The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Sixty Nine

July 2012

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More than just an exhibition: curator Minna Moore Ede and choreographer Will Tuckett preview the Gallery’s big summer show, 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012'. Plus, how to avoid the crowds and even spot a Vermeer in some of the Gallery's quietest corners.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

We start this episode with news of one of the most exciting projects ever imagined – and realised – by the National Gallery.

Drawing on the powerful stories of change found in Titian’s three masterpieces – Diana and Actaeon, The Death of Actaeon, and the recently acquired Diana and Callisto, Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 is a multi-arts event, which will feature new work by contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger in a unique collaboration with the Royal Ballet. The project is part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival and Michelle Penn met up with curator Minna Moore Ede to hear more...

Minna Moore Ede: Well, 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' is a hugely ambitious project really, in which we have commissioned a whole constellation of artists, so three visual artists, seven choreographers, dancers, a group of poets, three composers… to respond to these three very great, late mythological paintings by Titian and to produce a body of new work that will be both on display at the National Gallery as an exhibition, and which will be performed at the Royal Opera House.

Michelle Penn: And can you tell us a bit about the Titian paintings themselves? What is the story behind them and how are they inspiring the various artists?

Minna Moore Ede: The three paintings that we’re focusing on – 'Diana and Callisto', 'Diana and Actaeon', and 'The Death of Actaeon' – are part of a larger series of mythological paintings that Titian made for the Spanish king, Phillip II, between about 1551 and 1562. And Titian himself selected the subject matter and our three paintings derive from the Roman poem, Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses',
which is a wonderfully vivid, witty narrative poem that tells of the lives and the loves of the gods, but together they form a group that tell a story or tell episodes from the life of the goddess Diana, who is a fantastic figure of girl power in many ways.

She was the goddess of the moon; she was a huntress, fantastically strong, but also a legendary beauty… very seductive, very beguiling, but terrifyingly cruel, so she had this dual nature. And that’s something that Titian really brings out in these paintings and as we will see it’s something that all three artists have extracted for their responses. 

Michelle Penn: Can you tell us a little about how the various artists are responding to the three Titian paintings?

Minna Moore Ede: Well, in a fantastically diverse way, which I’m thrilled about. I mean Chris Ofili is the painter of the three of them – we always wanted to have a painter as one of the three contemporary artists because Titian was a virtuoso painter, so it was very important to continue that line… and Chris is an artist who’s never afraid of addressing established narratives or Bibilical subjects, and that was also important when thinking about which painter to choose and he’s also a painter who can work on a huge scale.

Mark Wallinger’s piece will I think be the most extraordinary surprise for every one. He wanted to find a contemporary way to depict Diana. He thinks it’s very easy for us to forget how shocking those paintings would have been at the time. In his room there will be a bathroom in which you will see inside – glimpse through peepholes – you’ll be able to see a real live naked woman. I suppose he’s trying to find a way to remind us of the sense of intimacy that is created between naked Diana and her naked nymphs in the painting of 'Diana and Actaeon', and what it means when Actaeon trespasses into that moment.

Conrad Shawcross’s work both for the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet uses a robot to personify the goddess Diana. Next to the robot there will be an antler which has been carved by that robot and the antler of course has a lovely formal relationship with the Titian paintings as the animal into which Actaeon was metamorphosised. It is Diana’s post-mortem if you like; it is what happens after what we see in the Titian paintings. His piece is a kinetic sculpture that will be moving and changing all the time so it really embodies the very act of metamorphosis. It’s a fantastic twist on that idea.

Michelle Penn: So aside from these really fascinating works that the artists are putting together, based on the Titian paintings you’ve also arranged to work with choreographers and poets. Let’s talk for a moment about the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Royal Ballet.

Minna Moore Ede: This is just a tremendously exciting collaboration, really a unique collaboration between two of the world’s great art institutions, but we are of course neighbours because the Royal Ballet is just up the road in Covent Garden.

Michelle Penn: So it’s not just an exhibition; it’s actually an entire event with these ballets happening as well?

Minna Moore Ede: Yep, exactly. It is also three new ballets, so a new triple bill at the Royal Opera House that will be performed on four nights: the 14, 16, 17 and 20 of July. And in fact on the 16 of July it will relayed live to 22 different UK venues, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a ticket – there will be 22 outdoor venues all over the UK where you will be able to come and watch those performances relayed live. It is without a doubt the most exciting project that I’ve ever worked on. And I can’t wait to see the results.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Minna Moore Ede. So… how do you turn beautiful – but static – masterpieces by Titian into three new works for the Royal Ballet? Well, each of the three artists showing at the National Gallery will also be producing stage sets for a new production created in collaboration with Royal Ballet choreographers and a contemporary British composer.

Among those working with painter Chris Ofili is choreographer Will Tuckett, who invited Michelle Penn backstage at the Royal Opera House to hear how things were going. Michelle began by asking how he and the other choreographers had gone about translating the interactions of the characters within Titian's paintings into movement on the stage... and particularly the key moment in 'Diana and Acteon' when Actaeon first spies the goddess…

Will Tuckett: We spent quite a lot of time looking at them, actually, in the studio and on my iPhone, because randomly, what you can do, because you can’t keep nipping down to the National Gallery, is you can zoom in on little details and just pick out little things. And also trying to explain how when Titian was painting them, how bold he was being and how direct her look is towards him, and trying to find a way of exploring that, now how can we create something that feels that direct as a way for Marianela Núñez, who’s playing Diana for us, to look at Frederico who’s playing Actaeon, and we messed about with that quite a lot. So yes we have developed a physical language out of the paintings, but not perhaps in the way one might initially think.

Michelle Penn: I suppose that’s the creative process anyway, that you start from one, you know, you start from a germ of an idea and it grows and it changes and it goes all over the place.

Will Tuckett: And you have to allow it to, you have to allow it to go where it wants to go and every now and again keep it in check. And sometimes, because often that’ll bring you back to the better idea, because you’ll go off on a tangent and realise that actually Titian’s idea was better. Like most of the time.

Michelle Penn: I know Chris Ofili’s set design is sort of transposing the 'Metamorphoses' tale to Trinidad, and how has that affected the way that you think about the choreography? 

Will Tuckett: It hasn’t hugely, actually. He’s given it heat… when you look at it the colours feel hot and it feels very sensual and you don’t go, ooh look, it’s Trinidad, at all. And so in a way almost knowing it feels like a slight red herring, because what he’s done, he’s created a sort of mythic, quite abstracted landscape. And so working with him was a real eye-opener in that it’s the first time he’s done stage design.

For me it’s second nature how a lot of things work on stage, and if you have no idea how it works it meant that actually it’s a very fresh perspective on it and he’s found it really exciting I think, because a lot of the time you’re in a studio and you’re not collaborating… as a visual artist, you’re sort of doing your own thing… you’re on your own and you can’t be, you can’t put on a show on your own. You need costume makers, set painters, builders, choreographers and there’s all these other people, and I think what’s quite nice is, we’re all shouldering that responsibility in something like this, which I think was quite weird to begin with, but actually is quite a relief.  I find it a relief anyway… yeah.

Michelle Penn: One of the things that I’m kind of curious about are how you think audiences will react to your ballet in terms of people who are used to seeing perhaps something that’s a bit more classical, seeing these Chris Ofili sets, hearing the music. How do you think the audiences will react to that? 

Will Tuckett: I think actually, I think as a team in this whole evening we’re enjoyably old-fashioned, actually. It doesn’t feel as if we’re doing something outrageously modern, which I’m rather enjoying actually. And I hope that an audience will feel the thread between what we’ve done and the Titian and the Ovid. We really like telling stories and it’s what I get a big kick out of. And so I’m hoping that the story is evident and as a result an audience can relax a little bit.

It’s always terrible when you sit there and wonder if you’re not getting something that you feel like you’re supposed to be… and quite a lot of people say, oh I don’t really understand dance. And there isn’t really much to understand about dance. It’s a bit like music, you can just sit and listen to it and you don’t have to get it, you can see whether you like it or not which is quite like painting. And so I hope people’s response is they understand where we’ve come from in terms of it being a take on the Titian and the Ovid.

Michelle Penn: Perhaps they understand that it’s something that there are these old stories but they’re still quite relevant to our lives today? 

Will Tuckett: Yeah, exactly. And there are lots of things about both… Oh that’s fantastic… there you go – bit of an opera in the background. … And I think the fact that different generations find something new in those old stories makes it always fascinating to work on when the smell of the past is brought up so close, so quickly like that.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Will Tuckett. The three new works will be performed at The Royal Opera House by the Royal Ballet on the 14, 16, 17 and 20 of July. Check the Royal Opera House website for tickets, or come along to a free outdoor screening on Monday the 16 – when the performance will be relayed live to a big screen in Trafalgar Square and many other venues around the UK.

The exhibition opens at the National Gallery a little sooner on the 11 of July; admission is free… and if you’re planning a visit, you might like to know that the audio guide features an interview with curator Minna Moore Ede.

And we’ll have more about 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' in next month’s episode when Noble Prize-winning poet, Seamus Heaney will read and introduce a new poem specially commissioned for the project. Till then, you can find out about the project at www.nationalgallery.org.uk/metamorphosis

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): With the Olympics about to open and the Diamond Jubilee just past this is a particularly significant – and busy – summer for London.

If you're visiting the city, or have guests coming to stay, it's worth remembering that the National Gallery is a free destination open seven days a week. And as Leah Kharibian discovered when she met up with Special Projects Curator Colin Wiggins, with a little know-how the Gallery can also be a good place to find a quiet spot… away from the crowds.

Leah Kharibian: Well, this summer in London, Colin, it feels as if we’re all fighting for even an inch of pavement particularly at the front entrance to the Gallery in Trafalgar Square, but lo! Here we are at the back entrance to the Gallery and there’s barely a soul in sight. Where are we?

Colin Wiggins: Well, we are behind the National Gallery in Orange Street which is the schools’ entrance but it’s also a public entrance, and as you say it’s very nice and quiet – and that’s really what we want to talk about today… how there are bits of the National Gallery that are very popular – like anything with a Van Gogh in is guaranteed to be pretty full of tourists ticking him off – there are plenty of rooms in the National Gallery with lesser known pictures by lesser known artists that are equally rewarding and you’ll find them pretty unpopulated. And if I need a quiet 10 minutes or so, I will go and find a little quiet corner and I hope to show you some of those today.

Leah Kharibian: Oh that sounds wonderful. What are you going to take me first? 

Colin Wiggins: I’d like to take you back to the Dutch Republic in the 17th century. 

Leah Kharibian: Well, this sort of room is completely different to the larger main rooms of the Gallery; it’s a very small, almost domestic space. 

Colin Wiggins: Yes, it’s designed to be a domestic space because the pictures in it are pictures that were meant for a domestic audience. These are pictures for basically the middle classes and we must remember that the culture that produced these pictures – it’s a new society… the Dutch Republic had just won its independence; these are not pictures for churches or palaces these are pictures for private ownership. Now just because these rooms have got small pictures in and there’s nobody in doesn’t mean we don’t have really big names here, because look what we’ve got here in front of us: it’s one of the two paintings the Gallery has by Vermeer. But the beauty of this is, while as we’re talking nobody can get near Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, this picture’s ours – and isn’t she a beauty?  

Leah Kharibian: Oh, she’s really lovely and it’s a picture of a woman at a virginal, which is a sort of box-like harpsichord, which has this wonderful painted backboard with a landscape on it. She’s absolutely fantastic. And it’s so lovely to be this close! 

Colin Wiggins: Yeah, this close without anyone jostling you or crashing into you or anyone pushing you out of the way, and there it is and it’s yours for as long as you like. She’s a cracking picture too, isn’t she?....

We’re following a very vivid group, aren’t we? They’re not going to get lost in a hurry. I should say that this is a class of very small children who’ve all been issues with very bright yellow jackets… like health and safety high visability jackets as if they’re out repairing a motorway. Maybe that’s what they’re doing this afternoon…

Steven Barrett: At the opposite end of the painting in the bottom right corner with the wheel is Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Now all of these symbols… 

Colin Wiggins: As chance would have it, we’re just actually encountering the morning guided tour. And the guided tour in the week happen twice a day and they’re free and they’re very much aimed at the first-time visitor to give you a kind of overview of a whole range of the collection and you’ll see Steven, my colleague Steven Barrett’s doing today’s tour… maybe you’re picking him up on this now. I don’t want to talk too loudly and interrupt him… but what he’ll do is he’ll choose five or six different pictures from the whole range of the Gallery’s collection and ending up in the 19th century rooms in about an hour or so, so it’s fairly detailed because you’ll get around 10 minutes on each picture which is actually more I think than the average tourist would give a picture. And this I think is an absolutely ideal way to introduce yourself to ways of looking at pictures.  

Leah Kharibian: We seem to be at a bit of a crossroads here; there are many different ways we could go. If we’re keeping to the quiet and the intimate, where do we go next?  

Colin Wiggins: Well, I would take you straight into the Sainsbury Wing, but I would miss the Italians. I would steer clear of Giovanni Bellini and Botticelli and I would go for the medieval German artists. Those rooms invariably are empty. 

Leah Kharibian: Colin, you’re so right! We’ve just come through the Italian galleries… teeming… with a whole school group in there and here we are in the German rooms and they’re lovely and quiet. And what beautiful pictures too. 

Colin Wiggins: They’re spectacular pictures by great, great artists, but the thing is – we don’t know their names, because the artists didn’t sign their pictures… there was no kind of cult of personality and so what art historians have done with these pictures is group them together stylistically in terms of little collections of pictures that we can attribute to an unknown master and then we make up a name.

Like for example, this picture here is by the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece and just look at it… the craftsmanship is staggering… and the level of passion and the human drama and grief is staggering. It’s showing the descent from the cross. Now Italian descents from the cross, Jesus looks hardly damaged. But in this one, boy he’s suffered. The wounds are ripping through his flesh… his arms are stiff from rigor-mortis… all the reality of death is in there… and all the reality of grief is in there. When you look at the face of Mary Magdalene for example… these are high quality, great, great pictures – but because they are anonymous, I think most visitors think I will only look at things I know about like Botticelli and they see a label that says ‘The Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece’ and actually somehow that prevents them from engaging with it.

But you – and the people listening to this podcast – are better than that, so take your time to find these quiet corners and you will find works that are infinitely rewarding and just as remarkable as anything by the big names of the history of art.  

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Colin Wiggins talking to Leah Kharibian. You’ll find Vermeer’s A Young Woman seated at a Virginal in room 27, and The Deposition by the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece in room 64.

Guided tours of the National Gallery take place daily at 11.30am and 2.30pm; they’re free to attend and kick-off at the Information Desk in the Sainsbury Wing entrance. See the website for more information: www.nationalgallery.org.uk

That’s almost it for this episode. If you’re visiting, the Gallery is open from 10 till 6 daily, and till 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye.

 
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