The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Five
In the March 2007 podcast, Gallery news, including the 'Renoir Landscapes' exhibition, a sound-piece inspired by Pissarro's 'Fox Hill, Upper Norwood' and the Gallery's touring 'Work, Rest & Play' exhibition.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and over the next 15 minutes, I’ll be bringing you news from the National Gallery, London. Coming up: are overweight holidaymakers the stuff of great art?
Gallery visitor 1: We looked at it for some time, not knowing whether or not it was actually going to come alive.
Gallery visitor 2: Life-like, I wondered whether he was going to be sort of a miming model, suddenly going to move and make us jump.
Gallery visitor 3: My belly’s getting more like his everyday.
Gallery visitor 4: It’s really very life-like.
Gallery visitor 5: It’s really realistic, so it’s a bit scary.
Gallery visitor 6: It just makes it extraordinary, doesn’t it? Having something so normal just sat there. Wouldn’t normally look at someone like that, but it makes you think about it.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Visitors reacting to Duane Hanson’s lifelike sculpture of a sunburnt tourist. It’s on show as part of ‘Work, Rest and Play’, a touring exhibition devoted to our changing patterns of work and leisure. And we announce the winner of the ‘Sound of Inspiration’ competition.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start though with Renoir. The newly opened exhibition, ‘Renoir Landscapes’, sponsored by Ernst and Young, focuses on works he made in the first 25 years of his career. The pictures – visitors are discovering – are dazzling, full of life and daringly experimental. But why should this come as a surprise? Renoir, it seems, is an artist most of us are just a little bit prejudiced about. Leah Kharibian investigates.
Leah Kharibian: At the beginning of the 20th century, Auguste Renoir was considered one of the great pioneers of modernism. Today if you say the name Renoir what’s most likely to spring to mind is something possibly a bit pink, a bit fluffy and a bit too sweet for comfort. Renoir is, unfairly, often dismissed as a bit of a lightweight – and not only by the public. Colin Bailey, chief curator of the Frick Collection in New York, is one of the co-curators of the new exhibition.
Colin Bailey: If you say to people that you’re working on Renoir, as I do quite a lot, they almost say, poor you, or why do you have to do that? Because he’s not really thought of as a very serious, very cerebral, intelligent artist.
Leah Kharibian: The current show intends to set the record straight but why have we got this very particular view of the man and his art? Colin Bailey again.
Colin Bailey: It’s his late career, the part that we’re not looking at in this exhibition, that in a way does him more damage than any other part. It does him damage because of the large pneumatic, Rubensian nudes that gain, in some ways, the distain of both the historians of Impressionism, and the historians of gender.
Leah Kharibian: The current show, the very first to focus on Renoir’s landscapes, really does give us an unexpected glimpse of the man and his work. Far from being an arch-conservative, Renoir was an astonishingly experimental artist. In the galleries, I spoke to Christopher Riopelle, co-curator of the exhibition, about this side of Renoir and asked what visitors to the show should be looking out for.
Chris Riopelle: I think the two things most important to look for and look at in these pictures are his use of colour – his flashing rich, unexpected colour combinations that set up a kind of dazzling quality to the surface of the pictures – and the other thing is his sense of composition, which is remarkably radical and innovative… the way in which he breaks down our suppositions about what a composition ought to be, goes off in different directions, flirts even with abstraction.
Leah Kharibian: But it isn’t just in painting that Renoir proves himself a radical. It’s not well known, but he also had a wide-range of intellectual interests. Colin Bailey.
Colin Bailey: He writes on art, he publishes dictionaries, and grammars of art. He’s well read, he’s a great friend of Degas and Mallarmé. Apollinaire writes some of his most enthusiastic early art criticism on Renoir, so we have a lot to discover.
Leah Kharibian: Who would have thought, for example, that it would be Renoir who went to great lengths to meet the composer Wagner during his stay in Italy? In fact, contrary to all our expectations Renoir was very open-minded and always eager to learn. He found working with other artists, such as Monet, especially invigorating. And in 1882, when he feared his Impressionist painting had reached a dead-end, he sought out the reclusive Cézanne in the South of France. Chris Riopelle.
Chris Riopelle: In fact, he pretends he just ran into him – isn’t that nice – and doesn’t talk about what influence Cézanne may have had on him. I think that there is a psychological dimension to this. He now had a dealer, Durand-Ruel. He was earning money. He was in Paris. He was a Paris artist. Cézanne had no dealer, sold no pictures and was way off in Provence where no one could see him. Renoir was now over 40 years of age and I don’t think he wanted Durand-Ruel to see how willing he was still to, as it were, sit at the feet of a contemporary.
Leah Kharibian: This story, like so many others, shows us how much we’ve still yet to learn about Renoir. For both curators, ‘Renoir Landscapes’ fulfils something of a mission.
Chris Riopelle: By focusing on the landscapes, which were always among his most experimental, most innovative paintings, I think we’re taking part in a process – not us alone, others are coming to think the same way – to reinvestigate Renoir’s role as an innovative artist at the forefront of modernist painting and to show his importance.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): That report compiled by Leah Kharibian. If you’d like to make up your own mind about the paintings, ‘Renoir Landscapes’ runs throughout the month. Tickets can be purchased online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Colin Bailey, Chris Riopelle, and Leah herself all feature on the exhibition audio guide. You can hear a taster of their tour by downloading the bonus track that accompanies this month’s podcast.
'Work, Rest and Play'
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up. Listeners will be familiar with the National Gallery as a London-based venue. Many won’t know that it also plays an active role in creating travelling exhibitions that tour the country. The latest is the result of a partnership with the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle and Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery. It traces 400 years of artists’ attempts to capture how we work, rest and play – with exhibits ranging from Duane Hanson’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Traveller’, to early responses to the industrial revolution. I went to Bristol, the show’s first port of call, to find out more.
Miranda Hinkley (on location): I’m joined now by Sheena Stoddard who is the curator of the Bristol leg of the ‘Work, Rest and Play’ exhibition. So if people want to come and see the show in Bristol, how long have they got?
Sheena Stoddard: They’ve got until 15 April and we’re open everyday, 10 o’ clock till 5 o’ clock.
Miranda Hinkley: So standing in this room, these paintings span 400 years of the way artists have viewed work and leisure time, and this particular painting that we’re standing in front of now, Joseph Wright of Derby, ‘An Iron Forge’, was painted in 1772 and there’s a very heroic quality to it, isn’t there?
Sheena Stoddard: Yes, it’s a marvellous picture which has been lent to us by the Tate gallery and it shows the iron master who’s benefited already from the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution. He’s standing proudly with his arms folded in front of something called a tilt hammer, this huge machine is being driven by a water-wheel outside the building. And the light is all coming from this white-hot ingot which is being forged in front of us, and the group on the left, the grandfather with the child.. the supposition is that he was the smith, the forge-owner before, and he used to have to do it by hand, by sheer manual hard work… and he’s now slightly bemused, even frightened by this machinery, but it’s a new age, so it is an idealised vision really.
Miranda Hinkley: Looking across to the other side of the room now, there’s a picture which was painted almost exactly 100 years later.
Sheena Stoddard: That’s right, 1870. And it’s a charming, delightfully small picture by Claude Monet of his wife and a friend on the beach at Trouville in northern France.
Miranda Hinkley: So whereas the last painting we saw showed people hard at work, albeit enjoying themselves while they were doing it, this picture is one of complete leisure, isn’t it?
Sheena Stoddard: Yes, it is. Seaside holidays became much more fashionable in the 19th century and what had been a little fishing village in Trouville was now a Second Empire resort, big hotels and lots of fashionable people coming for their holidays. And Monet did actually paint several of these pictures on the beach itself and we know this one was done on the beach because it’s got sand in it, just beneath the bar on the chair, that dark spot is where sand either blew on his painting or on his palette as he was painting.
Miranda Hinkley: Skipping forward almost 100 years more, there’s a piece which is quite extraordinary and all the visitors to the gallery have gone over and had a good look at… it’s almost the first thing you see as you come in. We’re standing in front of a statue of a man who looks incredibly real.
Sheena Stoddard: Yes, this is by an American artist called Duane Hanson, made in the 1980s and it’s called ‘The Traveller’. We usually call it ‘The American Tourist’. He’s in an airport somewhere… he’s in a really jolly coloured shirt and pair of long shorts, and he’s asleep on his luggage, on his cheap luggage, and he’s got a slightly protruding stomach, he’s sunburnt, he’s probably hung-over, and it’s how holidays can really be such hard work. You know, it’s not all fun. We’ve all been trapped in airports and missed connections or our flights have been cancelled and you do wonder whether we have moved on or not. But it’s absolutely perfect for this theme, isn’t it? We’ve seen how the middle-class from Paris enjoyed themselves in the 19th century and this is what we call a holiday.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sheena Stoddard of Bristol’s City Museum and Art Gallery.
'Sound of Inspiration'
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And finally, back in December we invited you to create a piece of audio based on a picture in the National Gallery. Thanks to all those who took up the challenge - we’ve really enjoyed sifting through the entries. Our winner took as his starting point a work he first encountered in the 70s – Camille Pissarro’s snowy London landscape, ‘Fox Hill’. A long-term devotee of outdoor painting, artist Jon Hall imagined the thoughts that might have run through Pissarro’s head, as he painted Fox Hill on a wintery day in 1870.
[Sound piece created by Jon Hall]
Pissarro: It’s freezing. My feet are absolutely frozen. I wish those people would just go away. How long are they going to stay? If they stand there any longer I’m just going to have to paint them in.
Woman: What’s he doing? It’s a very cold day to be out there painting
Pissarro: They’ve got the best frocks on. I mean I’m sure they saw me setting up my easel and then just decided to come out.
Woman: Walk on the other side of the road and say hello. On the other hand, we could stay here and be included in the painting. Come, hold my hand.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Chilly stuff. Knowing Jon Hall’s penchant for outdoor painting, we invited him to try his hand at an updated version of ‘Fox Hill’. I visited him as he worked at his easel on the leafy south London street.
Miranda Hinkley (on location): We’re standing on Fox Hill in Upper Norwood in roughly the same place where Pissarro must have completed his famous work in 1870, and Jon, you’ve been here since very, very early this morning with your easel painting. How’s it going? How have people been reacting to you?
Jon Hall: Very, very positively.
Miranda Hinkley: What was it about Pissarro’s painting that you found so inspiring?
Jon Hall: When I first saw it, in the gallery, I reacted emotionally to it. I was a teenager and I looked at the picture and I read the little snippet next to it which says he painted it from life and I just thought: ‘good god, it’s snowing… The image that came across was of a very cold scene. I’ve actually painted in blizzards where you can’t see, like, six foot in front of you. But I thought of Pissarro standing here, with maybe just two pairs of socks on and a pair of old boots and freezing.
Miranda Hinkley: And so looking at your sketches Jon, you can see that the tree, in fact the same one that was in Pissarro’s original picture is still there.
Jon Hall: Yes, yes, that’s perhaps the most interesting part of this subject for me, the fact that that tree is still there. And it was just a tender young sort of sapling, perhaps about 15 years old when he painted it and now, it’s what – at least 145 years old and the ash cart hit it this morning and it’s going to be knocked down very soon.
Miranda Hinkley: Landscape painting and painting from life is obviously very important to you and in fact you entered into a contract recently to paint every day of the year, no matter what the weather, a particular stretch of Durham coastline up near where you live. What is it about landscape painting and painting from life that appeals to you so much?
Jon Hall: Well, I originally designed the contract to motivate myself to get out and paint from life every day, because I was just going out preferably when it was sunny, and I thought ‘this is not on, I’ll have to go out and suffer these extremes that the… you know, like the likes of Pissarro did here at Fox Hill in the snow’.
Miranda Hinkley: And rather like Pissarro in that picture, you’re not a fair weather painter, so you come out in all kinds of weather conditions. How has that been? Particularly when you were on the coast painting in often very exposed conditions?
Jon Hall: Oh, it’s been an amazing experience. During one blizzard it felt as if I was on the front of a speedboat because the wind and rain were coming horizontal; in fact, the rain was going up my nose and I suffered for my picture… and then it blew out to sea, so I had to do another one… Other days, it was so hot the paint dried almost immediately, so I had to spray it. And then when it rained I had to have the paint brush in one hand and the blow torch in the other hand and actually dry the paint as it was raining, because it would just wash off…
Miranda Hinkley: But not like today… today’s been fairly good weather.
Jon Hall: No, today’s been… it’s been freezing and I’ve got my old all in one romper suit on, so it hasn’t been too cold, but it is very cold when you’re just standing still. So if anybody’s thinking of going out, and I encourage you to do so, but be prepared for it… even when you think it’s warm, you do get cold.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Artist Jon Hall braving the cold and the streets of south London in the name of art.
That’s almost it for this episode, but if you’re planning a trip to the National Gallery in March, don’t forget to visit our website first: www.nationalgallery.org.uk. It has details of all the month’s events, including free gallery talks, family activities and guided tours.
Join us again in April for news of the National Gallery’s next big exhibition, and to hear how ‘Renoir Landscapes’ is inspiring gardeners, and bringing the dazzling colours of the dahlia back into fashion.
Until then, goodbye!
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is a bonus track from the National Gallery podcast. You’re listening to an extract from the ‘Renoir Landscapes’ audio guide. Leah Kharibian and curator Chris Riopelle discuss Renoir’s 1881 painting, ‘Field of Banana Trees near Algiers’. If you’d like to take the full tour, it’s available from audio desks throughout the Gallery.
Leah Kharibian: The French had occupied Algeria since the 1830s and over the years many of Renoir’s compatriots had come to paint the city of Algiers and its surrounding countryside. None however had created a work like this.
Chris Riopelle: Who would ever have thought of painting a landscape almost entirely composed of banana leaves waving back and forth in these curving patterns across the entire front of the canvas? And again one imagines these banana plants or trees continuing to right and left as far as the eye can see, but he’s just focused on these one group of them, masking white Algiers in the distance across the bay.
Leah Kharibian: In an art manual Renoir planned to publish, he repeatedly called on decorative artists to observe nature and learn to imitate natural forms as a source of inspiration. This is what he seems to be doing himself in this work. But the success of this picture belies what was, for Renoir, a not entirely straightforward visit. His fellow impressionists were hounding him for his recent decision to submit works to the salon; he couldn’t get local models to sit for him and so, apart from ‘Arab Festival’, which hangs nearby, he was forced to paint only landscapes and as Chris Riopelle sees it, Renoir’s first experience of African light also came as something of a shock.
Chris Riopelle: I think his visit to Algiers in 1881 really, in a sense, discombobulated him. He’d never seen light of this intensity – it was quite a new experience and he responded to it by painting some of his most challenging and innovative landscape compositions that he’d ever done, of which the banana plantation is certainly among the most daring.