The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty
In the February 2010 podcast, a special investigating the Claude's enchanted landscapes and heavenly skies. Plus Michelangelo's male nudes.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode…
Catherine Stevenson: Well, certainly this sky is extremely realistic. Here the sun is quite well up in the sky. You can tell because of the illumination on the side of the cumulous clouds at the top of the picture, and this he’s picked up beautifully.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Cloud-watching with Claude. We take a look at two of the great painter’s finest works.
The male body beautiful
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first, the female body is a recurring theme in art history, much painted and often discussed. Beautiful male bodies, however, have received less attention from critics, although a walk through the Gallery reveals they’re the subject of just as much great art. One artist in particular is known for his nudes: Michelangelo, creator of 'David', painted images of the perfectly sculpted male body that influence our appreciation of the masculine form today. To learn more, I spoke to Colin Wiggins from the Education team about two contrasting images of male beauty from different periods of Michelangelo’s extraordinary career. The Entombment is an unfinished early painting showing Christ’s body being carried to its tomb; what interested Colin about the work?
Colin Wiggins: First of all, it’s only comparatively recently been discovered why it’s unfinished, because I think the first thing that will strike anyone about this picture is that it’s so obviously not finished. But what seemed to have happened is that Michelangelo was working on this commission, but then he got a better offer, and to his credit he gave back the money that he’d been given as an advance, but didn’t want to work on it anymore – wanted to go off and be a sculptor, but it is very much a sculptor’s painting, and I think if we see the body as a three-dimensional piece of sculpture rather than a flat painting, we’re getting much more to the heart of what Michelangelo was trying to achieve.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, that particular pose that Christ’s in, as he’s kind of leaning back having been taken down from the cross, enables us to see quite a lot of his body in detail.
Colin Wiggins: And we see how beautiful it is, that’s exactly right. I mean, Michelangelo was about 25 when he made this and I think what’s motivating him to create a body that’s so perfectly beautiful is that this is God made man, this is Jesus, the son of God, and therefore his body has to be absolutely perfect and ideal, and therefore the perfection of it, the proportions of it, the texture of it, that wonderful rhythm that you get coming down from his chest into his stomach and his thighs, down into his shins and his feet – I find it just sublimely magical. I don’t mean that in a sensual way, I just find the whole structure of this thing profoundly moving as if I really am looking at the dead body of the son of God.
And, of course, part of the purpose of this as an altarpiece is that the priest would stand in front of it and lift up the sacrament, the bread, the body of Christ, at the moment of the holy Eucharist, and raise it up, and at that moment, God intervenes and it becomes bread no longer, but the body of Christ, and the faithful in the congregation will see that silhouetted against this sublime painting.
Miranda Hinkley: It’s interesting that you mention that Michelangelo would have been referring to particular ideals of beauty, but in painting works like this, he’s also set up an ideal of beauty for us to look back on and that’s fed into our own contemporary idea of a beautiful body.
Colin Wiggins: Yes, because we even have a word – ‘Michelangelesque’ – to define this kind of thing. It doesn’t quite equate with this because ‘Michelangelesque’ we tend to think of as the kind of inflated, powerful, over-muscled bodies that he was doing on the Sistine ceiling, whereas this has got a much more gentle, almost feminine quality to it, I would argue.
Miranda Hinkley: So looking at this work that’s very close to the other one, by Sebastiano del Piombo, The Raising of Lazarus, this sort of very muscular body of Lazarus is closer to what we tend to think of as a 'Michelangelesque' body…
Colin Wiggins: Yes, that’s absolutely right, and there’s a perfectly good reason for that because it was actually designed by Michelangelo. Michelangelo made drawings of this figure to give to Sebastiano. The story of the raising of Lazarus is from the New Testament, of course, when Martha and Mary’s brother has been struck dead and they are grieving and Christ does one of his most important miracles, which is bring him back to life. You can see the figures behind holding their noses because he’s been dead for a couple of days, so his body has started to go off and there’s a horrible smell but of course Christ overrides that and resurrects him.
I think that many people will be aware of Michelangelo’s most iconic male nude, which of course is Adam on the Sistine ceiling, and if you look at the post of Lazarus here, you’ll see how he’s referring to it. But it’s a very different kind of concept now, because we’ve got those tiny feet and those muscled thighs and that muscled arm. Because if you can imagine him standing up on those feet, he’d really have trouble – he’d be tottering all over the place, and I think that’s part of the meaning of the picture, that the body is an encumbrance. Far from now his soul having been released into wherever, the soul has now been trapped back in that body, and the body is not a comfortable thing one senses…
Miranda Hinkley: It’s got that… on his right foot… the way he’s almost nudging the shrouds off with his toe, it’s kind of an awkward movement, but it’s almost like when you can’t quite be bothered to bend down and take your socks off, you kind of shove them off with one big toe…
Colin Wiggins: Well, I don’t… [laughter]. I think I’d rather make a different analogy, because it’s very balletic, it’s like a ballet pose, when a ballet dancer is walking on points, but even so, if you were a ballet dancer and you had a torso like that, you’d break your ankles every time you tried to pirouette on one foot, wouldn’t you, the weight is so massive and intensive.
But Michelangelo’s understanding of the male body has changed somewhat, and when he’s a young man we can see how that’s personified in early 'The Entombment' with this notion of the ideal, and now he’s considerably older, his own body would have been changing, and he, I think, is affected by that as indeed we all are. That this notion of ideal beauty in a human is something that’s fleeting and transitory, whereas ideal beauty of the soul is something that’s permanent. And so this representation of this very cumbersome, awkward, ugly figure is no longer shown as an example of God’s divine visual beauty, but a divine spiritual beauty.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins. If you’d like to see Michelangelo’s beautiful male bodies for yourself, come along to the Gallery. 'The Entombment' and 'The Raising of Lazarus' by Sebastiano del Piombo are on display throughout the month.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: the 17th-century artist, Claude Lorraine, created luminous landscapes as a backdrop for classical scenes. His paintings inspired many subsequent artists – most notably, J.M.W. Turner, who left two of his pictures to the nation on the condition that they hang beside two of the Old Master’s. Today, Claude’s paintings are among the most popular in the Gallery, and in this month’s episode, we offer two personal responses to the artist’s important and influential work. In the first, we visit The Enchanted Castle, an intense, brooding landscape inspired by the love story of Psyche and Cupid. It’s a favourite of writer Jay Griffiths, the author of 'Wild'.
Jay Griffiths: One of the reasons that I really love this picture is because the figure of Eros is one of the gods who is an emotion that is personified into a god, and just kind of on principle I think that that is a beautiful idea – to honour one’s emotions as the Greeks did with their gods, but also as they did to honour attributes, like skills of music for instance, or to honour human emotions like the god Poseidon, who was the god of emotion and instinct.
It was part of the Platonic philosophy that one of the motivating forces in the world was love – that Eros was the principle by which the divine communicated with the creation, and actually if you think of that cliché of ‘money makes the world go round’, and actually for the ancient Greeks, it was Eros, it was the erotic principle that made the world go round. And the character of Psyche is to me, the character of someone who is half in love with the enchantment of love, with the force of Eros, and so half of her – it’s as if her body language… with her left half, she’s kind of sitting and waiting, she’s like Rodin’s 'The Thinker'; with her right half she’s just ready to run – it’s a kind of ‘should I stay or should I go?’ And I think also in the balance of the picture, there is something sort of enraptured about the brightness and the brilliance and the radiance of the sun and the sky and at the same time, you know, the gloom and the darkness and the shadow – that terrible undertow of anxiety or nervousness or vulnerability or fear within it.
But it’s also that Psyche herself is in this landscape which has aided her story, which is also a sort of beautiful pun within – you know, probably an unintended pun, but it’s still to our ears a pun nonetheless because it’s called 'Landscape with Psyche' – because you could say that the landscape itself has psyche within it, the landscape is ‘en-minded’. There’s a point in the story where she is rescued by the west wind, which picks her up from a mountain top and gently, gently drops her into the sweet and gentle valleys. There’s another point where, when she’s devastated by the loss of Eros, she tries to commit suicide. The river refuses to allow her to do it; the river throws her out, so it’s as if the landscape is ‘en-minded’. The landscape has psyche by which it is operating and choosing and aiding and helping. So it’s as if all the way through the story there’s an enchantment, not only in love, and the Enchanted Castle, but there is also an enchantment in nature as everything is alive, as if it’s animated with mind, with psyche.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to author Jay Griffiths. Well, the brooding mists of 'The Enchanted Castle' give way to better weather in the second of our two reports about Claude. In the artist’s Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca, the joyful wedding celebrations of the Biblical patriarch take place beneath a blue sky full of fluffy white clouds. The work is a favourite of Director Nick Penny, and when he discovered a former meteorologist among the trustees of the National Gallery Trust, he asked Catherine Stevenson to take a closer look.
Nicholas Penny: Catherine, we’re now looking at the very, very famous painting by Claude Lorraine – its nickname in the Gallery is 'The Mill'. People always associated Claude... the first thing they thought about him in the 17th century – and he was an enormously admired artist – was that he painted the sky as it had never been painted before, and I think that that’s probably true.
Catherine Stevenson: Well, certainly this sky is extremely realistic. Here the sun is quite well up in the sky. You can tell because of the illumination on the side of the cumulous clouds at the top of the picture, and this he’s picked up beautifully. Also, his structure of the clouds... there’s a layer of stratus in the middle, which is terribly realistic.
Nicholas Penny: Those are the streaky…
Catherine Stevenson: The streaky, rather flat clouds, but not only has he got those, it looks almost as though he’s got some clouds rising up on his mountains. Well, those are again, as you very often do… air rises.. I can see that happening. And the mist he’s got in the valleys, this side of the far hill…
Nicholas Penny: And this very precise observation of light comes right into the landscape, so you talk about the precision of the lighting of the cumulous clouds – marvellous light on the actual water falling in the middle of the great lake, or greatly expanded river. And right up to the foreground, or do you feel the foreground is still somehow…
Catherine Stevenson: Well, funnily enough what worries me about the picture is the colour of the water, because of course the water takes on the reflected colour of the sky, and the sky you see is actually quite light blue, and he’s got it so well, the gradation from the sort of brighter blue fading down to the paler blue in the distance, but yet the colour of the lake, somehow, I feel is slightly more intense than I would expect from that sky.
And also some of the illumination, he’s got quite a lot of trees on here on the right. I’m surprised at times there’s quite so much sunlight filtering through but it doesn’t detract from the fact it’s a fantastic picture, but painted by somebody who understands what light did. He’s got the light on the side of the mill, and he’s got the light on the side of the water wheel, I mean that’s a solid water wheel with the illumination in the right place.
Nicholas Penny: I suppose that for us now, we think of Claude as an artificial artist and it’s rather interesting that we in our discussion have been rather undecided about whether this is a lake or a river and it clearly is the case that he’s constructed it, with larger trees and smaller trees and so on, and it’s a composition very obviously, and we don’t even know for sure what type of trees these are, so that’s an artificial element as well. But I think talking to you and thinking about this sky and thinking about the lighting of the painting generally, one can understand generally what an amazing impact he made to a public who hadn’t seen the works of John Constable or, not to mention, Claude Monet.
Catherine Stevenson: Absolutely. And I’ve just seen the waterfall falling, tumbling down that hillside over there. I mean, rightly that’s in full illumination – it’s just brilliant, but it is a completely composed, artificial scene. I don’t think anybody would have recognised these cattle and the sheep, I don’t think… But…
Nicholas Penny: But the light on the cattle’s backbone is very good I always think. Yes, he wasn’t very good – I don’t know if one is allowed to say this anymore – he’s not very, very good on animals. But you do feel he’s someone who has taken his sketchbook and gone out a lot and he’s retained something that he’s really caught out there…
Catherine Stevenson: I think if you took the upper half of the picture, which would be of the waterfall, the trees and that sky, you wouldn’t say it had been painted when it was painted. You’d say it was much more recent, I think.
Nicholas Penny: I think the square six inches that you could probably best remove for that exercise would be the landscape just to the right of the mountain, with a bit of sky and a bit of water and that amazing, as you say, ‘misty’... and you’d just say that’s a sketch by Corot – it would be quite plausible really.
Catherine Stevenson: Completely, yes, 200 years later…
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Nick Penny and Catherine Stevenson, talking about Claude’s 'Marriage of Isaac and Rebecca’. That’s it for this episode. If you’d like to know more about any of the works in this month’s show, do visit our website, www.nationalgallery.org.uk. Or, if you’re in London, why not pop in. The Gallery is open 10 till 6 daily and 10 till 9 on Fridays, and a visit to the permanent collection is free of charge. Until next month, goodbye!