The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seventy Three
Explore the relationship between photography and art. Plus Man Booker-winner Hilary Mantel and the secret sauciness of Dutch painting
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.
We start this month with the National Gallery’s first major exhibition of photography. Called Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present the show explores the fascinating dialogue between photography and the tradition of fine art and Old Master painting – a relationship, it turns out, that’s been key to photography from its advent in 1839.
The display puts major 17th, 18th and 19th century oil paintings alongside works by some of photography’s most revered early practitioners. But it also brings the story right up to date. To introduce the exhibition’s themes, the show’s curator, Hope Kingsley, spoke to Leah Kharibian and began by describing an extraordinary 1857 photograph, called ‘The Two Ways of Life’. It’s a crowded tableau of posed figures and includes a backdrop of pillars, looped curtains and a surprising amount of nudity.
Hope Kingsley: So this photograph is by Oscar Gustav Rejlander, who was a Swedish painter originally, who turned to photography and made quite a name for himself, very much based on this picture, which created a great splash at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition in 1857.
Leah Kharibian: And the image itself is fantastic – it’s ‘The Two Ways of Life’ and there’s a sort of sage, elderly man in the centre with two young men on either side, one of which is hearkening to the bad side, which is on the left, and the other to the righteous that’s on the right. Could you just sort of take us through it?
Hope Kingsley: The right hand side of the picture describes a life of religion and piety, of charity, of industry, while the left-hand side typifies the pleasures of the world, which are represented by gambling, wine, licentiousness and other vices.
Leah Kharibian: Could you just explain how Rejlander made this work because it is really extraordinary…
Hope Kingsley: It is extraordinary. It’s made from thirty separate negatives. He didn’t have the technical capacity to make this one great big tableau in one exposure. His lens at the time couldn’t cover such a wide field of view. So instead he used twenty-six different figures in thirty different combinations and pieced this together by printing one negative after another onto the sheet of photographic paper.
Leah Kharibian: And rather wonderful that you’ve got it paired in the exhibition with a painting – Couture’s sketch for his immensely successful mid-nineteenth century work, 'The Romans of the Decadence', and the comparison that you make between the two works. I mean they both have a great deal of draped nudity, if I can put it that way – lots of decadence going on, but what’s really interesting – and this is something that you argue in the catalogue – that nudity in photography was somehow a lot less acceptable than nudity in painting.
Hope Kingsley: Yes, the problem with photography is that it’s very real. You have an actual naked person in front of the lens. Naked people in photographs at that time were largely seen in the context of erotic photographs and out and out pornography. And this was a big market for photography almost as soon as it was invented. So to put nudes into an artistic context as a photograph exhibited as a work of art is tremendously confusing for the audience.
What are they meant to think about these pictures within this great big tableau, and who are these people? It’s well known that the kind of people who posed for the pornography were often prostitutes.
Leah Kharibian: And yet at the same time, having said all that, this gets bought by somebody really… well, quite prominent!
Hope Kingsley: Absolutely… as prominent as you can get at the time because Queen Victoria sees this picture and buys it for Prince Albert – in fact, she bought more than one copy for him. He hung one, we believe, in his private dressing room at Balmoral, which was their private place, and in fact Victoria and Albert were Rejlander’s best patrons for his art-works.
Leah Kharibian: Now this dialogue between fine art and photography would actually be interesting enough on its own, but you’ve got another, really fascinating, strand to this exhibition, which are these exceptional and often really large scale truly beautiful works by contemporary photographers, so within this group of works which include the Rejlander and the Thomas Couture, you’ve got this 2008, metre and a half wide photograph by Sarah Jones and I was just wondering if you could take us through it?
Hope Kingsley: In this particular work, she’s photographed a drawing studio in which there was once a nude model, but the model has gone and all that remains is this marvellously sensuous violet drape that flows over the plinth on which the model sat. Sarah Jones is asking us to imagine the model who was once there and in our imagination we come up with something far more expansive and perhaps more sensual than any real model, any real naked body in front of the lens.
Leah Kharibian: It’s so redolent of this whole dialogue that this whole exhibition seems to trace between fine art, our imaginations, our desires, and photography and it seems to be there all the way along the line.
Hope Kingsley: Yes, in room after room in this exhibition we find photographs and paintings that have a dialogue that allows a lot of space for us as viewers to inhabit a world that is both very present and very much in our imaginations.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hope Kingsley. If you’d like to see the exhibition, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present runs until January. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Guest lectures are a staple of the Gallery’s event programme. One of the most eagerly awaited in recent months, was a visit by writer Hilary Mantel…. perhaps best-known for her trilogy of novels about Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell, which began with the award-winning 'Wolf Hall' in 2009. Its sequel 'Bring Up the Bodies' was published this year, and Mantel is now working on the trilogy’s conclusion, 'The Mirror'and the Light'.
Mantel’s ability to capture the physical presence of her long-dead subjects on the page is often remarked upon. In this case she admits she was greatly assisted by the survival of intensely lifelike portraits of many of her books’ protagonists by the 16th century painter, Hans Holbein. And as she explained in her lecture at the Gallery, she has a long personal history with one painting in particular.
Holbein’s The Ambassadors depicts two wealthy and powerful young men who both make an appearance in Mantel’s novels: Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador, and his friend Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur. Mantel explained why she has such affection for the painting – and how she believes it captures a country on the brink of great religious change… Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in Rome.
Hilary Mantel: Well, we go back a long way, The Ambassadors and myself. Long before Henry the VIII and Thomas Cromwell became a part of my life. My husband and myself bought a print and hung it on the wall of our very first house and that’s about forty years ago. And then it went off in a tea chest with us to Africa where we spent five years and then to Saudi Arabia and for years of our lives we lived with government issue furniture under tin roofs in hot and dusty rooms with these gaudy gentlemen gazing down at alien sites that they could never have imagined.
And I always took heart from the immense vitality of their presence and all this delicious materiality that surrounds them. And imagine my feelings when they stepped onto my page as if onto a stage that I’d been preparing for them in my mind for all those forty years I’d been living with the image.
These two young men, he’s caught in all their splendor, in the spring of 1533, and as you know, they’re Jean de Dinteville, and his friend, Georges de Selve, bishop of Lavaur. It was Jean’s second visit to England – forgive me if we’re on Christian name terms… I think after forty years I’ve earned the right. He arrived around about February 1533 and he was miserable from the minute he arrived and he at once started asking for his recall, though he didn’t get it till November.
Jean had special reason to be miserable. He didn’t like Henry. He was unnerved by him. He was cold all the time and he was frequently ill and there’s a sort of running joke in my two books about the amount of padding that he felt compelled to wear to keep out the English summer. Now Henry was conservative in doctrine, but he wanted and he needed a church that was structurally reformed and so soon he would find himself at odds with the whole of Europe.
So by the time Georges de Selve came along for a brief visit sometime about March he was stepping into a snake-pit. Because that’s what Henry’s court was – a snake-pit of religious and political and sexual tension. And when we undertake to re-imagine the people of the 16th century I think that the intensity of their religious experience is the chief thing to understand and it’s where we have to deploy the major effort of our imagination. Our minds are so secular now that even if we are religious we probably don’t believe in hell-fire. We are not afraid in the way they were afraid. But nor do we have their hope.
And of course when we think of Holbein, we think of his success in capturing all the surfaces of this world. The fabric and the flesh. But to me, he’s also a religious artist of great power and 'The Ambassadors' he painted in 1533 at a time when England was in the process of her break with Rome. The world of the faithful was in turmoil and the disharmony is encoded into the painting. He assigned a date to the picture which can be read from the various mathematical and astronomical instruments and it’s generally agreed now that that date is the 11th of April, 1533.
That is Good Friday. And the hour is 4pm – in Christian tradition the point where Christ is already dead… the darkest point of the ritual year, when the breath is held. When we’re waiting in hope and fear for what will happen next. And if you were living in the year 1533, the hope and fear was intense – you were waiting for history to shape itself.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Hilary Mantel. 'The Ambassadors' is on display in Room 4 and you can find details of all the National Gallery’s events on our website.
And now… Seventeenth-century Dutch artist Gerrit Dou is celebrated for his minutely painted scenes of everyday life. The National Gallery’s collection contains one of his finest works – A Poulterer’s Shop – which initially appears to be a straightforward depiction of a young girl buying poultry and game from a shopkeeper. But as curator Betsy Wieseman explained, the picture takes on other meanings… if you speak Dutch.
Betsy Wieseman: We see a young girl who’s doing the shopping – she has a metal marketing pail with a dead bird hanging over the side – and she’s making a transaction with an older woman who is probably the proprietor of this particular market stall. The stall seems to sell both birds and game – we see some dead birds laid out on the counter – and the older woman holds up a hare.
Miranda Hinkley: Something about the way the older woman’s holding it, seems to say she doesn’t really want to sell it to the young girl.
Betsy Wieseman: Ah… there’s the question.
The young girl seems to be pointing towards the rabbit, towards the hare with an expression of longing… she really wants that rabbit, and the older woman seems to have a sort of dubious expression on her face, holding it up as if to say ‘are you sure? Are you really sure this is what you want?’
Now, one of the aspects of Dutch painting that people enjoy so much is about hidden meanings – the symbolism of things. And in Dutch in the 17th century and continuing to today, the word for bird 'vogel' and the verb 'vogelen' has to do with copulation. So there are a lot of sexual innuendos possible when you see birds in paintings.
And in the 17th century, rabbits did what rabbits do today – they make more little rabbits – so the hare is often a symbol of fecundity, of copulation. And now we start to get that level of suggestion and innuendo in Dou’s painting. And we see this young girl eager to get that hare and everything that it suggests – so we can read into that what we will.
I think it’s really important to put all that erotic symbolism into context though, so I want to talk a little bit about Dou as a painter. One of the reasons why his work was so highly prized was because of the absolute meticulousness of his technique and the illusion of realism that he was able to create. If you take a look at just that foreground still-life of the birds on the counter in the fore-ground and you look at how he contrasts the rabbits’ soft fur with the plumage of the pea-hen and that cool pimpled flesh of the plucked birds and how that is both reflected and enhanced by the sheen of the metal marketing pail and then that lovely soft nubbly texture of the striped fabric on which the pale rests that is such a tour de force of illusionism.
He’s really a master. And I’d like to take a look at the sculptural relief right below the window because in a way that really provides the key to the painting. It shows a group of little putti and a goat, and the putto on the left hand side who’s seated on a rock holds a big mask in front of his face. Often a mask is a symbol of pictura, of the art of painting and the ability of painting to deceive the eye into thinking something’s real. Here the little putti are deceiving the goat. The goat thinks this mask is real and is getting ready to charge it.
So by incorporating this into his painting, Dou is clueing you in to his ability as an artist to create something so life-like, so real that you’re not sure where reality stops and the painted world begins.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Betsy Wieseman. And you can find Gerrit Dou’s 'A Poulterer’s Shop' on display in Room 27 – or online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk along with all the other paintings in the Gallery’s collection.
That’s it for this month. Until next time, goodbye!