The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Six
In the December 2007 podcast, a mix of gardening, beauty and art. Tips from gardening expert Sarah Raven will help you recreate 'Renoir Landscapes' in your own garden. 'The body in art' - beauty tips from Rubens and Joachim Wtewael. Leon Kossoff exhibition: the artist and the National Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and over the next 15 minutes, I’ll be bringing you this month’s news from the National Gallery, London. Coming up: passionate and obsessive – words that could describe contemporary British artist Leon Kossoff. We’ll be treating you to a sneak preview of his new exhibition inspired by half a century’s visits to the Gallery’s collection. And…
Sarah Raven: They’re unbelievably easy to grow… they’re an unbelievably generous flower and they’re really… they don’t get pests and diseases, they’re terribly easy.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): As visitors to ‘Renoir Landscapes’ will have seen, Renoir loved painting dahlias. We talk to garden expert Sarah Raven about her own passion for these dazzling blooms and discover how to recreate the Renoir effect for ourselves. We’ll also take a closer look at our permanent collection to explore a concept that has fascinated artists and viewers throughout history – beauty.
'Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting'
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first, Leon Kossoff has long been famous for his densely-worked oil paintings of contemporary London. But as our new exhibition reveals, much of his work’s been inspired by his intense study of the National Gallery collection. Kossoff’s been coming here to draw the paintings since his student days in the 1950s. Often returning to the same pictures time and again. To discuss his obsession with the collection, Colin Wiggins, Deputy Head of Education, met artist and long-term collaborator on Kossoff’s prints, Ann Dowker. The show was being installed – rather noisily – as they spoke in the Gallery.
Colin Wiggins: This is a subject that Leon has painted I don’t know how many times. It’s a very important subject to him. It represents Nicholas Hawksmoor’s church in the east end of London, Christchurch Spitalfields, which is the area of London where he had his childhood so it’s a very familiar building to him. And it’s the area of London as well where his family settled. His family, who were Ukranian Jews moved to London at the beginning of the 20th century so it’s like his real home patch. And this picture is perhaps the one that’s most responsible for this exhibition happening because it was hanging in a small backroom at Kossoff’s studio next to the drawing that we’ve put on the wall alongside it which is a drawing made from Poussin’s ‘Cephalus and Aurora’. And the drawing and painting seem to share the same kind of energy, the same kind of weather conditions if you like.
Ann Dowker: And also the arc of the tree responds to the arc of the tree there…
Colin Wiggins: Yes. That even though they’re different mediums and different scales, the energy seems to skip across the wall between the painting and the drawing and you see they’re about the same theme. But the little figures in Poussin’s painting who are of course mythological figures connect with the little figures sitting at the base of the church, who are in fact… you could almost see them as modern mythological figures because they represent all the winos and the dossers and the homeless people that tend to congregate around the big city churches.
Now also on this wall, there’s Kossoff’s response to Rembrandt’s little ‘Ecce Homo’ which is a painting showing Christ presented to the people with Pontius Pilate, the famous New Testament scene. And we’ve got a drawing and a print, and this time a painting. And the way that he works on the paintings is that he will make a new drawing from Rembrandt’s painting in the National Gallery, take those drawings home, and use them as the springboard as it were to start work on his own painted response. And the painted response which was finished in the late 1990s is a painting that, in Kossoff’s own words, he describes it as emerging after 50 years of being aware of Rembrandt’s picture.
Ann Dowker: And also to have some kind of contact as he would feel with Rembrandt.
Colin Wiggins: Yeah, it’s like keeping a love affair going for 50 years – that’s what it is – keeping that freshness and that spontaneity going within each image. And that’s why I think the work communicates that energy and that freshness and that’s why even some of the most recent things he was in his late 70s when he was making them but they’ve still got that excitement, that sense of thrill, of an encounter with a great painting.
Ann Dowker: His original intention of coming and being thrilled and excited by what he sees has never gone away – he’s retained that constantly.
Colin Wiggins: The best way to become familiar, to really get to understand an old master painting, is not to read a book, or read the label, or listen to a lecture, it’s actually to sit in front of it and draw it.
Ann Dowker: It’s through the process of drawing you begin to possess the painting and it becomes your painting and I think once you start drawing from paintings you find it very difficult just to look… you really, really want to record it, to put it down, because it’s another way of learning, if you like, the history of art. The image will stay with you, the date may not – and also the connections as well. You can find out that, I don’t know, Constable and Rubens were somehow connected…
Colin Wiggins: Or Poussin and Rubens were somehow connected…
Ann Dowker: Yes, or Poussin and Rubens.
Colin Wiggins: Because historically Poussin and Rubens are seen as opposites, with Poussin being the kind of intellectual, disciplined draftsman and Rubens being the much more exuberant expressionist handler of paint, but when you see Kossoff’s responses to Rubens and Kossoff’s responses to Poussin put alongside one another you see that he’s finding what they’ve got in common. And what they’ve got in common is that they create this passionate world that Kossoff is being able to, he’s connecting the two of them, which art historians just can’t.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Ann Dowker and Colin Wiggins. And if that’s inspired you to get out your sketchpad, the Gallery runs drawing courses and events for both adults and children. All details can be found on the National Gallery website. ‘Leon Kossoff: Drawing from Painting’ runs from 14 March to 1 July and entry is free.
Gardening with Renoir
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now, dahlias. These marvels of the autumn garden were something of a favourite with the Impressionist Auguste Renoir. Still very much in fashion with gardeners today, they’ve also been delighting visitors to the National Gallery, as Leah Kharibian now reports.
Leah Kharibian: If you’ve seen the poster for the ‘Renoir Landscapes’ you won’t have failed to notice that it shows a profusion of flowers. Not a tasteful selection of pinks and whites arranged in a nice vase, but a riot of red, orange, yellow and purple blooms growing in what appears to be a very overgrown garden. The flowers in question are dahlias and I’m here in the exhibition with the garden writer and broadcaster Sarah Raven to talk about these wonderful plants. We’re standing in front of the picture used on the poster, Renoir’s ‘Garden in the rue Cortot in Montmartre’ and I wonder Sarah whether you could actually start by describing what you can see. Can you tell which dahlias he’s planted?
Sarah Raven: Yes, I think you can. I mean I can’t identify all of them, but I’m pretty sure that the one right sort of at the heart of the group and at the heart of the painting is a variety called Arabian Night which is a decorative dahlia and the reason that that’s pretty… I wouldn’t say definite… but likely is that Arabian Night has this absolute characteristic, really dense flower and lovely dark rich crimson colouring and around it there are others which are more difficult to identify, but I’m pretty sure that they are all in the decorative dahlia group which is, some would say, is the more uptight group. Fashionable at the moment are the really wayward, wacky punk-hair-do type which are the cactus dahlias which look like a sort of sea anemone or sea urchin with lots of spines as the flowers, as the petals rather. The decorative are neater, tidier and beautiful – often very textured, very sort of velvety petals and all these I’m pretty sure are decorative dahlias.
Leah Kharibian: And have they been grown with other plants? Are there other plants in there that you can identify?
Sarah Raven: Yeah, what’s particularly interesting to me is that in Monet’s garden at Giverney where I actually first saw dahlias and fell in love with dahlias about 15, 20 years ago, he united – and they still have this planting – climbing nasturtiums with dahlias and I’m pretty sure this is exactly what we’ve got here.
Leah Kharibian: So could I grow a display like this in my own garden?
Sarah Raven: Yes, very much and I think again one of the things that’s happened with climate change is that dahlias have actually become one of the lowest maintenance plants that you can grow. What you used to have to do was lift the tubers in the winter if you were in a frost-prone area and store them in a barn or wherever over the winter and then replant them again in the spring. Now I haven’t lifted my dahlias in my garden for 10 years and they come back bigger and better each year, because of course you’re not disturbing the roots and they’re growing a little bit through the winter so the plants get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and the tubers don’t get frosted. You have to put a bit of a carpet of something, or compost over them to insulate them through the winter but they are unbelievably easy to grow, they are unbelievably generous a flower. They are really worth it. I did a very interesting little experiment from one wonderful dahlia not unlike Arabian Night but with slightly bigger flowers called Rip City, which is a modern bred variety, and I counted how many buckets of flowers I picked through a season from one tuber and I picked 20 buckets of flowers from one plant.
Leah Kharibian: That’s value for money, isn’t it?
Sarah Raven: Yes, it really is.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sarah Raven. If you plant your dahlias out once the frosts are over you’ll see the results this autumn – so, well worth the effort. But if you can’t wait til then, you can enjoy Renoir’s wonderful dahlias right now. The ‘Renoir Landscapes’ show runs until 20 May and is accompanied by an audio guide featuring the exhibition curators. Please visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk for advance booking. And why not treat yourself to a cream tea in the National Dining Rooms after you’ve seen the show.
Changing ideas of beauty
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And finally: in addition to temporary exhibitions like Kossoff and Renoir, we’ve also got a magnificent permanent collection of paintings that’s completely free to explore. Many of the works on show are hundreds of years old, and are often epic in scale. Yet they’re all inspired by the same feelings and desires we experience today. In February's episode, we talked about pictures celebrating the ups and downs of love. This month, we take beauty as our theme. I spoke to Leslie Primo from National Gallery Information about two works he's particularly passionate about.
Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): Leslie, you work for National Gallery Information, responsible for talking to visitors about the works in the collection, and you’re particularly keen about the painting we’re standing in front of, aren’t you? This is The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens.
Leslie Primo: Yes, this is a painting I’ve long had an obsession with really and a love for, a painting I used to visit the Gallery exclusively to see, years before I ever worked here. In fact I visited the Gallery at least once a week to come and see this painting, and I’ve read so many books about this painting that when I eventually decided to do a degree in history of art – well, I wrote a dissertation about this painting.
Miranda Hinkley: So what’s actually going on here? We’ve got the judgement of Paris and we’ve got the three goddesses – Aphrodite or Venus, Minerva or Athene, and Hero or Juno – who are being judged by a rather attractive young man who is holding out a golden apple.
Leslie Primo: Now, of course, all three goddesses face Paris and are trying to persuade him somehow that they are more beautiful than the other and what we can see in this picture is that they’ve all resorted to the age old idea of trying to attract men – that is to take off your clothes. So they’ve all taken off their clothes to try and attract Paris’s attention. Of course, the problem with this is that Paris is, after all, a mere mortal man, and men aren’t very good when it comes to making decisions about beautiful women, especially when they’re all naked.
And what we see in this picture is three women showing us what for Rubens at this time was ideal beauty. And what’s great about this is that of course these are goddesses so one would expect from goddesses to see some pretty stunning women, much in the vein of what we’d nowadays call ideal beauty – for instance, we’d look at someone like Paris Hilton with a zero-size figure and say, yes that’s ideal beauty – so one would expect that kind of beauty. But that’s not what we see here, what we see in fact are three very large, voluptuous women with lots of cellulite, lots of rolls of flesh. This is ideal beauty for Rubens in 1632.
Miranda Hinkley: Leslie, this painting’s just lovely. It’s very, very different from the one we were looking at just now. For a start it’s a lot smaller and it’s much more carefully worked, isn’t it?
Leslie Primo: Yes, this painting by Joachim Wtewael approaches the same story again – the judgement of Paris – but some 15 years earlier than the painting that we saw painted around 1632 by Rubens. So this painting again we see the goddesses lined up, but in here the goddesses body types are markedly different from what we saw before. They are much more muscular, and in fact, the roles of fat disappear, we’re looking at a completely different body type here now in this particular depiction. But of course in the middle we have Paris, and Paris in the middle here actually has given the golden apple to Aphrodite or Venus.
Miranda Hinkley: So this in fact is giving us the end of the story which is that because all of the goddesses were equally lovely and they really are quite stunning in this, they had to offer him bribes, didn’t they?
Leslie Primo: Well, essentially that’s what’s going on here. This really, this Judgement of Paris, although it has a really wonderful art title is essentially a beauty contest and all three goddesses have tried to tempt Paris and they have been unable to tempt him, mainly because he’s not able to make a decision over three naked women. So instead what we see is that the goddesses try to bribe him. And we see first of all that Hera tries to bribe him with money and jewels, followed by Minerva or Athena, she tries to bribe Paris with strength and wisdom in battle, because that is her attributes. Of course, the bribe that wins over Paris is the bribe from Venus, of course, because Venus offers Paris a great prize and that is the prize of Helen and Helen is the most beautiful woman on earth, and of course instead of taking the money as I would have done of course, Paris goes for lust. And that’s what this is really about, this is about lust – lust winning over money and winning over strength and wisdom.
Miranda Hinkley: So back then, perhaps just as now, perhaps ideas of beauty have proved very divisive indeed.
Leslie Primo: They have indeed. And ideas of beauty are really what this is all about. What do we consider to be the most perfect body? Is it the voluptuous, Rubenesque body, is it the athletic body of Wtewael, or is it the zero-size model that we now hold in great esteem? It’s really about the society that we live in at the time and what we’ve seen with both these artists is that the society that they lived in at the time had very different ideas as to what the ideal beauty is, and in fact, the society that we live in now also has different ideas to what the ideal of beauty is, it’s just that we are unaware of it.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leslie Primo. You can pop in to admire the three goddesses for yourselves – Rubens’s ‘Judgement of Paris’ in Room 29, and Wtewael’s version is in Room 17.
That’s all for now, but if you’re planning a visit to the Gallery this month there are a number of Easter events you might like to take part in, from live concerts to painting workshops for families. There’s also a special ‘Life of Christ’ audio trail to follow through the galleries. Visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk for details.
Don’t forget to join us next month when we’ll be coming to you from the National Gallery at Night – a special episode, celebrating the uncanny world of the art gallery once the doors have closed and the lights are out.
Until then, goodbye!