The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Fifty Two

February 2011

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In the Episode Fifty Two (February 2011) podcast, great art you might not have heard of: Renaissance master Jan Gossaert, and the American 'Ashcan School.' Plus physicist Beau Lotto discusses how we see what we do.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s show:

A trip to the Science Museum to find out about the science of sight…
…And New York – as you may never have seen it before – courtesy of a group of artists known as the Ashcan School.

[Pause]

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with our major new exhibition – Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance. Gossaert was one of the most celebrated artists of the first three decades of the 16th century. Active in the Low Countries – the lands now covered by Belgium and the Southern Netherlands – Gossaert was admired as much for his dazzling illusionism as for his sensuous depiction of flesh.  But today he’s not an artist many of us have heard of, and the coming exhibition is the first dedicated to him in over forty years.  Sue Jones is the author of a new National Gallery book entitled ‘Van Eyck to Jan Gossaert: towards a Northern Renaissance.’ Leah Kharibian met up with her to find out what this re-evaluation of a forgotten master has in store.

Leah Kharibian: Sue, we’re here in the main galleries in advance of ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’ opening to the public, in front of a picture that’s part of the permanent collection and I’m sure will be one of the stars of the show. It’s a truly magnificent depiction of the adoration of the kings that Gossaert painted in about 1510-15 and I wondered if you could begin by taking us through it and telling us a little bit about the man himself?

Sue Jones: The subject is the adoration of the kings, and the kings have arrived in Bethlehem having followed a star from the East. And they’re here with their gifts of gold, myrhh and frankincense presenting them to the Christ Child, who is seated on his mother’s lap in the centre of the composition. It’s also one of the largest, and certainly one of the most ambitious, and Gossaert has taken advantage of the large-scale format of the painting and the fact that he knew it would be fairly accessible – and a fairly large number of people would see it – to display a wide range of his artistic skills and his artistic knowledge. Most obviously perhaps in the fact the painting has a very deep space, and that he has been able to arrange such a large number of figures and animals and angels within that space using a variety of different viewpoints. But also he’s been able to show his ability to depict a very wide range of different textures and materials. So for example you can see the silk velvet of the mantle of the eldest king; the cloth of gold textiles; the hair of the dog’s coat; the chipped flagstones in the foreground and the metalwork objects. All these things have been calculated to impress the observer with Gossaert’s skill.

Leah Kharibian: They certainly do. I mean, he paints with the most astonishing detail but also – I don’t know – observational clarity. You feel as if you could reach out and touch all these fabrics.

Sue Jones: Gossaert was actually very well known for his ability to depict fabrics and in this painting in a number of areas there are passages of virtuoso detailing. But also you can see it in more naturalistic details, such as the hairy wart on the side of the face of the eldest king, which has a whole variety of hairs of different lengths and colours coming out of it.

Leah Kharibian: Urgh... that’s wonderful! But I mean, it’s all his imagination isn’t it – I mean he’s imagined this in a sort of pungently real way, somehow.

Sue Jones: It’s a highly artificial painting, I would say. Obviously he has retained some passages of observation, things that he’s observed from reality, but it’s obviously a very carefully calculated, composed painting.

Leah Kharibian: Now Sue, he’s really working in his native painting tradition here, isn’t he. I mean that’s a style of painting that goes all the way back to masters like Jan van Eyck, but one of the fascinating things that this show highlights, I think that people will find, is that there’s an entirely different side to Gossaert’s work. And while its frame is being attended to before the show opens, there’s a wonderful example that’s being looked after up in conservation, and I’d really like to hear your thoughts on it. Would you like to come to with me?

Sue Jones: Of course.

Leah Kharibian: Sue, we’re now up in the conservation department in front of Gossaert’s Adam and Eve, a work of about 1520 that’s on loan to the Gallery from the Royal Collection. And this really couldn’t be more different from the ‘Adoration.’ I mean the figures are big, they’re nude, and they’re muscly. What’s going on?

Sue Jones: Well, there’s quite a lot going on actually. Gossaert was very interested in the nude figure and he had the opportunity to study it in a variety of ways over his career. He’s very well known for being the first Netherlandish painter to introduce into the Netherlands the Italian manner of depicting nudes, and historical and mythological subjects. And in 1508-9, he went to Rome as part of an embassy with his patron Philip of Burgundy, and was the first Netherlandish painter, or the first recorded, to study and make drawings from nudes of ancient Roman statues.

Leah Kharibian: But these figures aren’t at all like antique or Italian Renaissance nudes, are they? They seem to be very much more earthy, they seem to have all these sort of interesting physical details. I mean, look at the size of their feet, for instance.

Sue Jones: Yes, well what Gossaert did really was to transform the ancient nude figure in order to make it interesting for himself and his patrons. So here you have a balance of a figure that is idealistic and naturalistic and also has – in the hair for example, and certainly in Eve’s hair which is twisting and winding through space – has a quite pronounced decorative quality as well.

Leah Kharibian: And do you think that this, the fact that he doesn’t paint like an Italian,and his ideal of beauty for example, is quite particular – it’s not necessarily a sort of standard ideal of beauty that we’ve come to expect from the Italian Renaissance onwards – do you think this is why Gossaert is an artist that has perhaps been overlooked in the past?

Sue Jones: There’s probably something to that. I mean I think that the fact that he is a relatively obscure artist now, when he was so famous in his own time, must have something to do with the fact that from the late 16th century onwards, Italian Renaissance art dominated European art production. It may also have something to do with the fact that Gossaert is so difficult to categorise, as an artist himself. He’s an artist who involved a very unique personal style. He was very interested in a whole variety of things – in architectural ornamentation, in lettering and sculpture and print-making. He was also, we should mention, one of the great portrait painters of the period, and the exhibition will have a whole room of his portraits. He was a brilliant technician as we discussed earlier – so he was very versatile and also rather idiosyncratic. There’s no one else in this period quite like him.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Sue Jones. ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’ opens on 23 February. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/. And if you’re visiting, don’t forget the audioguide – it’s written by our own Leah Kharibian, and features interviews with the curators.

In March, another exhibition opens at the gallery. It’s a small show of just 12 paintings, never seen before in the UK. Called An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan School, it examines an art movement that centred on New York in the early 20th century. This was a period of rapid urban development and Bellows, and the other Ashcan painters, revelled in exploring the harsher aspects of the changing city to create a uniquely American style of painting. The exhibition has been made possible by a partnership with the Terra Foundation for American Art, a relationship that will introduce many US masterpieces to UK audiences through a series of shows over coming years. Katherine Bourguignon is Associate Curator of the Terra Foundation, and one of the organisers of ‘An American Experiment.’ She took us on a journey through some of the works on display.

Katherine Bourguignon: ‘Excavation at Night’ invites us into a very dark, strange environment. In fact, it takes the viewer a while to figure out even what we’re looking at. We see contrasts between dark black, colour and bright hints of light and Bellows is actually showing us the excavation site for Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan. If we look very carefully, we can start to make sense of this strange painting. We can see a fire in the foreground with a few workmen gathered around it. We can see bright cliffs in the background – this is actually the sides of the gaping hole that they’ve been digging and they’re illuminated by these artificial arc lights. And then in the very background, almost as a flat backdrop, are these tenement buildings highlighted by street lights... a not very welcoming scene of Manhattan at night. George Bellows was part of what later became known as the Ashcan School. It is not a compliment – that’s a term that a critic used to describe their work – because these artists, a group of about 10 painters in New York City in the early 20th century, were interested in scenes of urban life. They often used dark colours in their painting, especially a lot of black, and they were interested in showing scenes of urban life that’s not glittery or glamorous but rather the rougher side, the lower classes, the working classes. And so the Ashcan School was just a group of artists who shared that desire to show us the truth about American urban life at that time.

George Bellows painted ‘North River’ in February 1908 and it was one of a series of pictures that he produced from the same site, from Riverside Park, looking out at the Hudson River – which was known as the North River at this side because it runs along Manhattan – and looking out towards New Jersey. What we’re seeing is looking down from a slight vantage point at a steam ship and also a steam train – we can only notice the train because of the billowing smoke that goes off to the right – and then the river beyond and the cliffs, far in the background. The scene is covered in snow and the only people present are very small figures located right at the water’s edge. Bellows is not trying to show us the hustle-bustle activity of an active port. Instead he’s showing us this sort of edge of the urban environment as if he’s turned his back for a moment on the busy city life – looking outtowards the river and with very little sign of human presence.

It’s very exciting to bring George Bellows and some of his Ashcan painters to the National Gallery. It’s an effort to bring American art into this very important international gallery, but it’s also a way to show us that these early 20th century American artists who aren’t very well known in Great Britain were looking to the masters. Bellows was definitely influenced by Manet, by Velázquez, by Frans Hals, and while these are landscape scenes and we mostly think of those artists associated with figurative works, we can look just at the brushstrokes and at the way paint is applied – at the use of black, I think – t the flattening of the compositions. And this is what Bellows and his contemporaries are learning from the masters. But the subjects that they’re choosing and the way that they’re painting them is showing us that they’re really looking at America in the 20th century and especially urban America – painting New York City as they could see it. And it’s really the first time that we see anyone painting the city in quite this way. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Katherine Bourguignon. If you’d like to see the paintings for yourself, ‘An American Experiment’ opens on 3 March in Room One. Admission is free.

Colour is one of the most intense and immediate pleasures of art. Yet the way in which our brains have come to understand colour is anything but immediate. Neuroscientist, Dr Beau Lotto, argues that our brains evolved over time to see what was most useful to our survival – and that our perception of colour is a case in point. He’s giving a talk at the National Gallery this month, and by way of a taster, I went to meet him at the Science Museum, where he’s building a ‘living lab’ to explain his ideas. I began by asking why we see colour the way that we do.

Beau Lotto: No one really understands why and how we see colour and the reason why we study it is because, as I say, it is the simplest thing that the brain does. Even jelly fish are able to see the difference in intensity of something and what’s phenomenal about colour vision is that most animals have it in one form or another, so it’s something we share with lots and lots of other critters, and within colour vision contains the fundamental problem that vision evolved to solve, which is to resolve ambiguity. The light that falls onto the eye is infinitely meaningless because it could mean anything. And the brain evolved to somehow take that information and make something useful out of it – to see it in a way that’s useful to see. And so by studying colour vision we’re aiming to understand how the brain literally makes sense of the world and itself.

Miranda Hinkley: So it sounds like colour vision is evolutionary in that it’s the result of an evolutionary process, but also that effectively – somehow – by seeing things and learning to interpret things in a certain way, we’re learning to see?

Beau Lotto: We’re always learning to see. The brain evolved to adapt. So again, the information, the light that falls into the eye – because it’s ambiguous – the brain can’t just use that information to see. It has to use something else and that something else that it uses is its history. Its history of interacting with the world – the objects in the world – and again colour vision is a wonderful, beautiful way of literally perceiving that history, so when we look out into the world, when we see colours, we’re not necessarily seeing what’s there, we’re seeing historically what was useful to see, so we’re seeing the consequence of evolution, of development, of learning.

Miranda Hinkley: One of the things that we really appreciate about art is the way that artists use colour. How do you as someone who understands a bit about why we perceive colour the way we do, what do you see in art works – how does that enable you to appreciate what’s going on?

Beau Lotto: Thinking about the perceptual relationships between colours of course began with art. Artists have been playing with that for centuries. Delacroix has a beautiful... there are hundreds of examples, but Delacroix in particular, where he takes an object that’s red, surrounds it by green because in doing so, it makes that red appear far more vibrant, and vice-versa, the green also appears far more saturated, far more colourful when there’s red embedded within it. So artists have been looking at these perceptual relationships for a long time and one of the first people to quantify these relationships was in fact a chemist. And so he was hired by the King of France to figure out what was wrong with the tapestries that people were ordering. So they would go into the shop, so to speak, and pick out their threads. The threads would get woven together and the colours that they saw as a consequence were not the same as the ones they originally selected. So they figured the problem must in the dyes. So they hired a chemist. Turns out – after 30 years – they figured out the problem wasn’t in the dyes, it was in the brain and it’s because colours, when set next to each other, affect your perception of them. And again, what that’s demonstrating is the effect of context. But again, what artists hadn’t been doing is thinking about why these relationships exist. Why does one colour affect the perception of another?

Often what happens then is a neuroscientist comes in and he or she will say, ‘it’s because the brain is wired this way.’ It’s wired, the eyes are wired in a particular way that you have interactions between brain cells that cause one brain cell to be affected by another depending on what you’re looking at. But even there, that doesn’t answer the question. It just provides a mechanistic foundation for why that happens. What we’re doing – and what I’ll be talking about in my presentation – is why that happens and in answering that question, we can understand more deeply about perception generally and how the brain works.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Beau Lotto, who’ll be giving a free lecture at the National Gallery on Friday 18 February, 6.30pm. The Gallery is open late on Friday nights – until 9pm – so after Beau’s talk there’ll still be time to take a look at the paintings, get a drink at the bar or grab a bite to eat.

For details of the lecture – or any of the other pictures, exhibitions or events I’ve mentioned – see our website: www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

That’s it for this episode; until next month, goodbye. 

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