The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eighty Two
Rembrandt lays it on thick, Titian goes truckin’, and Vermeer gets a musical accompaniment, courtesy of the Academy of Ancient Music.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. This month we start with one of the best-loved paintings in the Gallery – Rembrandt’s extraordinary 17th century masterpiece, ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’. The artist’s source for the work is a story in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. It tells of a banquet given by Belshazzar, King of Babylon, for his nobles…. during which a divine hand appears and writes a disturbing message for the king on the wall. Art-historian Jacqui Ansell took Cathy FitzGerald to see how Rembrandt portrays the dramatic repercussions of the mysterious apparition…
JACQUI ANSELL: So in this dramatic painting we’re plunged right into the centre of the action. You get the sense that they’ve been in the middle of a feast – you’ve got things on the table – luscious fruits – when all of a sudden, the writing’s appeared on the wall and you get Belshazzar’s reaction to it. He’s putting his hand up to protect himself and as he does that, a woman is entering, and on the right hand side you see her, putting her hand up to protect herself from his action, and as she does so, the goblet that she’s holding is spilling liquid all over her sleeve, so what looks like fur on her sleeve is actually the liquid spilling, so you get this great sense of immediacy.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And so what does this mystical writing actually say?
JACQUI ANSELL: Well, I think the writing has clearly been written from right to left because you can see the hand that’s doing the writing, with nothing but its finger, finishing off that final character in the bottom left-hand corner.
The story goes that he didn’t know what it said, so he offered the gold chain from around his neck to anybody who could translate that writing and the only person who could do that was Daniel. And Daniel said that the writing said ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’ – ‘you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting… tomorrow you shall die and your kingdom be divided up between the Medes and the Persians.
So even though he doesn’t understand exactly what the writing says, you can see from his body language and facial expression that he knows it’s pretty bad news… and in fact, it’s the worst news he could possibly get.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And Belshazzar is being punished for something, not that he did, but that his father did, isn’t he?
JACQUI ANSELL: Yes, his father has stolen gold from the temple and I think Rembrandt brings this out beautifully, because you’ve got the gold glistening throughout this painting. Not only have you got the gold goblets which we mentioned earlier, but you’ve also got this great big platter that seems to have been over-turned. So you can imagine that these are exactly the kind of objects that may have been stolen from a temple, so it’s extremely sacrilegious to be eating from them. And the other thing of course that Rembrandt absolutely stresses is that he loves gold. I mean look at that gold-encrusted robe, covered in diamonds… the way in which the crown is just teetering on the top of that turban, so you can see the gold and the egret feather…
CATHY FITZGERALD: Yeah, it’s a very sensuous painting, isn’t it? Given that it’s a work about mystical writing, it’s actually really quite earthy… not just his robes, but the food on the table.
JACQUI ANSELL: Yes, and I suppose that’s part of the notion, isn’t it… the appeal to our basic instincts maybe. If you look closely at the way in which it’s painted as well as what’s being depicted, you’ve got this luscious, thick impasto paint… so the gold encrusted fur-lined robe is absolutely edged out of this paint, this thick, gooey, luscious paint. There’s this three-dimensionality to the painting which of course Rembrandt is absolutely famous for… one of his detractors saying he painted with a house-painters brush. But it’s this three-dimensionality that gives it this very expressive quality… and you find yourself almost lusting after the gold objects in the painting… so we’re almost guilty of the sin that’s being condemned here.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell, talking about ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’… on display in Room 24.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to our exhibition… 'Vermeer and Music: the Art of Love and Leisure'. This show explores the fascinating role music played in 17th century Dutch painting. On certain days, as gallery-goers look at the pictures, musicians from the Academy of Ancient Music - an orchestra that performs baroque and classical music on period instruments – play repertoire that 17th-century Dutch audiences would have known and loved. Leah Kharibian visited the exhibition to meet harpsichordist Julian Perkins and viola da gamba player, Reiko Ichese… and began by asking about their instruments. What, for instance, is a viola da gamba?
REIKO ICHESE: If I am carrying this in the case, many people think it’s a cello… just sort of outside size, it looks like cello, but it’s nothing to do with cello. Viola da gamba is an Italian name for this type of instrument… it’s called viol in English and I’m playing bass viol…
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And can I ask, what does it sound like? What does it sound like when you play it?
REIKO ICHESE: Um… yes I could play a… ok I could play some chord or yeah… [PLAYS CHORD] So compared to – let’s say – modern instrument, it has very different colour of the sound and they regarded this was the closest instrument to the voice.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And I was wondering, Julian, I mean with regard to the harpsichord… the harpsichord in my mind has always been a slightly strident instrument…
JULIAN PERKINS: Well, the main difference of course between the piano and the harpsichord is that the piano, the strings are hit by a little hammer, whereas with all harpsichords, you get a plectra, which plucks the strings, so you get a very sparky sound, like this:
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And a lot of the instruments that we see in the pictures and also the instruments that you play are very beautiful things. They’re often quite highly decorated and in particular, Julian, I noticed that harpsichords seem to be covered in writing. What’s that about?
JULIAN PERKINS: That’s right. You often get Latin mottoes on instruments and sometimes it feels like a moral remedy for what was considered the vanities of music.
And I suppose if one had mottoes today it would be something like ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. But my favourite maxim in this exhibition is a lovely picture by Jan Steen of a young woman playing a harpsichord to a young man and the virtuous woman has a motto on the foreboard which is just below the keyboard where it says ‘Soli Deo Gloria’ - solely for the glory of god" which I think emphasises her virtuous principles. And then this rather leering man over her has got this other motto on another part of the instrument, which says ‘Acta Virum Probant’, ‘actions prove the man’. And you rarely get such mottoes on instruments like that for a specific purpose, but I love that innuendo in the picture, it’s great.
LEAH KHARIBIAN: And so many of the pictures show people playing in duets… in small, intimate, domestic spaces and I was wondering whether, when you look at the works, you share a feeling of… I don’t know… sort of fellow feeling when you look at the people inside the paintings. Does this seem a right sort of environment, a small environment for your music?
JULIAN PERKINS: Absolutely. It’s been nice doing these concerts in an intimate space because we thought that there’s an interaction with the audience. And I think it’s valuable to point out that at this time of course the idea of a modern concert would have been anathema to Vermeer and his contemporaries, because what we see if vignettes of people in their front rooms making music at home. So when we’ve given concerts, I always encourage the audience to go home and maybe sing madrigals after dinner so they get the sense of – you know – ensemble music. In some ways it’s good, because someone that’s never heard a harpsichord before or a viola da gamba, you realize that, you know… it’s quite a privilege to be initiating them to this part of music.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Reiko Ichise and Julian Perkins playing part of Johannes Schenk’s ‘Time and Art – exercises’ … recording courtesy of In Tune, as heard on BBC Radio 3. You can hear performers from the Academy of Ancient Music play live in the exhibition every Thursday and Saturday from 11am, and Friday from 3pm. But please be aware capacity is limited. Or alternatively you can hear them talk and perform on the exhibition’s audioguide and accompanying film (also available on the Gallery website). To book tickets and find out more about the exhibition, visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): ‘Tis the festival season and if you’ve been out in the sun – or rain – at any events this year, you might have caught a Titian in an unusual setting. Not the real thing, of course – mud and masterpieces don’t mix - but instead a magical mobile world hung with stars and replicas of the great artist’s paintings, created courtesy of a unique partnership with the Art Fund. Cathy FitzGerald travelled to the Buxton Festival to catch up with The Titian Experience and its National Gallery host for the day, art-historian Linda Bolton.
LINDA BOLTON: Oh, this is paradise, it’s utopia. Children are playing, people are licking ice creams, sun out, summer is finally here and the little train is passing by with delighted passengers. Water plashes over fountains and over brook…
CATHY FITZGERALD: … and we’re here with The Titian Experience…
LINDA BOLTON: … and we’re here with The Titian Experience – we’re part of the festival… we’re bringing the National Gallery to the festival… we’re hoping that people step up into the van and find themselves inside… well, an extraordinary place. They’re inside a little cinema. With the cinema seats, with the screen, and bit by bit by bit, we hope to engage with them and talk about Titian’s great paintings.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And you called it a van but that’s a bit of an understatement, isn’t it?
LINDA BOLTON: It is an understatement. It is a fantastic creation. On one side it looks like a miniature… ooh, classical gazebo. It’s got a pediment, it’s got fluted pilasters… it gives you a bit of an idea, perhaps, of what’s going to be behind that space that you enter.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And which paintings are you focusing on here?
LINDA BOLTON: We’re focusing on the paintings that Titian made for Philip the Second of Spain. He made six poesies – poetic works – but in particular we’re looking at ‘Diana and Callisto’, a painting that was purchased for the nation. How do you tell a story – a static story – how do you tell a story in one take as it were? Well, you put information in, you paint gesture, you leave it to the viewer to read, be it an outraged goddess or a hapless nymph… the humiliation, the imperial gesture… it’s all there in the painting.
CATHY FITZGERALD: And it’s travelling the country, isn’t it?
LINDA BOLTON: It’s travelling the country. We want the nation to see the nation’s paintings so we’re travelling to different festivals… to Buxton, to Grassington, to Hay and also to Latitude… so wanting to get the paintings out and have them appreciated and enjoyed by as many people as possible.
MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Linda Bolton. And if The Titian Experience has given you an itch to see the real thing, don't forget the National Gallery contains one of the most extensive collections in the world of works by the great Italian artist.
We’re open 10 till 6 daily and till 9 on Fridays, or you can get a closer look at all the paintings online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
That’s it for this episode - until next month, goodbye!