The National Gallery Podcast: Episode One
In the November 2006 podcast, news on the Velázquez exhibition, celebrating Black History Month and the new National Café
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Welcome to the first in our new series of monthly podcasts from the National Gallery, London. I’m Miranda Hinkley and over the next 15 minutes I’ll be bringing you news of the latest exhibitions, taking you for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in the Gallery and giving you a brief round up of forthcoming events.
Coming up: described as ‘one of the most eagerly anticipated exhibitions of the art calendar’, we pay a visit to ‘Velázquez’ – a collection of works by the great 17th-century Spanish master that’s already broken all box-office records.
And: she made her living by being suspended by her teeth; I learn more about the extraordinary Miss La La, the woman featured in the Gallery’s painting of the month. And: open from 8am to 11pm, serving everything from Eggs Benedict to freshly churned ice cream, I’ll be hearing about the culinary delights on offer at the all-new National Café.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first to Velázquez, considered by many to be one of the greatest painters of all time. The exhibition that’s recently opened at the Gallery brings together masterpieces by Velázquez from around the world. At the heart of the exhibition are the nine paintings from the National Gallery, London. You might be surprised to hear that it houses the largest collection of works by the master outside of the Prado in Madrid. There are seven other pictures from the UK in the show, and yet this is the first major exhibition of Velázquez ever to be held in Britain. I’m joined here in the studio by our reporter, Leah Kharibian, who comes hot-foot from the Gallery. Leah, I have to ask, we’ve never had a big Velázquez show here before, has it been worth the wait?
Leah Kharibian: Absolutely. This is the most stunning exhibition and it includes works that are drawn from throughout Velázquez’s career, from the earliest pictures he painted as a teenager in Seville right up to the two portraits of the royal children he painted in 1659, the year before he died.
Miranda Hinkley: I’ve mentioned the nine pictures owned by the National here in London. I hear the show represents something of a coup for the Gallery in terms of loans.
Leah Kharibian: Yes, and this is really what makes it such an outstanding exhibition. Right from the outset the Gallery’s curator, Dawson Carr, has been working in close collaboration with the Prado Museum who are, if you like, the inheritors of Velázquez’s pictures from the Spanish royal collection. So there are substantial loans from the Prado which in themselves would be amazing, but then there are also these very important loans from Vienna, which once was the eastern branch of the Habsburg family. So, if you like, it’s a sort of gathering of the clans. And also there are some paintings that either have very rarely been seen before – and one in particular, ‘The Temptation of St Thomas Aquinas’, a very big picture that has been housed in a monastery in Spain all these years and has hardly been seen at all. So a really once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these works.
Miranda Hinkley: So this must have taken quite a few years to organise.
Leah Kharibian: Actually, it really didn’t. I mean, normally exhibitions, you’re looking at least five years in the planning, but this happened within three years which is just extraordinary, especially for such a major artist with such important works. So quite extraordinary from that point of view too.
Miranda Hinkley: And what did you make of the show?
Leah Kharibian: There’s so much to be got from this exhibition but one of the themes that I think emerges right from the very start is the immense humanity of Velázquez as an observer of human life and his – what I think appears to be entirely genuine – compassion for what you might call the outsiders of Spanish 17th-century society. The first room of the exhibition, which is devoted to Velázquez’s early years in his native Seville, has an extraordinary gathering of pictures that, instead of glorifying the great and the good of the city, show instead its kitchen maids, its street vendors like ‘The Water Seller’, a wonderful picture, and its tavern regulars. The works are known by the Spanish term ‘bodegóns’, and I asked Dawson Carr, curator of the exhibition, what this term meant.
Dawson Carr: The term ‘bodegón’ is taken from low-life eating establishments – a ‘dive’ – and became the word that is used in Spanish for still life. And ‘bodegóns’, when referring to a work of art, usually referred to figures and still life combined. In it Velázquez is starting to probe the representation of the visual world in the most palpable way that he can, and from the beginning there’s extraordinary talent, there’s extraordinary ability at rendering things and, in the beginning actually, some of the things are better than the figures.
Leah Kharibian: Anyone who sees these pictures will be bowled over by the still lifes he includes – the most amazing earthenware jugs and bowls – some gleaming fish on a plate. However, in the hands of other artists of Velázquez’s day, the people in these kitchen and tavern scenes were often portrayed as figures of fun, weren’t they, or moralised about? That’s not the same here though, is it?
Dawson Carr: The thing that Velázquez does with these ‘bodegóns’ that is unique is that he invests them with a sense of gravity, a sense of nobility. They are humble scenes but there is this sense of seriousness, this gravity, and this respect for the humble that is unique to him. He’s not just interested in capturing the physical appearance of objects, he’s also, from the beginning, probing what it means to be human. And, seemingly, for a young man, with great understanding – extraordinary understanding for a teenager.
Think of the ‘Water Seller’ – can you imagine doing that when you are a teenager, producing something like that, it’s just beyond belief. And, you know, you can get lost between the water condensing on the jug from the coolness and the fig existing in the glass of water – optically beautifully captured. But it isn’t ultimately the physical description, all be it brilliant, of that picture that really grabs you, it is this sense of mood, this gravity that comes along with this very simple act of selling a glass of water.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dawson Carr, exhibition curator.
Representations of disability in Velázquez’s art
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): So, Leah, does this interest in everyday figures continue through Velázquez’s work?
Leah Kharibian: Well, when Velázquez left Seville to join the royal household in Madrid the rest of his career was largely devoted to painting portraits of the Spanish royal family – a number of extraordinary examples of which you can see in the exhibition. But he also painted some extremely searching portraits of the people who served them, including a number of the dwarfs employed as entertainers. The show has two of these works including Velázquez’s depiction of Francisco Lezcano, who sits alone on a rock against a landscape background, and he’s shown shuffling a pack of cards, and one of his short legs is stuck right out towards the viewer.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah spoke to Michael Shamash, a writer, researcher and campaigner on disability issues, who is also a person of restricted growth, to ask what he sees when he looks at the work.
Michael Shamash: It’s a picture of someone who was occupying a more lowly position in the pecking order of courtly life. However, Velázquez’s painterly skills illuminate this person – you have a face that has a life of its own. And you can see even with somebody who’d be perceived now, and I wonder then, to have particular disadvantages, there is a sense actually emerging from that of a real dignity, of somebody who we’re not gawping at, we’re not staring at, but we’re kind of understanding. We are equal to him and I feel that Velázquez conveys that incredibly effectively.
Leah Kharibian: And yet Velázquez isn’t trying to flatter Francisco Lezcano in any way is he? I mean, as a portrait it’s almost painfully honest. It’s clear, for example, that Lezcano has a developmental disability – he has a twisted neck and you can see he’s obviously had a go at cutting his own fringe. Velázquez doesn’t hide anything – how do you respond to that?
Michael Shamash: What makes these paintings, I think, so important, and for a person of restricted growth like myself what seems to me so relevant, is that on the one hand we’re not given an image that airbrushes out any aspect of their physical being, any aspect that possibly is a little complex for us to deal with, but at the same time there is an immense humanity. The problem with paintings traditionally that have shown images of people with restricted growth with others is that what you do is you’re trapped into looking at the relativity of scale. What these paintings do is because they’re separate you see them on their own, they are people living in their own space. And you actually then have to interpret the art as images in their own right. And these are groups of people who are historically shown in contexts where you’re meant to go, ‘gosh, isn’t that person small?’ Whereas here you’re saying, ‘gosh isn’t that art good? Isn’t that painting complex, and isn’t that image illuminating?’
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah will be returning to Velázquez in our next episode. If you want to see the exhibition for yourself, ‘Velázquez’ runs upstairs in the main galleries until 21 January. Tickets for timed entry can be purchased online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk or by telephone on 0870 906 3891. An audio guide featuring Dawson Carr accompanies the exhibition.
Degas’s ‘Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando’
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now, an extraordinary black circus performer is the star of the National Gallery’s painting of the month – a work by the Impressionist Edgar Degas called Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. It was chosen to coincide with Black History Month. I went to the Sainsbury Wing, where the painting currently hangs to meet artist and regular lecturer at the National Gallery, Viyki Turnbull, to find out more about this unconventional choice of subject.
Viyki Turnbull: It’s a painting of Miss La La, who was a circus performer and acrobat, doing a stunt which actually involved her being hoisted on a pulley to the ceiling while spinning, and the pulley was actually attached in her mouth as opposed to anywhere else, like around her waist, so it was actually a feat of strength as she held it in her jaw.
Miranda Hinkley: Do we know anything about Miss La La? Who she was?
Viyki Turnbull: She was born in 1858. We believe that she was christened Olga Kaira and we also know that she started performing at the age of 9. She would have been working in Germany, we know. We know she travelled to Paris and we know she travelled to London, performing, so she was quite an independent woman.
She had one stunt where she would have a bar in her mouth and then she would hold a boy, and then a woman, and then a man, and they would all be doing trapeze acts on this bar, and she was completely serene hanging there with this bar in her mouth with this incredible amount of weight on it. Another one where she had a cannon attached to her mouth and even when it fired, and obviously you can imagine the force of a cannon ball ripping through the air, she was still quite happy, so in some ways she’s kind of miraculous. It’s almost too amazing.
When you go to see circus performers and the things that they can do – she becomes a myth almost, in the way that people have described her acts.
Miranda Hinkley: Does she appear in other works of art or literature, or was Degas the only person to paint her?
Viyki Turnbull: We do know that she’s appeared in newspaper articles in London from when she was here and people have described her in some detail. And we definitely know that Degas and his contemporaries were interested in the circus and were travelling to the circus with performers. And also with other aspects of the working class in and around France and Paris.
Miranda Hinkley: And one final question Viyki – how do you feel about this painting personally? How does it make you feel to look at it?
Viyki Turnbull: I really love seeing this painting. I think the more I see it the more I fluctuate back and forth, and I often have this question for myself – ‘am I Miss La La?’ is the question, because you want to kind of identify with her. And I find there’s so much strength – I almost sometimes see her as like an artist anyway, she’s kind of doing a twirl, she’s trying to entertain people, she’s trying to get people to see her, and that’s almost how I see myself as an artist sometimes, and particularly as an educator, when I’m talking about paintings.
And so I would say – yes, I want to be Miss La La. I love Miss La La in this pose and I think it’s very important for me to be able to see her in this position, and to see a black person in the permanent collection who is so powerful.
Miranda Hinkley: And you can see the wonderful Miss La La for yourself as part of ‘Manet to Picasso’ – an exciting new display of some of the best loved pictures in the Gallery. It’s on show until May 2007 and entrance is free.
Oliver Peyton on the National Gallery Café
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): If Miss La La’s acrobatics leave you feeling a bit hungry, you’ll only have a few steps to take to enjoy a slice of cosmopolitan café culture at the Gallery’s newly opened National Café. I spoke to the giant of the London restaurant scene who’s behind the project.
Miranda Hinkley (in the National Gallery Café): I’m sitting in the dining rooms of the National Gallery café with Oliver Peyton who looks after this restaurant and is also going to be in charge of the National Café which is opening next week. Oliver, tell us about the opening – who is this new café for?
Oliver Peyton: Well, I think that the wonderful thing about the National Café is that, while the National Dining Rooms are the more fine dining end of what we do, the café is now the opportunity to offer something for everyone. So ultimately there’ll be three different choices when you come to the National Gallery: there’ll be sandwiches, salads, quick light food at a reasonable price, and also you can sit down or you can takeaway, and there’ll be a mid-price café which interestingly is open at night and I think that’s the first time that’s ever happened in the National Gallery, so you’ll be able to just come in for a drink.
Miranda Hinkley: So, tell us a bit about the food.
Oliver Peyton: Well, I think it was important to us that, for example, you can go from an egg and cress sandwich for £1.50 to a macaroni cheese or ‘National Catastrophe’ ice cream sundae. It’s meant to be a bit of fun. I think the point about the experience of coming to the Gallery – I wanted to relate a lot of the food to the Gallery. You know, the café feels like it belongs to the Gallery rather than some sort of bolt-on operation. I think that’s very important and I think it’s very important to the Gallery as well.
I’ve always loved art – I’ve been brought up with art – and I have this thing that I think people, given the galleries are free in this country… you know, if you go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or if you go to the Louvre, or you go to any of these other places, you queue for hours and you’ve got to pay 16 dollars or 20 euros or 15 euros, or whatever it is to get in. Here you can just walk in off the street. And I think people in this country are absolutely extraordinarily lucky to be able to have that and I think it’s a very important part of our culture.
Miranda Hinkley: Can you sum up your personal philosophy on eating out if you have such a thing?
Oliver Peyton: I only create restaurants that I would go to. I think that’s all I can do. I was brought up going to a place called Bewleys in Dublin which is a Quaker café and I have very fond memories of going in there and seeing lots of different people – seeing people reading poetry. A lot of what David Collings and I have talked about in this design has been driven by both our experiences of going to Bewleys when we were younger.
I think with the café I want there to be a sense of romance there. It’s also important to me that everybody’s treated the same. I don’t care whether you’ve got 10 chauffeurs outside and 10 bodyguards or whether you’re coming in just for a cup of tea. I think galleries are very democratic places and I want to continue on that theme of democracy.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And if you take your MP3 player along to the new National Café and show them this podcast on the player, you can order a glass of wine and get another one free after 4pm. That offer runs until the end of November and remember if you’re coming into the café after 6pm, please use the entrance in St Martin’s Lane.
Finally, our monthly round-up of events at the Gallery. Marking the 100th anniversary of the death of Paul Cézanne, ‘Cézanne in Britain’ gathers 40 outstanding works from British collections by this renowned and influential painter. Entrance is free and the exhibition’s on show at the Sunley Room until January 2007.
And if we’ve whetted your appetite for Velázquez, a series of films, courses, lectures and evening events are taking place throughout the next few months in conjunction with the exhibition. Highlights include the ‘Portrait of an Artist’ film season, exploring the influence of the great Spanish artist on cinema, and a special live reading of leading Spanish playwright Antonio Buero Vallejo’s work, ‘Las Meninas’, a tribute to Velázquez’s painting of the same name. That’s taking place on 15 and 18 November in the Sainsbury Wing Theatre. It’s free, but advance booking is recommended. Information on all these events and more can be found on the National Gallery’s website www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
And that’s the end of this month’s National Gallery podcast. Join me again in our next episode, when we’ll return to Velázquez to delve into the tight corsets and monster wigs of the Spanish Royal Court. Until then, goodbye!