. He worked in gas and electric lighting – and they were very keen to become newly Viennese, to belong, and they tried to assimilate with the wealthy, upper middle-class society of the city by becoming patrons, collectors, by commissioning works such as this portrait by Gustav Klimt.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And she’s in this fantastic, diaphanous gown, with a few, just a few, very subtle sparkly jewels. She looks amazing.
GEMMA BLACKSHAW: She does. She’s extremely glamorous and I think that’s one of the reasons why she commissioned Klimt. Klimt was known for retaining the individuality of his sitter, but also idealising them sufficiently that they would be very pleased with the resulting image. So you can imagine her excitement – going to the private view of this exhibition, with all of her friends, with the society that really mattered, and seeing her work on display. She was now one of Klimt’s women too. She’d really arrived in the city.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now the Gallias represent one side of 1900 Viennese life, but the works that you’re gathering in this show – many of them reveal a darker side to the city, and I’m thinking in particular here of the extraordinary double portrait by Oskar Kokoschka, of the husband and wife, Hans and Erica Tietze. This picture really couldn’t be more different from the Klimt, could it?
GEMMA BLACKSHAW: We really have the shift towards expressionism in Kokoschka’s portrait of Hans and Erica Tietze. It’s a very different way of representing a middle class subject. Hans and Erica Tietze aren’t super-rich; they don’t have the same social status as the Gallias, and I think this means that they can take more risks with their representation, perhaps. Particularly because they never intended their portrait to be displayed in public. This wasn’t something that they wanted to be out in the public domain and that is very different to the Gallias.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And the picture is extraordinary… they’ve got these sort of long, elongated hands, there are all these extraordinary bright, almost brash colours… Kokoschka’s sort of scratched into the paint with the end of his paint-brush – it feels very expressive, it feels very raw. But what was it do you think that they were a little bit worried about in terms of showing this to the public?
GEMMA BLACKSHAW: Vienna 1900 is known as a city of unbelievable anti-Semitism. I think it was very difficult to live as an assimilated Jew in the city. Hans and Erica Tietze had converted. I don’t think they particularly considered themselves to be Jewish, but right-wing critics working in Vienna at that time looked at Kokoschka’s portraits and attacked them and said these were representations of Jewish bodies. I think the Tietzes would have been incredibly anxious about that. They didn’t necessarily want to draw attention to themselves in that way.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: So there’s going to be a real diversity of portraiture, real richness of portraiture, but also these really poignant and actually quite painful stories for people to encounter in your exhibition as well?
GEMMA BLACKSHAW: The exhibition looks at portraiture across the 1900 divide. We go back to 1867 when Jews were first given extra rights in Austro-Hungary and we take it through to the last year of the First World War, so there are aspects of continuity in portrait-painting practices, but also real change – that’s what I’m hoping visitors will appreciate by coming to the show.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Our thanks to Gemma Blackshaw. 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900', sponsored by Credit Suisse, is on display in the Sainsbury Wing and opens to the public on the 9th of October. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Next. Many years ago, Dr Laura Jacobus gave guided tours of the National Gallery. Now she lectures in art history at Birkbeck College, London, but we invited her back to talk to Cathy FitzGerald about one of her favourite pictures. The Virgin and Child with Saints by the 15th century Italian artist, Pisanello, depicts Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint George standing as if in conversation… while above them in a blue sky the Virgin and child hover against a glittering golden sun. Laura began by pointing out an element at the bottom of the work that’s easy to miss.
LAURA JACOBUS: It’s a lovely detail of these strange wavy plants, with little Gentian flowers growing out of them that seem to be clinging to the rocks in the foreground. And when you look closely they resolve themselves into a word and the word is ‘Pisanus’, which is the Latinized version of Pisanello. Not many artists would have been allowed to sign their name on a painting – artists weren’t normally important – but Pisanello was really important and one of the important things about having the painting is that it was a Pisanello.
CATHY FITZGERALD: So what made Pisanello such a superstar artist?
LAURA JACOBUS: Pisanello was very much in demand by the most fabulous courts of the time in Italy. So he worked for the Pope and he worked for the King of Naples and he worked for the Doge of Venice and various dukedoms in the north of Italy and many of these rulers, they gathered around them poets and painters and they got their poets to write about their painters because in classical times, poets had written about painters and the ways in which they praised them were very much conditioned by classical literature.
There was a particular kind of classical literature – the term for it is ekphrasis. It means minutely descriptive detail. And a good piece of ekphrastic writing was believed to make things come alive before your eyes. The description would make things waft under your nose, would make you feel them between your fingertips and make you listen to the scene that was being described. And when the poets wrote about Pisanello’s paintings, they wrote about them in exactly those terms. They’d say things like ‘you can see the frost on the leaves and you can hear the icicles snap and you can smell the wood-smoke in the air. So here, St Anthony Abbot for example is ringing a bell. But beneath him he’s also got this hog – it’s actually a wild boar, but it’s meant to be a hog because St Anthony Abbot kept hogs – and the hog is looking across at St George’s dragon, who’s curled round St George’s feet and you can actually see the end of his snout is raised slightly as it would be if he were sniffing and the dragon is hissing at him, so you hear the dragon’s hiss, but you also smell his foul breath.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And St George himself – he’s very beautifully dressed, isn’t he… he’s got this fantastic outfit that he’s wearing.
LAURA JACOBUS: He’s a fashion plate, he absolutely is. Even the way he’s standing… he’s just standing – look at me, or rather look at what I’m wearing. Isn’t this fabulous? It’s silver armour of the most up to date form of that time and it makes such lovely lines…
CATHY FITZGERALD: It’s very fluid for armour…
LAURA JACOBUS: Absolutely, it’s totally fluid for armour, it makes beautiful shapes. It’s a bit like a piece of haute-couture Japanese costuming, and I haven’t even begun to talk about…
CATHY FITZGERALD: … the hat!
LAURA JACOBUS: The hat! It’s not what you’re going to need to wear in your average joust, let alone your average battle. It’s made of straw and the straw is painted in again a huge amount of detail, so you get the sense of the texture of the straw, but it’s also the height of fashion at this time and we know that at the court of Ferrara where Pisanello worked on and off, we know that some hat makers of Cremona petitioned the Duke of Ferrara to be allowed to open a straw hat shop in the city. And they said as justification for this, that they wanted to bring the latest fashions to Ferrara, so straw hats which you might think are quite ordinary things is actually a really showy piece of the latest in Cremonan fashion.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And what’s Pisanello up to with all of this high fashion?
LAURA JACOBUS: He’s reflecting the courtiers who are going to be looking at his paintings, so that they get that additional frisson, if you like, of seeing their own elegance reflected back at them… this ultra-refined world of the Italian courts, where that epitomises their value… that kind of beauty and perfection… jewel-like quality to it.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Laura Jacobus. And Pisanello’s 'Virgin and Child with Saints' is on display in Room 55.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now for a painting with a unique subject. Giovanni Battista Moroni was a 16th century artist from northern Italy who was much in demand as a portraitist to the aristocracy. But in the 1560s he took the unusual step of depicting a humbler character - a tailor - whose portrait is today among the best-loved works in the Gallery. To hear from someone who knows all about the art of tailoring, we invited Patrick Grant, menswear designer, judge on the BBC’s ‘Great British Sewing Bee’ and director of a Savile Row tailors to give his appreciation of this intriguing painting.
PATRICK GRANT: He looks a serious man… he has the tools of his trade in his hand. He has his shears in his right hand… a very personal piece of equipment for every tailor and one that they will never let another man touch. He looks to be holding in his left a piece of cloth which he’s about to strike. It’s marked with chalk lines. Hard to make out exactly what it is he’s about to cut because the straight lines suggest something that doesn’t exist in modern tailoring as we do it on Savile Row.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And he’s giving us quite a searching look. Is that a look you recognise?
PATRICK GRANT: Going to a tailor can be a bit like going to the hairdresser – you know some of them you get inane chit-chat from beginning to end. This tailor suggests that you’ll be getting none of that in his cutting rooms and there will be customers I think that would relish that approach.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: Moroni is famous for a very naturalistic style. He doesn’t appear to be making things up. Does this ring true? Does this look like a tailor to you? Do you think he’s got all the details right?
PATRICK GRANT: I think in the most part he appears to… I mean the shears themselves look a little small by modern standards for cutting out cloth, but that may just be something that’s evolved over the course of what is close to 450 years. Shears have just got bigger. The height of the table seems a little low and it may be that he’s deliberately stood the tailor up on something so that we can see more of his beautiful trousers. He also appears to be tailoring in some very, very fine clothes, which again, I think, the longer you spend in the tailoring trade, it appears to be the simpler your taste gets. But young men I think enjoy dressing extravagantly or more extravagantly than on the whole they do when they’re older. I think he’s clearly dressed up for the occasion, but then why wouldn’t you be if you were going to be painted in oils? I mean we do it if we’re going to be photographed. No, I think it looks remarkably consistent.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And we know that Moroni for the most part painted aristocrats – he never as far as we know painted anything like this, anything like a tailor – and there’s speculation that perhaps this was painted in exchange for a suit of clothes, possibly even a suit of expensive black clothes of the sort the tailor might be working on, and I was wondering if Moroni were around today and he was offering a portrait in exchange for a suit of clothes would you be up for the exchange yourself?
PATRICK GRANT: I’m certain that I would be tempted. You know, these sorts of barter arrangements happen all the time in all sorts of trades and particularly, I think, with very expensive clothes. One hears stories – whether they are true or not – of deals taking place down Savile Row in exchange for all sorts of things. Yeah, absolutely, if somebody of this nature was offering, I’d absolutely be keen.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Patrick Grant and Leah Kharibian. You can see Moroni’s ‘The Tailor’ for yourself in the Central Hall of the National Gallery.
That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting this month, don’t forget we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays, or you can get a closer look at all the paintings online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Until next month, goodbye!