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Episode 21

The National Gallery Podcast

In the July 2008 podcast, hear about the "gayest painting at the Gallery'". Plus learn about the painting techniques of the Divisionists and take ballet lessons from Van Dyck. Bonus track: an extract from the Radical Light audio tour.

19 min 10 sec | July 2008

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. Coming up in this month’s episode:

Jennifer Till: Nobody needed to say: ‘excuse me dear but could you think about…’ – there just wasn’t time. You were expected to arrive with that knowledge inbred and the way we did it was by coming in and trailing around in our school uniform looking at paintings. It’s a wonderful idea.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Ballet lessons with Rubens: what dancers can learn from fine art. And...

Keith Cavers: I think this is the gayest painting in the Gallery. There are lots of other gayish paintings – paintings by gay artists and other gay subjects – but for me, it’s this one. It’s got ladies in big frocks, it’s got men in armour – not armour that you’d want to fight in, but dress armour, dressing up, they’ve been in the dressing up box.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A Leonardo? A Titian? Find out which painting gets Keith Cavers’s vote.

‘Radical Light: Italy’s Divisionist Painters 1891 – 1910’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start though with the Gallery’s big summer exhibition. The first show of its kind in the UK, Radical Light brings together paintings by a group of late 19th-century Italian artists known as Divisionists. In last month’s episode, curator Chris Riopelle described the radical political aims that inspired many of the luminous works in the show. This month, Leah Kharibian explores the Divisionists’ extraordinary use of colour – with a little help from artist Gayna Pelham and her paints.

Leah Kharibian: Well, this is a podcast first. We’re in the National Gallery with paints, which is very exciting. I’m here in the Education department with the artist Gayna Pelham, who’s going to demonstrate, show me and talk about, how the Italian Divisionists got some of their extraordinarily luminous light effects. Now to start with the basics, Gayna, could you tell me what it means to paint in a Divisionist way.

Gayna Pelham: What they’re actually doing is instead of mixing any of their colours on their palettes, they’re actually putting down on the canvases paints in their primary form, so they’re not actually mixing the colours. Instead of mixing them, they’re putting the colours side by side on the canvas.

Leah Kharibian: Now these colours aren’t just any old colours…

Gayna Pelham: No. They’re actually what we could call complementary colours and if you think of the three primary colours as red, yellow and blue, if you mix red and yellow you get orange, and if you had that on a wheel you would have that actually opposite the blue. So orange is opposite blue and what has been found is that if you put these colours side by side, it will heighten the saturation of each colour.

Leah Kharibian: Now in the exhibition, in the ‘Radical Light’ exhibition, there’s a painting by an artist called Longoni, called ‘Reflections of a Hungry Man’, which shows a young man looking at some wealthy diners in a restaurant, and the glass that separates him from these wealthy people is painted in little dots, and it’s little dots of pure colour. Now this to me looks rather familiar in terms of a technique that one might know from, say, the French painters, Seurat and Signac, the Pointillists, but the Italians weren’t Pointillists really, were they?

Gayna Pelham: No, and that is what is so fascinating about this exhibition. And where we’re used to the ideas of Pointillism and these little dabs, little dots, of colour, with the Divisionists, they’re using much longer strokes.

Leah Kharibian: Now, this is the bit that I’ve been looking forward to. I wanted to get some paint. So could you start showing me what it is that they do? How do they get these extraordinary effects?

Gayna Pelham: Well, what they’re actually doing is heightening the saturation of colour. Also what the Divisionists are going to do is work up layer upon layer upon layer, and that again is very different from what the Pointillists are doing with just dots next to each other. And I’m going to just sort of show you a little bit, and I don’t know whether I can just mention that these are acrylic colours, unfortunately they’re not oil paint… just for the amounts of time that we have. If I use sort of ultramarine, and unfortunately when I’m going to be building it up now, because I’m putting wet paint on top of other wet paint, it’s going to smudge, and this is where you really need to see the actual paintings for themselves, because when you look at them you can just see the one layer and then the layer beneath it and the layer beneath it, and it’s this kind of tapestry, this sort of woven feeling that I’ve never really seen anywhere else. It really is absolutely amazing, so you feel that you’ve got something’s that’s called an impasto layer, which is very, very thick sort of crusty paint, where it’s almost in relief.

Leah Kharibian: Now, we’re battling here slightly against the troop of children who have arrived in the next room to eat their sandwiches, which is admirable, but noisy, and looking at this painting that you’re working up, there’s a picture in the exhibition called ‘Spring in the Alps’, which has this sky that is so blue and intense and bright – it’s that extraordinarily bright Alpine light and yet when you look closely at it, it’s blue but it’s got red in it, and I was just looking at the paint that you’ve got there, this idea of putting colours that you would never think to find next to other ones.

Gayna Pelham: No, and they’ve got to be very careful about the colours they put next to each other because if you’re not careful you create this sort of grey look. So how the Divisionists created this sort of amazing luminous feel is sort of extraordinary, so they’re actually putting brighter colours next to each other than the Pointillist painters that we’re used to.

Leah Kharibian: If there are painters out there and they’re thinking, ‘right, now I want to have a go at this’, what would you say to them? Where should they start? What should they do?

Gayna Pelham: Come and have a look. That’s what they need to do. And I think this is what’s extraordinary – I was shocked by seeing these paintings in the flesh, because they’re not paintings that we’re familiar with. We won’t, in this country, have seen these really before. We might know the Futurists, we might know Boccioni, we might know Balla and Carra, but we’re not going to know Segantini, we’re not going to know Morbelli, and you have to see those to understand where the later artists come from and when you see this incredible paint before your eyes. And you could take any part of that ‘Springtime in the Alps’, any little section of that painting and use it as the basis for your painting. I mean any little section is extraordinary. It’s incredibly inspiring and I think that’s what makes this exhibition so exciting.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Gayna Pelham talking to Leah Kharibian. To do these colourful works justice, you really need to see them close up, so if you’re in London during July come along to the Gallery. The ‘Radical Light’ exhibition will be open throughout the month and you can buy tickets in person or online with a booking fee. And if you heard last month’s feature about the show, you might like to know that curator Chris Riopelle features on the exhibition audio guide. You can download an excerpt from the tour as a bonus track with this podcast.

Dance lessons with Rubens and Van Dyck

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): If asked for a link between ballet and fine art, you might – after a little head scratching – come up with the name Degas. Much loved by art buffs and little girls alike, the Frenchman’s painting of ‘Ballet Dancers’ is a Gallery highlight, recognised around the world. What’s less well known is that this famous picture is part of a long history of mutual inspiration between the arts. In the 18th century, choreographers were encouraged to study paintings to help them compose attractive scenes on stage, while in the 20th century, both Matisse and Picasso were involved in set design for Diaghilev’s famous ‘Ballet Russes’. Closer to home, young dancers at the Royal Ballet School in the 1950s were brought to the National Gallery to learn from the Old Masters. We asked Jennifer Till, a former pupil, to explain why.

Jennifer Till: My name is Jennifer Till and I was very lucky to go to the Royal Ballet School in its very early, formative days, when we had a director called Arnold Haskell, who had a very clear idea of what ballet consisted of, and it was four elements. Only one of them was dance. The second one was music, and we covered that by going to concerts and music appreciation. The third and fourth were drama and décor – costume, lighting, ambience, everything else. The last two elements of our training, we were meant to pick up from galleries, so it wasn’t insignificant. We were meant to pick up all the sort of feeling of characterisation in a non-verbal way from what we saw in galleries.

This is a portrait by Anthony van Dyck of ‘Lord John Stewart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stewart’, and the young men are so flamboyant; they’re really exquisitely dressed. The young man with the silver cloak is wearing a sword and his very fancy boots have got spurs on them. His curls are very feminine, but the face is absolutely not and the way he’s standing, with one leg up, the way he’s looking at the viewer – there’s no tip of the head, there’s nothing diffident – it’s very proud, it’s very assured, and though the clothes are extremely dramatic – that huge sweep of silver lining in the blue velvet cloak – nonetheless, he is wearing that costume, it’s not wearing him, he’s not cowed by it. So in terms of characterisation, if you got a boy who suddenly appears and there he is at Covent Garden, he’s playing a prince, to have an image like that in his mind, would kind of feed his body the right stance, the right feeling.

This is a portrait by Peter Paul Rubens of a lady called Susanna Lunden. And it’s called the ‘Chapeau de Paille’, which is her really beautiful straw hat. And the reason I was particularly kind of captivated by this is that very often a dancer, because of the distance from the viewer, covers characterisation in a very broad sweep, whereas there are roles which need more subtlety, and this painting is such a subtle representation of a girl, a very pretty girl, who’s not really comfortable with where she is. She’s wearing a beautiful hat, that’s lovely, but her eyes, rather than looking directly, she’s looking and her eyes are sliding to one side, almost as though there’s somebody looking at her, maybe encouraging her or she’s just shy of this situation. Her hands are crossed – it’s a closed gesture, and the one thing that she’s sort of showing is her betrothal ring, and in that she has a little confidence.

Now that sort of movement, that sort of style, that sort of slight tilt of the head, is the sort of thing that in dance you would use for somebody like the betrayed girl in ‘The Rake’s Progress’, somebody who is suddenly elevated with the rake to a stratum of society that she doesn’t understand and isn’t comfortable with. Those sort of elements – they were expected to just be absorbed into you, so that when that was your role, that was what you did, nobody needed to say, ‘excuse me dear, could you think about…’, – there just wasn’t time. You were expected to arrive with that knowledge inbred, and the way we did it was by coming in and trailing round in our school uniform and looking at paintings. It’s a wonderful idea.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): That was Jennifer Till talking about two highlights of the Gallery’s permanent collection –‘Lord John Stuart and his Brother’ by van Dyck, and ‘La Chapeau de Paille’ by Rubens.

A queer look at art in the Gallery

Miranda Hinckley (in the studio): On 24 July a free exhibition opens at the Gallery devoted to the subject of love. Paintings by artists such as Raphael, Chagall and Vermeer will be on display, as well as David Hockney’s portrait of a same-sex couple, ‘We Two Boys Together Clinging’. In preparation for the arrival of this famous painting, we thought we’d find out whether his two boys would be lonely in the National Gallery, or whether there are other same-sex couples in the permanent collection to keep them company. Louise Govier and Keith Cavers offered their suggestions.

Keith Cavers: This is ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ by Veronese, round about 1570, and I think this is the gayest painting in the Gallery. There are lots of other gayish paintings – paintings by gay artists and other gay subjects – but for me, it’s this one. It’s got ladies in big frocks, it’s got men in armour – not armour that you’d want to fight in, sort of dress armour, dressing up, they’ve been in the dressing up box. And it shows a moment where the Queen Mother, Sisygambis, who’s the one kneeling down with ermine on, has brought her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren to Alexander because her son has been defeated in battle. They think he’s dead – he’s not dead, he’s just been defeated – and she comes in and throws herself in front of Alexander for their lives because they think they’re going to be raped and pillaged and murdered. And unfortunately for her, she looks round the room and finds this very handsome, battle-hardened soldier, throws herself down in front of him… it’s the wrong one. It’s not Alexander, it’s Hephaestion, Alexander’s friend and she’s terribly upset and thinks, well I’ve blown my chance at getting away with this.

But Alexander steps in and says, no, no mother, that’s alright, he’s Alexander too. Because he considers Hephaestion as being almost himself. They’re very close. They’re lovers. They’ve been brought up as children together. And for people in history, people who knew classical history, everybody knew that, so as a gay subject, it sort of sneaks in because people knew about Alexander. He did have a wife, in fact he had two wives, and he did have children, but then so did Oscar Wilde, and he certainly preferred, I think, the company of men.

Miranda Hinkley: Keith, what is it about this painting visually that sort of gives the game away to you? Because you look at it and it’s kind of very lush painting, but it looks like many other history paintings in the Gallery.

Keith Cavers: Well, for a start, for a classical subject, for a Greek subject, it doesn’t look very Greek at all. It looks more like a Handel opera, and the sort of operatic setting – you’ve got the main characters in the front, lots of crowds behind, sort of chorus up on the balcony, it doesn’t immediately give that away. And in fact, the viewer is in the same position as the poor Queen Mother, because it’s very difficult to work out which one is Alexander. Is it the man in red – the label says it’s the man in red – or is it the one in the shiny armour? But he’s sort of pointing to the one in the shiny armour, so it’s almost as if he’s saying… Is he saying ‘no, no, this is Alexander too’, or is that Hephaestion is saying ‘no, no this is Alexander’, so even in the picture you’ve got this confusion over who the two people are, and in fact, he’s probably used the same model. They look very, very close.

Miranda Hinkley: Now, I also have with me Louise Govier, from National Gallery Education. Louise, we’re going to uncover another sort of subtext in a painting. Which picture are you going to take us to see?

Louise Govier: Well, I’m going to take us to look at some girls. Having seen some gorgeous boys, and they really are beautiful, and I think they’re aware of it in this painting – they’re kind of standing there with their fabulously coloured robes wrapped around them – we’re going to go and look at some naked ladies, but I think with a, perhaps, with a slightly different take on who their nakedness might be for. This is a little painting, an intimate painting, meant to draw you in, by Francois Boucher, done in 1759 and it shows Pan and Syrinx, and Syrinx is this beautiful girl who is being chased by Pan, who as we know is a naughty woodland god, who is very lusty, and has absolutely got her in his sights. As she’s running away from him she reaches a river and persuades her sisters, the river nymphs, to change her into some reeds. And what we actually see in the painting is sort of both moments shown at the same time. We’ve got Syrinx running away into the arms of one of the women that’s saving her and at the same time Pan is grasping for her, but only getting an armful of reeds, so she’s safe from him.

Now what’s interesting about this painting, I think, is that if you want to, you can see it in a number of different ways in terms of its eroticism. Traditionally, it’s assumed that Boucher is painting for male viewers and that these luscious female bodies are on show for male viewers to enjoy, but increasingly we find that there are female viewers, sometimes lesbian viewers, who in particular have looked at paintings like this and written about them in quite different terms and see these instead as women who are sharing each others’ bodies, who are actually, of course in this case… the girl is keeping her body for another woman, she’s actually turning away from the man. And you can look at Boucher’s paintings in some senses as almost utopian spaces where all these nudes just talk to each other, touch each other, and actually the men are really kind of irrelevant. So it’s one of those pictures that can be read in a completely different way if that’s your own viewpoint.

Miranda Hinkley: Louise, how many of these hidden stories do you think there are in the Gallery?

Louise Govier: Oh, I think there are hundreds, because of course for every painting you’re going to have a whole range of meanings that that painting might produce for different people. If you asked 10 different people what they think of the same painting, you’re probably going to get 10 different stories, and of course, sexuality is something that’s going to feed into that. So different people with different experiences are going to read different things from the same painting, so I think there are probably loads of different pictures in the Gallery where this could be the case.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Keith Cavers and Louise Govier. Their chosen paintings are both on display at the National Gallery, along with all the other pictures mentioned in this episode. Pop in if you’d like to see them for yourself – the Gallery is open from 10 till 6 daily and until 9pm on Wednesday evenings, and entrance to the permanent collection is free.

That’s it for this episode; until next month – goodbye!