The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Nine
In the January 2010 podcast, composing music to accompany 'The Sacred Made Real'. Also tragedy in Rubens, and touring the Gallery's facade. Includes bonus track with music from Stephen Hough
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode:
Stephen Hough: The worst thing is to anesthetise us to these pieces. They are meant to shock, they’re not meant… you can’t look at a back that has been scourged and say ‘oh what a lovely piece of sculpture’…
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Composer Stephen Hough on the challenge of creating music to accompany The Sacred Made Real. And finding pleasure in pain: why are we so fascinated with the grim and the gruesome when it comes to great art?
National Gallery statues
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start this month with a look at a clutch of art works that are perhaps best known to Nelson and the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. The Gallery’s imposing exterior is a regular feature in London postcards and holiday snaps, but how many of us are familiar with the many statues that complete the design? Sheltered from curious pigeons by netting, these sculptures have plenty of stories to tell, as archivist Alan Crookham revealed.
Miranda Hinkley (outside the Gallery): Well, we normally spend our time pacing the interior of the Gallery looking at the art, but today, it’s a glorious sunny day so we decided to come and have a look at it from the outside, and we’re standing looking up at the dome with the columns at the front. It’s a gorgeous building, isn’t it Alan?
Alan Crookham: Yes, it’s a beautiful building, I think it’s become a firm favourite for Londoners and tourists alike. It was actually designed by William Wilkins in the 1830s, completed in 1838, and it’s very similar to one of Wilkins’s other buildings, University College, London. Wilkins was an architect who was known for being a proponent of the Greek revival style and you can see this very much in the National Gallery building.
Miranda Hinkley: There’s something about those columns at the front which kind of reminds you of a Greek temple…
Alan Crookham: Yeah, very much so. I think that the Greek revival style was looking back at the ancient buildings of Greece and including its temples and trying to emulate that, although I think that did also get Wilkins into a few problems because when he designed the building it was so plain that many people felt it wasn’t grand enough for the new National Gallery that it was intended to house, and therefore, the criticism that Wilkins suffered led him to start to conceive of plans to put statuary on the front of the building which initially he wanted to have running along in all the niches along the front, but that was going to be too expensive, so therefore what happened was that the government said to him, well you can actually reuse statuary that hasn’t been used in another project, the Marble Arch, when that project had run over budget, and therefore Wilkins decided to take on board these statues that came from the Marble Arch.
Miranda Hinkley: Right, so let’s go and have a look at some of these. I can see already there’s a huge relief frieze over the doorway. Slightly strange subject matter for a Gallery in that you’ve got two figures sitting on a horse on one side and a camel on the other.
Alan Crookham: Yeah, it was a relief that was designed by Charles Rossy and it was designed originally to go on the Marble Arch because on the left hand side you can see there’s a woman sitting on a horse – she symbolises Europe – and on the right hand side there’s a woman sitting on a camel – she symbolises Asia – and it’s supposed to be Europe and Asia paying tribute to the wreath in the centre, which would have contained a bust of the Duke of Wellington, because the Marble Arch was of course intended to commemorate Britain’s victories in the Napoleonic Wars and therefore that was going to be a tribute to the Duke of Wellington.
Miranda Hinkley: So as it is that wreath has been left empty and it now looks like they’re supporting a very attractive floral arrangement…
Alan Crookham: Well, yes, when Wilkins decided to incorporate it into the front of the National Gallery building, he decided that the Duke of Wellington wasn’t really appropriate, because he thought that was too martial. It does leave you with the question mark as to why you would have two figures symbolically representing Europe and Asia, but the bust of the Duke of Wellington actually now resides inside the Gallery’s staff entrance.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, these aren’t the only bits of statuary – let’s just go now and have a look at what’s going on just above the Getty entrance towards St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve got this central figure here which is a victory with her wreath and then on either side there are two slightly smaller figures with large wings extending up into the air behind them.
Alan Crookham: Yeah, they’re the kind of classical representation of winged victory and what you can also notice if you look very carefully is that as well as being winged victory, they also are holding something. Now originally that would have been something quite martial, something like a spear, to indicate who they were, but of course, on this building, we didn’t really want that, or Wilkins didn’t really want that, so what he did was he changed the spear and instead you can see they’ve got a paintbrush and a palate so you can see he’s made them more suitable for a national gallery of art.
Miranda Hinkley: There’s a certain incongruity I suppose in using martial elements to celebrate the arts, but then looking at the statues, it hangs together.
Alan Crookham: I think so – probably just because they’ve been there for such a long time. And I think that it is quite nice that it gives people some kind of decorative art on the outside of the building, that they can look at of course all the time.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Alan Crookham, whose 'Illustrated History of the National Gallery' is available from Gallery bookshops and online at www.nationalgallery.co.uk.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): As you may know, most temporary exhibitions at the Gallery have an audio guide. But the one accompanying our current show, The Sacred Made Real is unique. For the first time the Gallery, through the help of a private donor, has commissioned a piece of music especially for the tour. It's a new work by the internationally acclaimed pianist and composer Stephen Hough, based on an original piece by the 17th-century composer, Tomás Luis de Victoria. The curator of the exhibition, Xavier Bray, met Stephen Hough at his London studio where the two spoke of the ideas and inspirations behind this very special project. Xavier Bray begins.
Xavier Bray: I always when I look at pictures, like to think that there is a sound that can accompany it. And this exhibition has been a great opportunity to bring in sound in order to try and bring out things that you can’t say with words.
Stephen Hough: Well it was a very exciting idea to be asked to do the music for this show. I saw some of the pieces and of course was immediately astonished by them – they’re so powerful, they’re so beautiful. I felt that to write my own music would be impossible to match that and I didn’t want something that would distract from the pieces either.
Xavier Bray: All these works are meant for contemplation and actually one could say that this is a quiet exhibition, that it demands this deep reverent, profound, meditation on these works that in the end becomes an inner experience.
So, at first I thought pure silence was the best way forward for this and then when Stephen spoke about this creating abstract sounds based on the kind of music that was being composed at the time I suddenly realised that providing different kinds of sounds that we wouldn’t be directly familiar with, I thought was definitely the best way into creating a sound to accompany these images.
Stephen Hough: So Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote this piece for six parts... six-part choir, for the Empress Maria, the sister of Philip II. And it’s been called a requiem for the Renaissance as well, which I think is a marvellous idea – that he wrote this piece and ended a period in Spanish history and in Spanish religious life and musical life. As a priest himself, he would have been very much involved in all of the ideas that this show has, so I took these five movements from the Requiem and re-imagined them in different ways. One of them was just a simple transcription for six string instruments of the six voices, the versa est motet. It’s one of the most beautiful things he wrote, there’s nothing to be done with it, except simply present it in this different format without the words.
With other movements, I took the music and particularly the plain song interludes as launching pads to do something much more modern and much more in my own style.
Xavier Bray: This possibility of fusing image with sound, when it works, it’s incredibly impressive and very strong. What we needed was a sound that helped you get into the sculpture and the paintings, understand the emotion they wanted to project, but at the same time, not have too much interpretation to be able to free the viewer into finding subtleties.
Stephen Hough: The worst thing is to anesthetise us to these pieces. They are meant to shock … you can’t look at a back that has been scourged and say ‘oh what a lovely piece of sculpture’… this feeling of conflict, if you like, as you’re looking between what’s obviously beautifully rendered and what’s a horribly shocking bit of human torture.
But to keep the music, but to transfer it to modern instruments and take away the words, which have a very direct association, to me opens up the possibility of the mind wandering in all kinds of directions. And also perhaps calming the mind from the external world. It’s another way to change the direction of your thoughts from shopping at the supermarket into looking at something from a different period. I think this is something that great art does for us – it changes us, we actually become different people when we’re listening to music, or looking at great art, or indeed when we’re reading great literature – it goes beyond the conscious to some part of us underneath.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Stephen Hough and Xavier Bray. ‘Requiem Aeternam (after Victoria)' was composed for string sextet by Stephen Hough and performed by students from the Royal Academy of Music. As we’ve been hearing, the piece was created to accompany ‘The Sacred Made Real’, so if you’re planning a visit, you can listen to it, in situ, on the exhibition audio guide. And in response to the many visitors who have already taken the tour and asked to know more about the music, Stephen Hough has kindly allowed us to make the work available for free – you can download it as a bonus track with this episode.
'Samson and Delilah'
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next… the terrible, the traumatic, and the tragic can be, as any visitor to the National Gallery knows, the stuff of great art. Indeed, it’s such familiar subject matter that we’re rarely struck by the disjunction between the pleasure we take in looking at pictures and the emotional and physical pain they often portray. I asked art historian Jacqui Ansell why this was the case, and she suggested we take a look at a sumptuous work by Rubens that depicts just such a painful scene.
Miranda Hinkley: Well I’ve come to have a look at one of the Gallery’s best-loved paintings – it’s a painting of Samson and Delilah by Rubens and it depicts a moment in the very well known story where Delilah has managed to discover the secret of Samson’s strength which is his long hair and she’s betraying him, she’s arranging for it to be cut off and there’s a man standing over him as he sleeps in her lap with the scissors.
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, it’s one of those paintings that I think calls you over from a distance and it’s also one of those paintings that I think appeals to lots of different people and appeals to our psyche and to some of our fears, I think. The phrase ‘in Delilah’s lap’ in the 17th century meant to be visiting a prostitute and I think that’s quite evident here, there’s a bit of a castration anxiety, I think, going on here.
This is a painting that Brian Sewell says ‘appeals to your fingernails’. Of course I’m not quite sure what he means by that but I think he means that huge expanse of bare back invites you to want to rake your nails down that bare flesh. So immediately we’ve got this association between pleasure and pain and almost the idea of the viewer – the voyeur – taking pleasure in somebody else’s pain.
Miranda Hinkley: There’s something about Samson’s vulnerability in this painting which is quite arresting and the way that she’s looking down at him… I mean her hand is very gently on his back, but there’s obviously some kind of evil intent there.
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think that one of the most striking things about this painting is the interplay of the hands, because if you look at Samson and that huge back, if you look down his arm, his arm is hanging limp. It’s flaccid, indicative of his spent force, and his hand I always think, his other hand, is placed proprietarily in her lap and he’s resting his head in her lap in a very trusting manner. But I think the most important hand is the hand she places on his back as you point out.
Now one of the things that strikes me about this painting is that it is a collective sharp intake of breath – we’re actually looking at a moment, a moment before something very important happens, and what she really doesn’t want to happen is for him to wake up. So she has this hand placed on his back and it’s as though she’s calming him down, as though saying ‘there, there, darling’ and it’s very soothing, but on the other hand of course she’s protecting her own interest, because she doesn’t want him to wake up.
So then of course there’s a sense of what’s going to happen next, and you’ve got the idea that he is about to lose his strength as you pointed out – or rather, the barber is going to cut that lock of hair, and there is this moment of tension. Is that actually going to work? Is he going to lose his strength? We’ve got a load of soldiers waiting in the doorway there – look at the way in which Rubens has controlled that narrative, created that suspense, he’s given us this chiarascura, this light/dark effect where they’re shrouded in the darkness – illuminated faces, anxiously waiting. Is this going to be the trick that finally works?
Miranda Hinkley: Part of what makes the painting so sensuous and so appealing to look at is all of this fabric. You’ve got the rich carpet, the red of her dress and then there’s this kind of purple drapery over the top.
Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think there definitely is the interplay of the sensuous fabric and the sensuality of the figures here, and if you think that this was designed to go above a fireplace then those rich, warm colours that sing out at you were clearly very important for that particular setting. So here we are as a viewer in the present day, admiring the youth and the beauty and the strength of Samson and the skill of the artist painting this, but actually of course what we’re really taking so much pleasure from is something that’s going to end, not only in his arrest by the soldiers, but his eventual blinding, his humiliation as he’s made to grind and do woman’s work, and then of course this culminates in the event in the temple, when his hair grows back, his strength comes back to him, and he commits suicide rather spectacularly as he brings the temple down on all of his tormentors.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, there are a lot of paintings in the Gallery that show very difficult or violent or kind of traumatic scenes and maybe when we look at them and we derive pleasure and interest from looking at them, it’s really that sense of schadenfreude, that 'thank God that’s not me up there'…
Jacqui Ansell: Exactly. So you’ve got a painting which appeals not only to our fingernails, but also to our eyes – it appeals to our mind and our moral senses, but we of course can gaze upon this and we can draw from it whatever we like... if it’s sensuous pleasure, or sensual pleasure, or the moral message... but one thing’s for sure, we’re not going to be blinded for giving into our sexual sin and we can gain pleasure from looking at this painting for ever more.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): That was Jacqui Ansell, talking about Rubens’s 'Samson and Delilah'. It’s on display throughout the month, and don’t forget if you can’t visit in person, you can find details of all the paintings in the permanent collection on the National Gallery website.
That’s almost it for this episode. If you’re in London this month, don’t miss your last chance to see ‘The Sacred Made Real’ show before it closes on 24 January. A combined exhibition and audio guide ticket costs £11 and is available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Until next time, goodbye!