The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eighty One
Lucian Freud's gift to the nation of a priceless Corot. Plus life-drawing and Dutch musicians with rock-god hair.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.
We start with a new arrival. Following the death last year of the celebrated painter, Lucian Freud, a picture from his personal collection has been given to the National Gallery. The painting, 'The Italian Woman', dates to about 1870 and is an astonishing late work by the French artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. To find out more about the picture and about Freud’s long relationship with the Gallery, Leah met up with Special Projects Curator Colin Wiggins… and began by asking if Corot’s 'Italian Woman' is what we’d expect from an artist most famous for his landscapes.
COLIN WIGGINS: It’s nothing like we expect of Corot in this country and that’s because we don’t represent his later figure paintings. Our collection is pretty rich with his beautiful green landscapes and of course people are familiar with those partly because they themselves are very beautiful, but also because they lead onto impressionism and if you’re teaching about impressionism you will always refer your students to Corot, so his figure paintings just seem to get forgotten about because we’ve not represented them in this country until now.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And this is a picture that belonged to Lucian Freud. What is it about the work do you think that might have appealed to him?
COLIN WIGGINS: Oh well that’s an easy question to answer – it’s just so physical. That woman is so solid and utterly convincing and then there’s the physicality of the paint itself. Corot is plastering his paint on in such a way that he wants you still to see that it’s paint, that it’s physical, gunky material that stands proud of the canvas and it’s a really hands on picture.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: It came to the gallery as a gesture of thanks really from Freud to the British nation for giving his family shelter from the Nazis in the 1930s, but the relationship that Freud had with the National Gallery was a very particular one and went on for quite a long time, didn’t it?
COLIN WIGGINS: Oh yeah, he was pretty obsessive about the National Gallery and he was invited to curate an exhibition called the Artist’s Eye, which allowed him the run of the collection to choose which pictures were most important to him and to display these pictures with one or two examples of his own work and he said ‘the reason I’ve chosen these pictures is when I look at them, they make me want to go back to my studio and start painting again’.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now there’s a wonderful bit of Freud actually recorded on tape talking about why he looks at pictures from the National Gallery – why he refers to art of the past.
LUCIEN FREUD (ARCHIVE): I look at pictures like someone looking for help really and I see things in paintings of the past that I can use in my way and strengthen my work with, rather like going to the doctor.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And this idea of going to the doctor – he wasn’t the most regular of patients… he was a bit of an after-hours visitor, wasn’t he?
COLIN WIGGINS: He would come when he needed to come – and artists of the stature of Freud… and there aren’t many of those in the world… we let them in whenever they want to come. And in fact the night shift – because there are obviously security staff on site twenty-four hours – the night shift got to know him quite well as he would roll up at three o clock in the morning with his drawing board and in fact the night shift used to keep his drawing board for him. There was one time when he was doing the Artist’s Eye show – he came in and drew from a painting by Turner, 'Sun Rising through Vapour', and he was interested in the little still life of fish on the beach that the women had been gutting and he made some beautiful little drawings of that but he kept them taped to his drawing board in the care of a National Gallery warder and in fact after that show he seemed to forget about that drawing and the drawing board got taken to the office of the head of security, and it was several years later – really several years – that Freud phoned saying ‘I’d like my drawing board back now’, with this obviously priceless drawing on it that the head of security was thinking ‘ooh, what shall I do with this then?!” So I actually took the drawing board back to Freud’s studio and the first thing that happened is you’re stepping over whippets because Lucian kept these little whippets that appear so often in his paintings. Then you sit down and he makes a cup of tea and it’s like being in one of Freud’s paintings because you’ve got those big cast iron radiators, the view through the window with the sink in the corner… the piles of rags, the cast iron bedstead… all of the things that are so familiar from the pictures. It’s like being in a painting with this extraordinary man who has this phenomenal knowledge about the history of picture making and an extraordinary relationship to it.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Colin Wiggins. 'The Italian Woman' by Corot is on display in Room 41.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio):
Next… Every Friday night the National Gallery is open late until 9pm. There are tours, talks, live music and a bar in the Sainsbury Wing foyer… and this month we asked Cathy FitzGerald to visit one of art-historian Karly Allen’s regular life drawing classes. Each session is inspired by a different work in the collection. Karly arrives around 6pm to set out the materials for her group – amateur artists of all ages and abilities who’ll spend the next couple of hours trying to capture the poses of model Tom Doran on paper.
KARLY ALLEN IN LIFE-DRAWING SESSION: Hello, welcome. Hi! Come on in.
KARLY ALLEN: This is one of our regular life drawing evenings. We have around twenty-five people who come from different activities during the day, so we have people rushing in from work who take about twenty minutes to breathe and slow down.
We have people who have been waiting for this all day and you can see them in just the right place to start drawing and people who come with all sorts of nerves and worries about what sort of drawings they’re going to make.
KARLY ALLEN IN LIFE-DRAWING SESSION: We’ll start off by drawing Tom in some quite… possibly some quite pompous 19th century classical poses, please, Tom, and then as we move through the evening, we will look at something a bit more natural and sort of haphazard… lovely. So, we’ll take a minute… we have two minutes for this drawing…
KARLY ALLEN: It’s so raw and it’s so pared back… it seems almost the most natural thing in the world to be connecting with the human body on that very basic level alone in the room… this amazing opportunity for capturing lines and form – it’s got everything you could want to explore through drawing but also this psychological element that you can’t get away from the fact that this is a real person standing in front of you with no clothes on.
TOM DORAN: My name’s Tom Doran and I’ve been life modeling for about ten to twelve years. No I mean occasionally in the winter it can be a little bit chilly but there’s usually heaters and things and people are always very good about making sure I’m not too uncomfortable… so yeah, that’s never really a problem. I’ve done St Sebastian a lot of times – luckily not with any arrows in me, but there’s a few… I liked being Charles the First one time here because I got to wear a whole suit of armour and stuff as well, so that was really good. They couldn’t afford the horse so I sat on a big block of foam instead, but that was good fun.
KARLY ALLEN: So I won’t be warning you as Tom moves, so you’ll just have to draw with him. And change please Tom.
PARTICIPANT 1: Hands and feet are always hard. They’re kind of in triangles if you really look at them… you can see it as a triangle, just as a block. And then you take it from there, but they can be easily distorted if you’re not careful – they’re tricky.
KARLY ALLEN IN LIFE-DRAWING SESSION: Lovely. And pause there please… if you can. So keep drawing in between the poses.
PARTICIPANT 2: This is the first time since school probably. Focus on drawing the shapes really rather than, you know, any kind of embarrassment. I guess a triangle across the shoulders and down to the waist and then long ovals along the legs and a kind of oval shaped head. I’ve made the head much too big, but it’s too late now!
TOM DORAN: Yeah, you do sort of take on a bit of a character… you know, if you’re sort of copying a particular pose in a painting or stuff. You do have to think yourself into what you’re doing… you know. You can’t just kind of make a shape without sort of thinking more about the context of it. You know – you’ve got to transport yourself a bit, just like the people who are drawing are hopefully being transported. Because I think if you aren’t transported, you know, it doesn’t help them very much.
PARTICIPANT 3: Yeah, it’s nice. It’s a different Friday night, but it’s really enjoyable. It’s weird because you concentrate so much on what you’re drawing, you kind of forget about time and where you are and stuff, even though there’s what… twenty, thirty people here, it’s just you and the model and the paper and whichever material you’re using to draw.
Yeah… it’s really hard to explain, but I highly recommend it though.
KARLY ALLEN: I always feel – or I hope – it’s gone well, when the evening starts with a lot of noise and bustle and people talking and engaging on one level… usually through language and moving things around, and then it slowly peters out and you end up with this really deep sense of concentration.
PARTICIPANT 4: It’s quiet isn’t it! Sorry, having to whisper. I feel a bit self-conscious. But I suppose everybody just gets really absorbed in what they’re doing and… but yeah, it is very quiet. You could hear a pin drop, couldn’t you!
KARLY ALLEN: The perfect life drawing evening ends with this amazing silence and then I always hate having to say that that’s the final pose and we need to stop drawing… it’s really hard to break that silence at the end.
Sounds of drawing.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Karly, Tom and all the participants. You can find details of Karly’s life drawing classes at www.nationalgallery.org.uk
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio):
Now to our exhibition 'Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure'. This gathering of 17th-century Dutch paintings, alongside period musical instruments, reveals the surprising importance of music to art and society in the Dutch Golden Age. Curator Betsy Wieseman took Leah Kharibian along to look at 'A Young Man and Woman Making Music', a work by Jan Miense Molenaer.
BETSY WIESEMAN: It shows a very well-dressed couple… a young man and a young woman in a very fancy interior actually. The couple are seated in the foreground of the scene; the woman has this wonderful, expansive, satin skirt that’s a lovely shade of greenish pink in a weird way and she wears a little lace-trimmed cape and a lace cap that are just exquisitely detailed… the fineness of the lace is just so beautiful. She also has a coral necklace and just little elegant touches. The young man is wearing kind of the masculine counter-part… big bouffy trousers and a wonderful linen collar and slashed sleeves – I think he would have been quite fashionable in the 1630s.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: You say that, but there is something else that seems to be going on… I mean they’re both really smiling, but smiling in a particular sort of way. I mean the lady I think she has an almost saucy look on her face – there’s something there… and he is on this high stool with his legs straddled… and in the background there’s this cello propped up on a table that has a huge man’s floppy hat resting on the scroll. Now is this a case, Betsy, of Dutch innuendo?
BETSY WIESEMAN: Of course, but I think it’s a more complicated innuendo than we might think…. There are many complicated levels of innuendo – let’s put it that way.
To speak first to the couple… I always have the sense that they’ve just reached the rousing chorus of the song… that they’re really into it and they’re having a good time and the music has taken over. It really represents a sort of 'joie de vivre'. And Molenaer communicates that in such a vivid way. And I think he does that in part through that young man’s wonderful fly-away hair. You just imagine him shaking his head like an 80s rock god.
As to some of the other elements in this painting that give it, I think, a richer meaning… if we look to the background we see a portrait hanging on the wall. This portrait is clearly identifiable as representing the stadtholder of the Netherlands, Friedrich Hendrich. Now this could just be a sign of political allegiance, but when we dig a little bit deeper and we remind ourselves of just what Friedrich Hendrich achieved… one of the things that he is credited with is resolving a lot of the political and religious tensions and getting different factions to agree and just, you know, drop their contentious recriminations, so that for many people he represented a feeling of harmony… political harmony… and security and that sort of laying the ground work for ensuring that the Netherlands became such a peaceful, prosperous country in the 17th century. And I think it’s in that context that we need to understand why his portrait appears in the background of this painting.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: So this picture is about harmony; it’s about personal harmony, political harmony, but is that actually a thread that runs throughout the whole exhibition, do you think?
BETSY WIESEMAN: It is and I think the idea of music as representing harmony in all its senses, is something that unites what look like quite different and disparate paintings.
For example this painting by Molenaer is… it’s a bit raucous, it’s saucy, it’s full of life… very energetic and on the surface it seems quite different to the sort of serene and reflective ambiance we see in paintings by Vermeer. But in all these paintings we see music as a metaphor for harmony and I think that is what unites them so beautifully.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Betsy Wieseman. 'Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure' runs until the 8th of September. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk
And if you’re visiting, don’t forget the National Gallery is open 10 till 6 daily and till 9 on Fridays.
That’s it for this episode - until next month, goodbye!