The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Four
In the February 2007 podcast, Gallery news, including the 'Renoir Landscapes' exhibition, classic French cinema, Chinese New Year events and a touch of romance.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, and welcome to February’s podcast from the National Gallery, London. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this month we’ll be teasing you with a taste of the Gallery’s next blockbuster exhibition, ‘Renoir Landscapes’, and its accompanying French film season, before donning party hats and digging out the decorations to hear about the Gallery’s plans for Chinese New Year. And, as post boxes around the land swell with red envelopes and novelty gifts, we’ll be taking a Valentine’s walk around the collection to find out what the Old Masters have to tell us about the art of love.
Renoir: father and son
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first, Renoir. Opening on 21 February, the National Gallery’s next major exhibition is the first ever to be devoted to the artist’s landscapes and seems destined to change the way we think about the Impressionist. Many of the paintings which will be on show are usually secreted away in private collections and are rarely seen in public, making this a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the French master’s work. We’ll be taking a closer look at the exhibition itself in future episodes, but today, in anticipation, we’re settling down with a box of chocolates to admire the work of Auguste Renoir’s equally famous son, the filmmaker Jean Renoir. To accompany the exhibition of Renoir the father, the National Gallery is running a film season called ‘Tales from a City’, which features the work of Renoir the son along with other gems of the French cinema. Our reporter, Leah Kharibian, found out more…
Leah Kharibian: Jean Renoir was arguably one of the best filmmakers to emerge in France during the 20th century. Cutting his teeth as a director in the 1920s, his gorgeous vision of France is very much ‘a tale from the city’ – a town-dwellers fantasy of the idyllic life to be had in the countryside. This is particularly true of his 1936 ‘Partie de Campagne’– one of the films featured in the current season – which tells the story of a Parisian family taking a daytrip out of the city. As the National Gallery’s Lee Riley explains, it was made with his father, the painter Auguste, very much in mind.
Lee Riley: It was a tribute to his father, and the film is everything that his father painted, as in rural landscapes around Paris. There is… you just watch it, and it is just like seeing one of his paintings come alive, it’s beautiful. And there’s humour, and there’s a little sadness, but it’s like a lost-love sadness through it, but something really quite poetic.
Leah Kharibian: In the years following the horrors of the Second World War, attitudes changed. A romanticised vision of France no longer seemed relevant. Jean Renoir’s films moved on – a stint in Hollywood saw him making a gritty movie about a Texas sharecropper, for instance. But in 1962, in his bestselling biography, ‘Renoir, my father’, Jean revisited the mythologised image of France he’d helped create in the 1930s. He viewed his father’s character and art through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia. So much so that, as Chris Riopelle, co-curator of the forthcoming ‘Renoir Landscapes’ exhibition, argues, Auguste Renoir the painter became permanently fixed in the public’s perception as an old-fashioned conservative.
Chris Riopelle: Renoir becomes the embodiment of a certain idea of France, as charming and as delightful… good food, good wine and good company. And so, in more serious times, when other artists were seen to take on more serious subjects, the supposed frivolity and just sheer joyfulness of Renoir’s art has played against him, and played against his reputation.
Leah Kharibian: But as the new exhibition will show, it's time for a re-evaluation. Auguste Renoir’s landscapes aren’t what we might expect. They’re a testing ground for new techniques and take a radical attitude to painting by focussing on capturing the ‘here and now’, out of doors. And it’s this experimental side to Auguste Renoir and his fellow Impressionists that also, Lee Riley feels, had a profound influence on French filmmaking.
Lee Riley: But I do believe that Impressionism came through. And it came through with Renoir and the other filmmakers, and even up to, I think, when you get into the New Wave movement where it’s all about outside, it’s all about capturing the moment, it‘s not so much about staging.
Leah Kharibian: So if people decide to come along to see one of these films, what, I asked Lee, can they expect?
Lee Riley: Some of the most beautiful classic French cinema. And, actually, cinema that you don’t get to see a lot of. It’s rarely shown but they are just such gems and they transcend time, they don’t look dated and you are just sent back to a time that no longer exists, but you always wish could. Such beauty.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Lee Riley there talking to Leah Kharibian. The ‘Tales from a City’ film season begins on 3 February and continues every Saturday afternoon until March, with Renoir’s ‘Partie de Campagne’ showing on 10 February. And while I understand there’s no usherette selling ice cream in the interval, each film is accompanied by a short – it is a proper, old-fashioned cinema. Tickets for screenings are available at www.nationalgallery.org.uk. And while you’re online, if you fancy being among the first to enjoy Renoir’s beautiful and rarely seen paintings you can also make an advance booking for the ’Renoir Landscapes’ exhibition. Alternatively, visitors to the Gallery can pick up a ticket from the audio desk in the Sainsbury Wing, where advance booking for the audio guide is also available. The tour is in English and French and features an interview with curator Chris Riopelle.
Chinese New Year
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up: are you a pig, a dog, a rat or a rooster? Sunday 18 February will see the streets of London’s Chinatown fill with cavorting dragons, limber dancers and stoic partygoers, braving the cold to celebrate Chinese New Year. Just around the corner in Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery will be joining in the fun, laying on a series of events throughout the month of February to explore the symbolism of the Chinese Zodiac. I chatted to Karly Allen from the Education department and lecturer Judy Xu about what they’ve got planned.
Miranda Hinkley: Karly, you’ve been responsible for organising celebrations here at the National around Chinese New Year; can you tell us what you’ve got lined up?
Karly Allen: Yes, this month we’ve got talks for both adults and for families in the gallery… and alongside the talks that we’re having in the Gallery, we’re going to launch a new trail… so a Gallery trail that you can pick up from information desks and this will take you on a hunt – you search for all the different animals in the Chinese Zodiac and there’s also lots of information in the trail for adults, talking again about these comparisons between East and West.
Miranda Hinkley: We’re actually standing in front of one of the paintings that’s going to be on that trail, I think. It’s a painting by Paolo Uccello, painted in the 15th century… it’s very famous, ‘Saint George and the Dragon’. Can you tell us a bit about what’s going on in this painting, Karly?
Karly Allen: Absolutely, well this painting of a dragon is really such a good place to start in thinking about the symbolism and comparisons between East and West, because the dragon plays such an important role and a contrasting role in the two traditions, and in this painting we’re really looking at that traditional battle between good and evil. George, Saint George, in his shining armour, riding on a white horse… he represents absolute good and he’s charging into his battle against the dragon. The dragon that is being subdued by George, its head is lowered, it’s got blood dripping out of its mouth – it’s quite obviously been defeated and, of course, in the Christian tradition the dragon is a representation of the Devil and so here we see George possibly being supported by a sort of symbol of a heavenly power up in the sky behind him, a swirling cloud formation which might represent God’s protection and support of George in his battle against evil.
Miranda Hinkley: Judy, how does that compare with the view of the dragon in Chinese culture?
Judy Xu: I think it’s very interesting that, completely different from the dragon in the Western culture, the Chinese dragon is an extremely positive symbol of good luck and success. It is believed that the people, according to Chinese astrology, people born in the year of the dragon are charismatic and blessed so it’s believed very fortunate to be a child in the year of the dragon.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Karly Allen, Judy Xu, and the animals of the National Gallery. For details of the lectures Karly mentioned, or to find out more about the Chinese Zodiac trail, do visit the National Gallery website. All the events are free, with no booking required.
Love at the National Gallery
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And finally: today we’re launching a new series in which we’ll be delving into the National Gallery’s collection to explore how the everyday experiences and emotions of life – such as love, death, passion and beauty – are represented in its pictures. And with Valentine’s Day just around the corner, we’ve decided to kick off the series with the theme of love. I asked Louise Govier of the Education department for her pick of the Gallery’s romantic paintings, before talking to historian Jonathan Conlin about the museum’s role as a place for amorous meetings and trysts.
Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): Louise, you’ve worked a lot with people talking about the paintings – how have people responded?
Louise Govier: Well, I find that people really love these pictures. It’s one of the great things about the National Gallery. I think sometimes people wonder whether it’s not just full of dusty old dry paintings from the past that don’t have anything to do with everyone’s everyday life now, but actually what we find is that these are paintings that were made to appeal to a broad range of people when they were first made. And of course they’re full of stories that are absolutely the stuff of our lives now. For example, there are all kinds of stories about love and that’s a particularly interesting theme and there are some great love story paintings in this particular room.
Miranda Hinkley: Now you’ve chosen just two paintings from the National Gallery’s huge collection to embody the theme of love, and we’re standing in front of the first one which is Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’. Can you tell us a bit more about what’s going on here and why you’ve chosen this painting?
Louise Govier: This is for me one of the really wonderful love story paintings in the collection. What we’re looking at is the moment when a god meets a mortal woman and falls in love with her. We’ve got Ariadne who has been abandoned by her husband… she wakes up on a seashore and finds that his boat, the boat carrying her husband, is just sailing off into the distance – you can just see it over her shoulder. She’s crying, she’s waving goodbye and kind of calling him back and then all of a sudden as she’s standing there, she hears this tumultuous noise. This is actually a group of followers of the god of wine, Bacchus. They come through the forest and Bacchus sees her and immediately falls in love and he leaps off his chariot and she looks terrified because, of course, you know, it’s a madman coming and jumping off towards her. Also, he’s not wearing very much. He is leaping off and there is this moment of electric silence where it’s frozen in time and you just get this connection between the two of them, they’ve locked eyes on each other. Titian’s left a kind of gap in the middle, a piece of blue sky, where we actually, as viewers, then make that connection between the two and it seems really electric.
Miranda Hinkley: And if that last picture that we saw was sort of a vision of love at first sight, this is a bit more ambiguous – this is a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder and it’s called ‘Cupid complaining to Venus’. What’s going on in this picture?
Louise Govier: Yeah, this is a great picture. We’re seeing Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, shown as an ideal woman for Germany in the early 16th century. So she’s very sort of slim with quite full hips and she’s showing herself off to us in a very lascivious way. She’s actually draped rather like a pole dancer around a tree, looking out incredibly suggestively. She’s wearing no clothes, but has a very fancy hat – I mean, she kind of is the definition of ‘all hat and no knickers’, it has to be said, but she’s accompanied by her son, Cupid, god of love, who is looking very unhappy and who is complaining to his mother.
He’s complaining because he has tried to get some honey out of a tree and has been stung by the bees and, of course, this is all about the other side of love, when love doesn’t go quite right, and the idea that you can’t have the fulfilment and the sweetness of love like the honey, without also putting yourself in danger of getting stung. There’s a little inscription at the top of the painting that emphasises this too, so it’s quite a nice contrast to the Titian because that is all about romance and impossible dreams and being given the stars, and this is much more pragmatic, in some ways, because it’s a little bit more down and dirty in terms of the very clear sexual appeal of Venus, but also because the Cupid action reminds us that for all of us love has its really painful moments too.
Miranda Hinkley: Louise, it strikes me that in many paintings in the Gallery, there’s just so much romance. Does that have an effect on visitors?
Louise Govier: I think it does. I’m often aware just looking at visitors in the Gallery space of how people who’ve come on their own will sometimes start to kind of move around each other almost in a sort of mating ritual or dance, and certainly, you know, you do see people checking out the possibilities. So yeah, I think there’s lots of love all around us here.
Miranda Hinkley: I’m off to another part of the Gallery now where I’ve got an assignation with historian Jonathan Conlin from the University of Southampton, who’s also the author of ‘The Nation’s Mantelpiece’, a book about the history of the National Gallery. So, Jonathan, here we are in the Mond Room and there’s a particular reason you’ve brought me here, isn’t there?
Jonathan Conlin: Yes there is. The Mond Room was probably the best trysting place in the gallery. It was opened relatively late on in the Gallery’s history in 1928, but it has the distinction of being the only room, at least back then, with one door, so for those couples who maybe wanted to share a private moment, it was the most attractive place to be in the Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley: So it sounds like, then at least, people used the Gallery space in quite a different way from perhaps they do today?
Jonathan Conlin: Yes, I think the important thing to recall is that in the early 20th century there were very few places, at least very few public places, where one was, if we put one in the shoes of a young man interested in a certain young lady… nice girls could simply not be taken to pubs, could not be taken to perhaps other areas that we might associate with courting today. Of course, with the great English climate, going to a public park was only an option on the very finest of days and so public museums were one of the very rare places where one could be alone, get away from the parents, where a girl could still come, safe in the knowledge that she wasn’t ruining her reputation.
Miranda Hinkley: And I think we have an example of somebody describing the kind of things that went on in a letter to a friend…
Jonathan Conlin: Yes, one of the trustees wrote to one of the Gallery’s most famous directors, Kenneth Clark, in 1934, enclosing a poem he had discovered called ‘Love in the National Gallery’, which describes exactly the sort of trysting couple desperately searching for a place to be alone. It goes as follows:
My mother’s the difficult sort, and he’d a mama of his own
And so we were able to court at the public collections alone
Ah, many the vows that we swore and many the kisses he took
As we sat with one eye on the door, and the other on ‘Crossing the Brook’.
Sadly, that last reference is rather lost on us today. ‘Crossing the Brook’ is an 1815 painting of the Tamar Valley by Turner which has since been transferred to the Tate, but already one gets the sense of this being a place, particularly in the Mond Room, where one could enjoy the art, enjoy one’s company, and also keep an eye on other visitors maybe interrupting at the same time.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jonathan Conlin. And if you’d like to peek into other nooks and crannies of the Gallery’s past, you can find out more in his recently published book, ‘A Nation’s Mantelpiece: A History of the National Gallery’. Those of a romantic persuasion might also like to know that the Gallery will be open until 9pm on Wednesday 14 February. A special Valentine’s Day audio tour will be available from audio desks throughout the period – it’ll whisper sweet nothings in your ear about some of the more amorous works in the collection, including masterpieces such as Rubens’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ and Bronzino’s sensuous ‘Allegory with Venus and Cupid’.
That’s it for this month’s podcast. Join us again in March when we’ll be paying a visit to the ‘Renoir Landscapes’ exhibition to discover why, if you thought you knew the man and his work, it might be high time to revise your opinions. Until then, goodbye!