The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Nine
In the March 2009 podcast, discover the art of cookery with the National Dining Room's Oliver Peyton. Plus Picasso's women and a costume parade at the Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode…
Eva Bosch: I mean, there is this 40-year-old man, he just had a child, he’s full of ideals, he wants to idealise this woman, he paints her as a goddess, whatever… then things go wrong, he’s desperate... he’s a painter… I mean, I can very well sympathise with this, because, you know, to be able to paint you have to have something inside that pushes you to paint, and at the time, I mean, you know, he was really, really low.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): How the women in Picasso’s life influenced his art. And…
Bryony Thompson: Well, literally when I first saw the painting it was just a painting that I quite liked – just literally liked it on its visual. And then looking more into it decided it was quite a sombre bunch of flowers, it’s quite funereal, it’s not a jolly, happy wedding kind of bunch…
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A preview of one of our more intriguing spring events.
Oliver Peyton on culinary art
Miranda Hinkley (In the studio): But our starter today is that tastiest of subjects – food. If you’ve visited the National Gallery in the last few years, you’ll have probably noticed our restaurant and café have a smart new décor and modern British menu. The makeover is thanks to celebrity restauranteur, Oliver Peyton, who this month publishes 'The National Cookbook', a collection of his recipes from the National Dining Rooms. To mark the occasion, I asked Oliver to tell me about his favourite food painting in the Gallery’s collection. His choice? The Four Elements, an extraordinary series of market and kitchen scenes by the 16th-century painter, Beuckelaer. Here’s why….
Oliver Peyton: I pass these paintings every day and people often ask me what are my favourite food paintings. I mean, there is just no better room in the world to observe the beauty of food painting and depiction. The really strange thing about this painting is that it’s not seasonal. You would expect at the time with the lack of refrigeration that they would have just had whatever was available to them in the Low Countries, or the near Low Countries if you know what I mean, but what you have here is a very very divergent set of fruit and vegetables which really are available all year round. And it’s about… and that really is a symbol of wealth. It really was about how successful Holland had become, how successful the Dutch had become, and this concept of showing off their wealth and how they had travelled the world, and how they had conquered far-off parts and brought back all these amazing things.
There are 62 different fruit and vegetables here and I think one has to be surprised really when you look at our society today, and when you see the genuine abundance that was available to people in the 1500s… you know, you’re talking about 1550, something like that, you know… I just find that sort of astonishing that without refrigeration they were able to have all this available to them. And also the way fruit is depicted… this is fruit that is depicted in a manner that is quite real… one senses the ability to reach in and touch the food.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, if we look at that cabbage right in the middle – I mean, she’s holding it up lovingly with all the pride of a mother showing off her baby, it’s just incredibly painted isn’t it, the detail…
Oliver Peyton: Absolutely, absolutely. But, you know, when you look at this whole series… I mean, personally I’m very interested in the meat one which is again…
Miranda Hinkley: Let’s take a look at that…
Oliver Peyton: What you have here is a kitchen which is, you know, in full flow. This is a kitchen of wealth here, it’s in a grand house, in a household where they have, where they’re about to prepare a feast. It’s also… I quite like the way the people’s hands are depicted here, the women’s hands are… you know, kitchen work was tough work. This wasn’t a Nigella-Lawson type of dainty fairy cake – ‘whoopee, let’s all have chocolate on it’ type of affair – this is proper hard graft.
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, this is plucking fowl, isn’t it, and scrubbing oysters and mussels – you can see mussel shells on the floor – I mean, if we look across now at this wonderful market depiction of game, there’s that same idea, isn’t there, that, you know, these are strong women, they’ve got strong arms, it’s not the kind of dainty hands of aristocrats, but yet they’re painted with such sensitivity.
Oliver Peyton: This is a scene of prosperity. If you look at the houses around, this is not a poor neighbourhood, it’s an affluent neighbourhood. I mean, this is capitalism, this is about, to me, depicting the prosperity of Holland. These paintings really symbolise the graft, the endeavour, how proud Dutch people were of what they had achieved. And you really sense this from the paintings – these are paintings of self-congratulation in a way, but in a good way, because they’re so detailed, and when you look at almost all of these paintings, you can tell what the fish are, you can tell what the fruit are, and in some cases you can tell what the variety of the apple is, so that’s the extent of the detail of these pictures, so it’s pretty amazing. I mean, that salmon looks like it’s ready to go in a pan, if you know what I mean…
Miranda Hinkley: Absolutely…
Oliver Peyton: But to me, the thing that I find most gratifying is how little has changed in what we eat. You know, all this fish is available today, all the veg, everything we see is still available and, you know, our society, although we’ve changed, what we’re producing out of the land, and the earth, and the sea and from the skies is really, by and large, still the same. We might be able to have tuna from the Maldives or wherever else, but, by and large, we are still eating the same way, and in some ways, we’re sort of reverting back to this type of eating.
When I was compiling the cookbook, I walked from the National Café to the National Dining Rooms and I always walked through these paintings here, and they had quite a big influence on me in terms of how I thought even about food, because I always sort of stop, even if it’s just for one second, or even if I’m walking, I slow down and sort of glance at them, because it reminds me of what I do, it reminds me of what we should be doing in a way. You know, I want to create a sort of balanced, how-we-eat-now type of cookbook. It’s not meant to change the world – I don’t think food changes the world – I think good quality produce and good preparation is very important, but I think what we’ve tried to do is an unpretentious cookbook that sort of helps people cook fine quality British food, rather than any sort of let-me-show-you-how-smart-I-am kind of thing, and part of that influence is walking past these paintings for me, because I’m sort of reminded that little has changed, and how important it is to live our lives in a manner that is close to the earth.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Oliver Peyton. If you’d like to see Beuckelaer’s paintings for yourself, come along to the Gallery; 'The Four Elements' will be on display throughout the month. And for ideas on what to do with all that fruit and veg, try 'The National Cookbook'; it’s available from the Gallery’s shops, Oliver’s restaurants, or online at www.nationalgallery.co.uk.
Picasso’s models and muses
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to the National Gallery’s major new exhibition, Picasso: Challenging the Past. Among the masterpieces on display are a number of nudes, a subject Picasso returned to throughout his life. Picasso hotly denied his nudes were portraits of his partners, but it’s interesting to note that his dramatic and frequent changes in painting style often coincided with the beginning of a new love affair. The Catalan artist and lecturer, Eva Bosch, will be talking about Picasso’s women as part of a series of lectures at the Gallery to accompany the show. Leah Kharibian visited her studio to discuss this aspect of Picasso’s life and work.
Leah Kharibian: Eva, there were so many women in Picasso’s life who served as his models, but we’re going to concentrate on just two of his partners, who gave rise to some truly exceptional pictures, and the first work we’re going to look at is the ‘Large Bather', the monumental 'Large Bather' of 1921. Could you just start by describing it for us?
Eva Bosch: I think that the most important thing to say about this bather is that the canvas is actually bigger than Picasso. I think Picasso measured about 175cm, something like that, and the painting, it’s 182 by 101cm, so I think that’s important – he makes this woman in a canvas which is bigger than him, and then the lady occupies the entire surface and so is a very, very large lady, very, very bulky…
Leah Kharibian: And yet this is so classically inspired, it reminds us of classical sculpture… And we know in 1919, he’d been to the British Museum, he’d come to London, hadn’t he, and he’d seen the Parthenon Marbles. But there’s also other things that seem to be in here too, I mean the huge inflated quality sort of reminds us a bit of the Cézanne ‘Bathers’ and also possibly Renoir nudes that Picasso we know loved. But along with all these sources, or potential sources, for this wonderful picture, we know that Picasso in 1917 had met a Russian ballerina called Olga Khokhlova, and they fall in love, they get married the following year, and in 1921, the year that he paints this bather, she has her child, his first child, Paolo. Do you think that affects the way this picture looks?
Eva Bosch: Absolutely. I think that in many ways what Picasso is doing here is saying, to a certain extent, ‘thank you’ to this lady for having introduced him yet again to a new dimension, the dimension of actually having a child, and so I think this is very much part of this painting. I mean, in this painting, Picasso is idealising Olga, and it’s interesting because Olga is a very petite ballerina from Russia, a very aristocratic lady, but in here you see he paints a large woman, which Olga is not, so really this lady, in terms of structure, has got absolutely nothing to do with Olga. I mean, he paints Olga as he idealises her. I mean, this is a goddess, the mother goddess, that has just produced a child for him.
Leah Kharibian: And they were obviously, at this stage in their relationship, things must have been going fairly well, but by the end of it, it was really quite a bitter relationship, not helped by the model of the next picture that we’re going to look at – Marie-Thérèse Walter. This is painted in 1932 and it’s called 'Nude in a Red Armchair'. He meets her, doesn’t he, in 1927, when she’s just 17 years old, is that right?
Eva Bosch: That’s right, yes. Well, first of all the lady is only depicted from her thighs up, so it’s a half Marie-Thérèse, it’s not a complete Marie-Thérèse. And then Marie-Thérèse, unlike Olga, unlike the painting of Olga, she’s full of curves, I mean it starts really with this spiral way in which you move through the painting until it sort of stops into the face where he’s placed two faces, I mean that’s very typical of Picasso isn’t it, two profiles sort of meeting each other – he did the same thing with…
Leah Kharibian: Yes, a beautiful blue profile with sort of peppermint hair, meeting, almost kissing, the other side of her face. It does put one in mind of artists that we know that Picasso absolutely adored, like Ingres, the 'Madame Moitessier', with those wonderful bendy fingers, there’s this sort of pliable bendiness about her. This though is painted, is it not, at the same time that’s he still with Olga… I mean, he has this relationship, it starts in 1927, he keeps it secret until 1935, when Olga discovers that Marie-Thérèse is pregnant with Maya, his second child. Should we be bothered by this aspect of his biography once we know… does it diminish what we see in the pictures?
Eva Bosch: Well, you see, I think maybe we should go back to the ‘Bather’ here, you see… I mean, there is this 40-year-old man, he just had a child, he’s full of ideals, he wants to idealise this woman, he paints her as a goddess, whatever… then things go wrong, he’s desperate... he’s a painter… I mean, I can very well sympathise with this, because, you know, to be able to paint you have to have something inside that pushes you to paint, and at the time, I mean, you know, he was really, really low. So therefore he meets this beautiful blonde in the street and then you know, he gets completely flabbergasted by her – I don’t think there’s anything so criminal about it, and then, of course, that was a kind of urge which got him again in a different plane, so that he could continue being the painter that he was.
Leah Kharibian: So the biography really shouldn’t get in the way of us looking at Picasso as a great artist, in fact actually it’s almost to one side, do you think?
Eva Bosch: Well, I would say the biography which is in the paintings, yes. I think the history of Picasso is all written in his paintings. You don’t have to read one single word to actually really see what Picasso is about. It’s all there…
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Eva Bosch, who’ll be giving a lunchtime lecture at the National Gallery on Monday 27 April. The Picasso exhibition is sponsored by Credit Suisse and runs until early June; tickets are available at the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk. And if you plan to come along, do look out for the exhibition audio guide. Featuring images as well as the usual audio commentaries, it allows you to enjoy Picasso’s paintings alongside masterpieces by the many other artists who inspired him. There are interviews with both the show’s curators, as well as Elizabeth Cowling, who appeared on last month’s podcast, and it was written by our very own Leah Kharibian. To hear more, download a taster for free as a bonus track with this episode.
Creating costumes from paintings
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One of the highlights of the Gallery’s spring events programme is a series of fashion shows featuring creations inspired by the paintings. The elaborate costumes are the work of a group of students, who – with only a few months to go before the season kicks off – are busy bringing their ideas to life. I went along to the Wimbledon School of Art to hear more from Head of Costume, Hilary Baxter, and her student, Bryony Thompson.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, this morning, I’ve come down to the Wimbledon School of Art to have a look at some of the costumes that some of the students have been making. And I’m in the costume studio surrounded by long tables with sewing machines and tailor’s dummies and surrounded by swatches of cloth and I’ve come to talk to Hilary Baxter.
Hilary Baxter: We have four groups of students working on the National Gallery project. These are all of our second and third years. The students have been working on this since they returned at the beginning of the academic year which is October, and most of the academic work was done in the autumn term, so it will represent between four and five months for each student, and each one of the projects has a slightly different slant although they will all end up as costumes that can be modelled and worn at the National Gallery for the forthcoming shows in May.
There is fun, there is glamour, there is a bit of sexiness, but all of it is underpinned with a really serious and intellectual approach to the paintings, which means that although some of the work may seem a little hard to link back to the painting, actually when you think about it and when you understand which painting it is and which approach the student has taken, suddenly becomes a different view on the painting, and I think that is really what we aim to offer – a slightly different way of looking at things that have become very familiar to us in terms of their classic nature.
Miranda Hinkley: Bryony, tell me which painting you’ve been inspired by.
Bryony Thompson: I was looking at Renoir’s 'Gladioli in a Vase'.
Miranda Hinkley: And based on that you’ve created this… is ‘basque’ the right word? This amazing kind of confection of fabric and colour.
Bryony Thompson: This is only part of it, I have to say, because the other elements to the design are actually drying or being worked on elsewhere, so I’ve just got the main corset structure with these kind of elongated flowers coming out of it at the moment.
Miranda Hinkley: And tell me a bit about the different materials and fabrics that you’re working with.
Bryony Thompson: The actual corset structure is made of classic whalebones that exist now, and calico, but all the flowers are made out of silks, just various silks – I’ve got some taffetas and some silk chiffons in there as well to give a variety of textures.
Miranda Hinkley: What was it about the painting that inspired this costume?
Bryony Thompson: Well, literally when I first saw the painting it was just a painting that I quite liked – just literally liked it on its visual. And then looking more into it decided it was quite a sombre bunch of flowers, it’s quite funereal, it’s not a jolly, happy wedding kind of bunch… While the visuals were taken from that painting, some of the kind of background context was taken from a poem by Everett Smith, which is connected to flowers, but it’s more about self-harm and the self-destruction of people. So then with the influence of the poem as well… it just kind of evolved really. It started with a self-harm image based on my mood boards and then going back through, working back the visuals into it to give it more visual relation to the painting.
Miranda Hinkley: And is it the colours that relate to the painting for you? What is it that most…
Bryony Thompson: Yeah, I’d say it was the colours, and also the shapes. Obviously I’ve got the wire frames on the silk flowers here, so the right-hand side of the painting, and also when the model wears it, that’s on her left shoulder, so as you look at it obviously if the painting was the right way round it would be the left side, so literally took the painting for elements of the design. So it almost looks as if the person is almost wearing aspects of the painting.
Miranda Hinkley: So Hilary, give me a sense of what the final show’s going to be like. I mean, will there be models there? Will there be a catwalk in the Gallery? What will it be like to experience?
Hilary Baxter: There will be about 20 models in full costume, and with the person who made or designed the costume walking alongside them. We will be coming down the side of the National Gallery, so coming through Trafalgar Square at the very top, up into the Gallery. There will be a short parade through the theatre for people who are interested in looking at some of the ways that we’ve made the costumes, so I think there are tickets bookable for that, and then the costumes will be let loose into the Gallery. We’re not quite sure how that’s going to work, but it is quite probable that the costumes will end up alongside the paintings from which they were worked at some point in the evening. But there will be about two hours in which there will be models wandering round the Gallery in the costumes designed from the National Gallery collection.
Miranda Hinkley: Fantastic. Hilary, it sounds really exciting.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Hilary Baxter and Bryony Thompson. If you’d like to come along and see the results of all that work, the shows will take place at the Gallery on evenings throughout the month of May. See our website for more details.
That’s it for this episode. If you’re planning a visit, don’t forget we’re open from 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays, and there’s no charge to visit the thousands of paintings that make up the Gallery’s permanent collection.
Until next month, goodbye!