The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Forty Four
In the June 2010 podcast, how to capture the Thames on paper, Renaissance paintings for all the senses, and new angles on art.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s show: how Renaissance painters encouraged us to smell, hear and feel their art, and why getting a good view of a painting sometimes involves lying on the floor.
Painting water with Jo Lewis
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start this episode with a trip to the beach. Blackfriars Beach, that is – a thin strip of pebbly shore in the centre of London beside the Thames. It’s a favourite spot of painter Jo Lewis, who’s giving a workshop at the National Gallery this month about painting water. I went along to get some tips.
Jo Lewis: Here we are in London, we’re literally just between Waterloo Station and Charing Cross Station. London is very busy; it’s a busy morning, everyone’s rushing to work. Trains are clattering, buses are going, we’re all being very busy, and yet there’s this moment down here where you get this complete high. You come down those steps and we’re on a beach and the sun’s shining; beaches like this are absolutely magical.
One of the things that I do is just record the line of water as it washes over the paper very simply with some ink, and I’ll show you that now. It’s very simple.
Miranda Hinkley: So, Jo’s holding the paper in the water and, with the pipette, trickling a line of ink along the length of the paper, and where it meets the water it’s creating this beautiful dark part in the centre and then the colour gets weaker and weaker as it washes across the paper. Beautiful.
Jo Lewis: Watercolour is all about timing; it’s the time you choose to drop the colour on the paper, it’s the time you let the colour rest on the paper before moving it; it’s this wonderful sense of grabbing that moment and being ready, and then it’s passed. And sometimes the simplest movements and the simplest things are the most effective.
Something else now, I’m going to do some drawing. What I’m often really interested in at the moment is the shoreline, this amazing line that’s constantly shifting, this line where these two things meet, the water and the land. It’s also that magical place where we get the sound of the lapping water, that place that we’re always drawn to. So I’m using this bamboo stick which could be the end of a paintbrush – Turner often used the end of a paintbrush, or the end of a paintbrush that he had cut down. I also often use my fingers because there’s a wonderful immediacy and you can really feel even with your nail the different ways you can apply and turn your finger to get the ink on. And now I’m just going to take it into the water...
Miranda Hinkley: And you’re just letting the water wash over what you’ve done...
Jo Lewis: Yeah, I am. And this is where the kitchen towel can come in. You can see how I can literally work into the drawing with the kitchen towel.
Miranda Hinkley: Jo, are there any particular artists in the National Gallery collection who’ve worked with water that you’re interested in?
Jo Lewis: I think it’s Turner mainly. I think it’s just that he was so amazingly experimental in his approach to watercolours, and in a way he totally broke watercolour free from the sense that it was just a way of colouring drawings and really made it into a medium of its own.
And, in fact, I think his watercolours influenced his use of oils a lot. It’s just the way he uses the medium: that feeling that there are no rules and it’s about the freedom, whether he’s scratching away at it with the blade of a knife, or his fingernail, or the end of a brush, or using really anything he can in order to get the effects he wants. And it’s just that wonderful sense of responding to the moment, and responding to nature.
Miranda Hinkley: Have you ever lost bits of work to the water?
Jo Lewis: Oh, frequently. I’ve lost bits of work, brushes, pipettes, whole bottles of paint and ink... that’s quite annoying. And also bits of paper, not so much in the water but that have blown away and then ended up in the water.
Miranda Hinkley: I quite like the idea that some kind of 22nd-century mudlark might find all of these brushes and pipettes in the mud and wonder what on earth was going on.
Jo Lewis: You do find fantastic things on the river. I mean, that’s the other thing I do: I collect things that I find down on these beaches. There’s an amazing beach opposite Tate Modern... I shouldn’t give it away, but you can get amazing treasures down there that are wonderful things from, you know, broken plates that London families must have eaten off, and clay pipes, oyster shells, all sorts.
Better get some blue in there, because the sky is blue today, isn’t it? It’s quite rare to get the blue out with the river Thames. I think it was T.S. Eliot who described the river Thames as a brown god, and that it usually is.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jo Lewis. If you’d like to have a go for yourself, don’t forget to check the tide tables. And if you’d like to attend her workshop, it takes place across two Saturdays, 26 June and 10 July. Tickets are £70 or £60 for concessions, and available at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Stimulating the senses with Renaissance painting
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): When taking in a great masterpiece, you're likely to be concerned with what you can see, not what you can hear, smell or touch. Yet a new book by the art historian François Quiviger suggests that Renaissance painters were keen to stimulate all our senses, as Leah Kharibian found out.
Leah Kharibian: François, you’ve brought me to a really quite terrifyingly graphic depiction of the crucifixion by the 15th-century French artist, Gerard David, and I was wondering if you could take us through it and explain what you think he’s up to as an artist.
François Quiviger: Well, the first thing is Christ who occupies very much the centre of the picture in the diagonal of the cross, and he’s being nailed on the cross – his two hands have already been nailed, and his feet haven’t been nailed yet, but are just about to be nailed, and there are these two executioners who are pulling as hard as they can to elongate the body, so Christ is literally stretched on the cross.
Leah Kharibian: It is really a very dramatic composition. Christ is on the ground and yet he’s looking outwards towards us and he is incredibly elongated and stretched. That awful tautness of skin underneath his arm, it’s really quite painful to look at.
François Quiviger: Well, I guess that’s the purpose of this kind of imagery and, in fact, if you read the Gospel in search of these kind of images you won’t find them, because this kind of imagery appears only from the 11th and 12th centuries onwards, when there is a shift in Christianity and when the central god of Christianity, Christ, becomes a human and suffering god. For the purpose of painting this means that from the second part of the Middle Ages onwards, let’s say the 11th or 12th century, the Church wants a kind of imagery that will help people to empathise with what is shown, and when you’re talking of a suffering god, you’re obviously talking of the sense of touch. So slowly painting will try to convey this feeling; in the case of the Passion, intense pain, but in the case of the infancy of Christ, we can think of all these Virgins and Child, which are variations on touching and holding, kissing a baby.
Leah Kharibian: Yes, that sense of touch is very palpable here in a very visceral way. We have that awful image of the nails actually being driven into Christ’s hand. But that also in itself seems to stimulate the idea of sound – the idea of this metal hammer against the metal nail. And then other senses, with this awful dog in the foreground, who I’m sure is meant to be very fashionable but looks like a horrible shaved rat of a thing sniffing a skull. It seems like all our senses are being addressed here.
François Quiviger: Yes, absolutely, and that’s the purpose of medieval and also of Renaissance devotion – that is, to encourage people looking at paintings, in churches of course, listening to sermons, to imagine with all their senses, with all the imagination of their senses, how things happened – imagining things as if you were present.
Leah Kharibian: Very interestingly in your book you reveal that in fact modern scientific experiments have proved that empathising with a sensation fires up the same parts of the brain that the actual experience of those sensations would fire up. Is that really the case?
François Quiviger: Indeed, it’s the same, and modern science has proven that when you put some electrodes around your brain and you look at someone being hurt, the same neurons are firing, or some of the same neurons. But this, I think, we already knew intuitively. Now, thanks to the advancements of neuroscience, we can prove it scientifically and delve deeper into it.
Leah Kharibian: But do you think, finally, that the extraordinary appeal that pictures like this make to our senses, where all our senses are being addressed, is why we value Renaissance painting so very much?
François Quiviger: This is certainly a painting that speaks very directly to the mind; the way in which it uses our experience of the world to represent it, it’s obviously something to which we are much more likely to respond spontaneously than, say, abstract painting, which, let’s say, requires a different approach, a different sense of reception.
But yes, indeed, this may explain why we still react so well to Renaissance painting although we’ve lost lots of the contact around it – we’re not in a religious society any more; still, these paintings have an appeal that goes beyond the fact that they’re just simply beautiful – they represent our experience of the world.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to François Quiviger, whose new book, 'The Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art', is out this month.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: paintings in modern galleries tend to be displayed at eye height, but many were originally designed to be viewed from above or below. To find out what difference this makes, I spoke to historian Caroline Smith. She gave me a new perspective on an old favourite – Cosimo Tura’s Muse.
Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): So what do we know about this rather imposing woman? She’s turned provocatively in this sort of three-quarter pose, her hand perched provocatively on her knee. What do we know about her?
Caroline Smith: Well, she’s certainly a very imposing character, isn’t she? Seated on this fantastic throne, not quite looking at us, she’s looking down, and it’s thought that she’s one of the muses.
Miranda Hinkley: She’s certainly got quite a stern look on her face – almost an ironic expression.
Caroline Smith: Very ironic. I think she’s quite an aspirational or inspirational figure. She’s not somebody that we’re meant to relate to, she’s outside our experience. So I think that does go with her very lofty, almost haughty stare at us.
Miranda Hinkley: It’s certainly very opulent and flashy and kind of ostentatious. I mean, she’s got these dragon-like... what are they? Almost dolphins on her throne.
Caroline Smith: I think they are dolphins.
Miranda Hinkley: Gem stones for eyes... big snapping teeth…
Caroline Smith: They’re quite scary in some ways, aren’t they? Because they’ve all got open mouths and we can see these very sharp teeth and then their eyes – as you say, red gemstones, just catching the light – do look quite sinister.
Miranda Hinkley: And so she was painted by Cosimo Tura in the 15th century. Who was she painted for?
Caroline Smith: She was probably painted for one of the dukes of Ferrara for a family castle, a place called Belfiore, which was outside the city, and she was most likely painted for a study, or ‘studiolo’, which was a private place within the castle. This was the room where a prince or a ruler would surround themselves with beautiful paintings, music and objects. It would be somewhere where they could recuperate and relax. So having the muses as part of your scheme makes a good deal of sense.
It’s thought that she would have been hanging much higher up on the wall than we would see her now. Probably the painting would have been above eye level. Even the bottom of the painting may have been above eye level; so we’d have much more of an impression of looking up at her, which does fit this idea of her being a very lofty, haughty sort of figure, and the way that she is looking down at us, way down on the floor, almost beneath her notice, I think. It does change the way that we view this painting and the sort of details that we notice.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, let’s try that right now. If you can bear to hunker down here... gosh, that really is quite different isn’t it?
Caroline Smith: It’s quite different, isn’t it?
Miranda Hinkley: And actually your gaze is thrown up to what’s behind her head much more.
Caroline Smith: Exactly. Shall we start at the bottom and look up at it? We see her two feet poking over the edge of the stone throne. And then we’d be looking up into that very elaborate drapery which swirls around her feet in those very elaborate folds; I think you might have more of a sense of looking up through some of those folds.
Miranda Hinkley: It becomes very theatrical, doesn’t it? Because it almost looks like the folds of curtains before some fantastic performance.
Caroline Smith: It does, exactly. And we’d also, I think, have the sense of looking up into those dolphins’ mouths that we were talking about earlier.
Miranda Hinkley: Yes, they suddenly become a bit more terrifying.
Caroline Smith: They’re a bit more scary, aren’t they? But from that point we get much cleaner lines. The long line of her body and the lacing that runs up it, and just where it opens up across her body – that flash of white that’s been revealed because she’s unlaced her dress...
Miranda Hinkley: You suddenly notice something that I hadn’t noticed before which is that the thong or bit of fabric that’s lacing up her dress is coming undone and is kind of dangling suggestively across her thigh.
Caroline Smith: It is! Very suggestively across her thigh. The idea that we could reach out and give it a tug maybe... and then we’d look at that long line of her body – her very creamy neck and face and very high forehead, very fashionable of course at the time – and then look up underneath those beads that are hanging across the shell, almost much more underneath them and up into the recess of the shell...
Miranda Hinkley: Which appears much darker... it appears to have much more depth.
Caroline Smith: It does… more than when we were standing up looking at it full on. And I think if you’re looking at it from below, the sky also darkens the further up towards the edge of the painting we go – again like the shell.
Miranda Hinkley: It’s much more dramatic.
Caroline Smith: Much more dramatic.
Miranda Hinkley: She certainly looks as though she’s sitting in a niche. I mean, that throne is very architectural in itself.
Caroline Smith: Very architectural. And its maybe to give that impression in the room – that you’re actually looking up at niches and figures within them.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, lofty lady, we’re not quite sure who you are, but we salute you.
Caroline Smith: We do indeed.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Caroline Smith. Come along to the Gallery if you’d like to take the Tura test for yourself – the painting will be on display throughout the month. Or see our website for a 2D version of the 'Muse' and all the other works in the Gallery’s collection, at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
If you’re visiting, don’t forget we’re opening 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays. That’s it for now, until next month, goodbye!