The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seven
In the May 2007 podcast, find out what goes on at the National Gallery after dark. Night-time tales from security guards on patrol and author Tracy Chevalier ('Girl with a Pearl Earring'). Writer Marina Warner discusses bringing art to life.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is a special episode of the National Gallery Podcast. On Saturday 19 May, museums and galleries across Europe will stay open long into the evening to celebrate what’s been dubbed – the ‘Night of the Museums’. Here at the National Gallery, the ‘Renoir Landscapes’ exhibition, sponsored by Ernst and Young, will welcome visitors until 11pm. You can reserve tickets in advance at our website: www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
In preparation for the event, we’re devoting this episode to the Gallery after dark. What happens when the last visitors leave? When the lights go out and the building falls quiet? Do paintings dream? This is nocturne.
The Gallery at night: Tracy Chevalier, Marina Warner and others
Security: Closing time at the Gallery. This is a visitor announcement. The Gallery closes at 6pm…. Closing now, thank you, can we make a move please?
[Keys rattle, door shuts.]
Go ahead Michael. Can you give us a call in the control room please…
Joe Maciejczek: My name is Joe. I’ve been a security warder for 26 years.
Atmaram Kawal: My name is Atmaram Kawal. I’ve worked here for 28 years. I work as a control room security officer.
Joe Maciejczek: We start at 8 o’ clock in the evening. In summertime it’s not too bad, but in the winter it’s rather darkish. Our job is to look around the ceilings and to make sure that there are no leaks and most of the time to make sure that the building is secure.
Jacob Sam La-Rose: We are many, never silent. Even in darkness light sighs from our surfaces like sap from wounded trees. We demand your eyes and meet them with a multiplicity of our own. We are never alone.
Tracy Chevalier: My name is Tracy Chevalier. I’m the author of five novels, the best known being ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, which is a novel about a Vermeer painting. We’re standing in a dark room with just a little light from the edge and you can more or less make out the paintings, what they are, as our eyes get better adjusted to the dark you can see. It does feel like they’re all asleep, these paintings are asleep – they’ve been here all day and everybody’s been looking at them, and they’re exhausted. They don’t want to tell their stories any more so it’s dark and they’re quiet and they’re all sleeping just the way we do. And now we’re going to wake them all up. I feel so sorry for them. But it’s almost like the paintings have to sort of regain their energy, they have to recharge, so at night they have their downtime. But boy do you feel them when you walk through, even in the dark rooms, this intense kind of feeling of presence, presence the way people have a presence.
Joe Maciejczek: Sometimes you get a very weird feeling because when you walk up close to it, and you look at it, the eyes follow you from right to left, whatever movement you move, the actual eyes – you get a feeling that the person is watching you.
Marina Warner: I’m Marina Warner and I’m a writer principally and I also teach at the University of Essex. I’ve written quite a lot about myths and legends and people’s beliefs.
One of the oldest ideas probably in mythology about art is that it comes to life. The best known story is Ovid’s ‘Pygmalion’. It’s a misogynist story – Pygmalion decides that all women are wanting, they lack the qualities that he most desires, so he creates as a sculptor, a statue, and he loves his statue so much because she’s exactly what he wants. And this is not really a very nice story. And he begins to make love to the statue and then by a marvellous piece of poetry in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, he feels the flesh turn warm under his fingers and she steps down from her pedestal. So this idea that statues have this really potent, uncanny life inside them belongs to quite a lot of powerful stories that have had many different versions and variations written about them.
Aoife Mannix: If you drink a painting for long enough you can breathe it into life. We slip in and out of the landscapes, they’re swirling impressions of green pathways leading deep into other worlds as we breathe our mythic conservations, a language of starry nights and crucifixions, doorways within doorways, the magic of time travel after midnight when the gardens breathe, shifting skies, the horse gallops free from the frame, and we are no longer a single expression, a moment frozen, but all the hundreds of years that have danced in the moonlight. We echo to each other…
Marina Warner: It’s got this quality of silence, that is rather different from total silence and that’s what’s eerie. Something about the people who have all gone, the visitors, leaves behind some vibration in the air, but also that the quality of all these paintings changes the actual atmosphere technically so that this is a living place, it doesn’t turn dead at all. I wouldn’t want to say that this was a kind of sacred feeling, but it’s a kind of nuance of the sacred, there’s something close to that – you feel awed and stirred. It’s got a sort of musical quality, it touches you wordlessly.
Joe Maciejczek: Well night-time is good because night-time you can actually sit down and let your mind go and let the paintings take you over. You can actually let yourself go into the paintings and sometimes you see things what you don’t normally do during the daytime, because during the daytime you’ve got the clutter of the people walking, of children whispering, and it’s a kind of a buzzing noise in the gallery all the time, but at night-time, it’s peace, and the gallery is peace and sometimes when there is peace – mind plays tricks.
Atmaram Kawal: I’m hearing all sorts of noise. Some of the places you go are scary and you feel like your hairs up, but again – it’s a job you are doing.
Joe Maciejczek: Among the areas I like to avoid is the basement area. I could hear a ball and chain following me all the time, and I was really scared because I don’t normally believe in ghosts, but it had me going for a good year, till once I was walking down there and I found out that it was the Victoria Line – it was the workers working on the lines at night-time.
Atmaram Kawal: When I go down to the area, I feel my hairs go up, that is at 2 o’ clock in the morning it’s so quiet down there, and suddenly when you hear some noise you think ‘oh my god, what is it?’. You just feel so scary you know? You want to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Tracy Chevalier: The sounds are almost like a prison. You hear these doors cranking shut and open and this clunk, clunk, clunk of the feet going down and it’s like the paintings have been stuck here and they’re in prison and that’s the funny thing about these paintings, it’s that they’re stuck here and they don’t escape – they don’t escape the frame and they don’t escape where they are, they’re always going to be here, even if you move them on a wall, they’re going to stay in the National Gallery unless they’re let out for good behaviour to some exhibition, travelling exhibition. Then they’ll go off for a little while and then they’ll come back, but it’s all the same – a wall is a wall, isn’t it?
Aoife Mannix: We echo to each other. Who’s suffered most, who’s sat for longest, who’s been restored, who got hidden during the war, who’s been painting of the month, turned into a postcard, reprinted and sold a million times, catalogued, downloaded, our faces pressed and contorted. It seemed like flattery once. But in the hushed quiet of our own eternal night, we can’t help but resent all this endless watching. We never realised that life is just a rough sketching. But now find we are layers and layers of everyone who ever looked at us.
Marina Warner: Freud’s essay on the uncanny translates the German word ‘unheimlich’ and ‘unheimlich’ actually means ‘unhomely’, literally, ‘heim’ being ‘home’, and possibly another English translation would be ‘uneasy’ in the sense that home is kind of ease-ful a place where one is comfortable, and what is uneasy is where one’s uncomfortable. But of course what Freud put his finger on was that this is somewhere in a sense that we want to be as well. It isn’t just repellent. This disturbance of the senses, this idea that there is something both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time happening has an incredibly powerful attraction and it’s an erotic attraction. I very much like the idea that what is truly, deeply disturbing is the nearly animate and it’s the absence of soul, it’s the absence of spirit, that kind of inertia that really makes one feel clammy and one wants to supply it.
And I’m interested in playing and make-believe because I think a lot of playing and make-believe that children do actually attempts to supply this missing animation. They make their dolls play, they move their figures about with play-mobile, or whatever, they try and breathe into it. And I think some of our creative urges later in life which we see expressed in quite a lot of high art is also a quality of bringing, of refusing this kind of image of death, this image of the inanimate, and bringing things to warm life. And it does stave off the fear of death at a very deep level. It doesn’t have to be conscious – this isn’t a conscious process, this is an unconscious process of attraction and fear at the same time.
Joe Maciejczek: Sometimes it reminds me that my time will come sometime and my time is close ‘cos I’m coming to retirement soon and when you come to retirement it means time to go. So sometimes when I’m in front of the altarpieces I say ‘it’s time to say your prayers Joe, because it’ll be judgement day sometime’.
Tracy Chevalier: I think the thing that’s so captivating about a museum at night is the philosophical notion of if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there does it make a sound. I know it sounds crazy, but if there’s no one here to look at these paintings, do these paintings actually matter? Do they – they do exist, I accept that they exist, but do they matter? And I think I’ve found as a writer, that my work, my books, don’t fully exist until the reader reads them. It’s like a contract between the reader and the writer and I present something, I give something to the reader, they read it and between the two of us we make the whole work and I think paintings are the same thing – any kind of artworks are the same thing. The painter paints the painting but what does it matter unless we actually look at it? So it’s very curious to see it at night, like to come in – we came in just a minute ago when the lights were all dark, and we couldn’t see anything, and we knew the paintings were there but did they have that power? And oddly enough sitting here in the dark when I couldn’t see them, it took my eyes a few minutes to adjust, I still felt like they did, it was like they were zinging off the walls – it was like this buzz…
Jacob Sam La-Rose: You demand that we remain constant. When sound folds itself into empty vaults of air and the last light fades like the dying echo of final footfall, we exhale…
Joe Maciejczek: Well in the morning, about five o’ clock, it’s still kind of quietish. You can start hearing the birds outside actually chippering, chippering, maybe it’s their breakfast time, but you actually can hear them, and the next minute you get the buzzing noise – buzzzzz – on the door and guess what’s coming in – the karma is gone, everything’s gone, it’s bells ringing, phones ringing, and that’s the cleaners, the contractors, the people who repair the doors. It’s like there’s a load of bees in the air, everything is busy, and you get the feeling that the paintings are getting very busy and they’re getting very tired, and they’re waiting for me to get here at 8 ‘o’ clock and give them some free space, and free them.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The National Gallery podcast. If you’d like to visit the ‘Renoir Landscapes’ exhibition before it closes on 20 May, or attend the special late opening on 19 May, you can reserve tickets in advance at www.nationalgallery.org.uk. With thanks to Marina Warner, Tracy Chevalier, Joe Maciejczek, and Atmaram Kawal.’The Paintings at Night’ was written and performed by Aoife Mannix, and ‘We’ was written and performed by Jacob Sam La-Rose. If you’d like to hear more poems inspired by the National Gallery after dark you can download the bonus track that accompanies this episode.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is a bonus track from the National Gallery podcast. It features original poetry from two writers’ collectives, ‘The Vineyard’ and ‘Malika’s Kitchen’, inspired by the National Gallery after dark.
‘Stubbs’s Horse’ by Roger Robinson.
Looking at Stubbs’s horse in the dark it becomes clear
He was no muscular glamourist, no fetishizer of fur and skin,
Convinced that the body was the host to the horse’s spirit,
He began making martyrs of horses, subjecting them to juggler death,
Beads of sweat rolling down their barrelled torsos,
Their eyelashes fluttering with a flourish,
Pumping them with warm tallow till their pulsing veins and arteries slowly came to a halt,
Suspended in a standing or a trotting pose by a series of hooks and tackles amid buckets of clotting blood,
Working his way through muscle by muscle, bone by bone,
Dissecting and designing limbs,
First stripping off the skin and other layers of muscle,
Turning pages in the book of horse.
So that even in the dark of the museum I can feel this horse breathing.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): ‘A Cup of Water and a Rose’ by Jacob Sam La-Rose.
Jacob Sam La-Rose:
I will never empty.
I will remain pure.
I will not betray the slightest tremor,
Never lessen, never quench a thirst.
Imagine me cool against your lips
I will never reflect your gaze.
The petals beside me will never fall
And if you reach for me
I will not be there.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): ‘The Gallery After Closing Time’ by Aoife Mannix.
Night time when the corridors are dry,
The halls echoing empty spaces whispering the footfalls of crowded Sunday afternoons
The hush of rooms stripped of their visitors,
Just our painted eyes glinting in the shadow light.
We stare into the quiet of night’s palette
The dark hush of colours resting from the harshness of so many gazes.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): ‘These Hidden Hours’ by Naomi Woddis.
Vacuum-sealed we walk, silent corridors, hearing nothing but our breath.
We are ghosts in these the hidden hours
Where only the air moves, haunting the halls of the living.
The night is a baby’s eyelid shutting the dusk sky.
Whistlejacket on two proud winning legs ran four miles to victory.
We crouch beneath his neighing pride.
Stubbs’s riderless horse surveys us in an eyeblink,
Waiting for a response from a courageous jockey
To mount his back, steer him to win again,
Let him taste magnificence.
A young girl turns to the safety of her father,
Smelling pipe smoke on his cuffs, shudders at the bird in the vacuum;
Her first view of death.
The cockatoo, his white feathers, a fury of cloud-dust.
For every story, there is another story.
Each painting finds it’s footing in the anchor of imagination.
Speak, and the moment will be gone.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): ‘Goodnight Vincent’ by Niall O’Sullivan.
Your cocky chair nearly had us.
Almost a dare, rather than an invitation.
You skew perspective, pitch that hard clay floor into our faces
And yet those roots reach out from the box of onions,
Prove that the truth, the will, cannot be contained.
A blunt offer, but still an invitation.
Please be seated, minus the please.
We reciprocate with a bi-millennial money-tainted gaze.
Scanning for some e-mo porn,
Omens of tragedy rumbling beneath thick smears of beaming yellow.
Perhaps it is more fitting that when the floor no longer squeaks
With the gait of rubber souls,
After the day’s last echoing whisper signifies a constant failure of words
Photons cease their frantic dance with no retinal rods to catch them.
And I like to think that you’re invitation still stands,
And it is the silence, the stillness, the darkness that accept it.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): ‘Splinters and Gilt’ by Dfiza Benson.
First I smell it.
Custard, blood, carbon, vinegar, armpits, dust, sandalwood, old paper.
The tang of all things organic, life and death mouldering together.
Thousands of eyes burn through canvas and wood
Squirm-free of oil and pigment
Stalk me into the vanishing point of glass doors.
The hum of today freezes ghosts of old stories.
Sea-nymphs crest palls,
A saint clutches a skull to his body,
These are facsimiles of old bodies made ghost.
Then I feel it.
I am a blue devil, glazed, transparent,
Shimmering between stanza and picture
Shuddering through splinters and gilt
Sliding on the soft grease of human meat,
Spilled by women, naked and geriatric.
They are firing up death, flaccid, long past rigor mortis,
Head lolls, neck snapped like a quick apostrophe.
One weird sister sits under a tree, gnarled into bloated grey petrified feminity.
She traps light as it leaves the stanza
Takes no chance, grinds it down in her pot of night.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): ‘We’ by Jacob Sam La-Rose.
Jacob Sam La-Rose:
We team in the dark, a multitude of wings, cloud-forms and eyes,
Iterations of flesh, gods and visions of them,
The folds of finest robes, oranges, lemons tumbling towards you,
A wealth of still life.
Flower-heads forever in bloom, tongues still fat and moist in open mouths,
Silenced voices brazen serpents,
Saints with fervent hands,
Christ and crucifixes, angles of light,
Mortality in all its forms,
We hold entire worlds within our frames, immaculate, untouchable.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The National Gallery podcast. If you’ve enjoyed these poems, you can also read them online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.