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Episode 24

The National Gallery Podcast

In the October 2008 podcast, discover what's so funny about Renaissance faces? Plus the secret lives of paintings, and Bonnie Greer on 'Madame Moitessier'.

16 min 47 sec | October 2008

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

Bonnie Greer: Well, I think always with great, great artists – and this is a great artist – that what they are painting is not the subject, the subject is the excuse to transmit something inside the artist himself that is deeply, deeply profound, so the subject becomes the mirror, the transmitter, the conduit of that thing that is inside this artist and so what we’re looking at is the soul literally of this man.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Playwright and cultural critic Bonnie Greer on one of the 19th century’s greatest painters. And ‘If the Paintings Could Talk’ – a new book tells the secret histories of the Gallery’s best loved pictures.

'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with our next big exhibition. This month, the Gallery opens its doors to Renaissance Faces – the first major show devoted to Renaissance portraiture ever held in this country. Featuring works by many of the European masters including Van Eyck, Holbein, Raphael and Titian, the exhibition will go a long way to explain why we use the words 'Renaissance man' to describe someone with talents in many fields. These artists created dazzling masterpieces in an array of media, as the paintings, sculptures, drawings and portrait medals on display in this show will reveal, their work always informed by astonishing powers of observation and technical skill. But can we mere mortals relate to pieces produced by such seemingly superhuman ability? Leah Kharibian went to find out.

Leah Kharibian: I’m here in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery with the curator of the ‘Renaissance Faces’ exhibition, Susan Foister, to talk about a paragon among Renaissance men, Albrecht Dürer. There are several Dürers in the exhibition which is very exciting and among them, Susan, is an astonishing drawing.

Susan Foister: Yes, this is a drawing of another painter, of Dürer’s friend, Conrad Merckell, a man with the most extraordinary, fleshy face, and shown from a very arresting and unusual viewpoint. We’re looking right up at him from these very, very fleshy jowls of his face, which fall almost like a curtain or a waterfall around his neck, with these beautifully described concentric folds, and then this very broad, bony, fleshy face with this hook-like nose, which is seen from an extraordinary sideways angle. And then the whole thing, it is encircled with this very elaborate turban-like headdress and Dürer has delighted in showing all the details of the folds here – very, very brilliantly lit – and the top part just overlaps with this inscription, right at the top of the drawing.

Leah Kharibian: And what does that say?

Susan Foister: That says that this is, ‘Conrad the piglet. He’s always a pig in 1508’.

Leah Kharibian: 'He’s always a pig'?! I mean that doesn’t seem very… you know, Dürer’s gone to all this wonderful trouble… this extraordinary picture, and he’s writing that this man’s a pig.

Susan Foister: This is obviously a private joke between the two of them and it’s a pun on Merckell’s name, because instead of saying Merckell it says ‘ferkel’, which in German means piglet.

Leah Kharibian: Piglet… It seems astonishing to me that somebody could go to all this trouble to produce something so beautiful and then almost, almost like graffiti along the top of it… and make a sort of, you know, a little rude joke.

Susan Foister: This must have been a joke portrait that Dürer put in the post to his friend and then presumably he would have chuckled at the thought of Conrad having a good laugh over this when he opened it up at the other end in Ulm, when he received this. And obviously the two must have spent quite a lot of time together for Dürer to capture the likeness in this brilliant way. I mean, it does seem a paradox really that Dürer could clearly put so much effort into one of the most striking portrait drawings that he ever made that survives today and yet it was done in this slightly throwaway manner, this jokey manner, and he was just going to send it away, one presumes.

Leah Kharibian: Right. So here we have Renaissance portraits, but with jokes, which perhaps we’re not expecting from Renaissance portraiture?

Susan Foister: No, I think that friendship is something that really is very similar to friendship today. Two people enjoying jokes today and that’s something that seems very close to us now.

Leah Kharibian: Absolutely. And now there’s another extraordinary portrait in the exhibition by Dürer. Does that have a connection of friendship? It seems a rather more respectful image, that’s for certain.

Susan Foister: Yes, this portrait of Johann Kleberger, who was a Nuremberg businessman who moved in the Humanist circles that Dürer himself was also close to, is a very different work and it’s a painting, it’s a very polished painting.

Leah Kharibian: Could you describe the work? Because it seems to be doing something really quite extraordinary.

Susan Foister: Yes, this is a head-and-shoulders portrait and Dürer’s shown Kleberger in three-quarter face, so you can see both of his eyes clearly and his mouth and nose, and then this rather beautiful undulating line down from his forehead, around his eye sockets and his cheek, very carefully followed. But then the most extraordinary thing that really brings you up short when you see it, is that his shoulders near the base of his neck are completely cut off, as though he’s a sculpted bust, and that’s the model that Dürer must have taken here. But the whole thing projects – there’s a very strong shadow just underneath his neck – and it really looks as though this fleshy head and neck have been decapitated.

Leah Kharibian: It is a little bit creepy, actually, there is something a bit worrisome about that.

Susan Foister: Yes, it’s quite strange. And Dürer, I think, means really to startle us here, because he’s really playing on what sculptors do in this period and what painters do, and he’s probably trying to tell us that actually painters do it better.

Leah Kharibian: But in amongst that strangeness, I think this is what really is so transfixing about this work, is that we’re looking at a face that is, well, it’s modern. You just feel Kleberger could be somebody you meet in the street or in the Gallery or wherever. It’s a totally modern face.

Susan Foister: There’s certainly something very direct about this kind of portrait image. Of course, it helps that, perhaps, he’s got rather curly hair and sideburns which do give him a rather modern look, but Dürer has put all his ability to capture likeness directly – his ability to draw and this extraordinary ability to paint – to recreate this face in terms of light and shade in quite a dramatic way.

Leah Kharibian: So we can look forward to jokes, we can look forward to things that are going to astound us and exceptional, exceptional painting talent as well.

Susan Foister: All of those, and more.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Leah Kharibian talking to Susan Foister. ‘Renaissance Faces’ opens on 15 October and will be a landmark show for the Gallery. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee. And if you’d like to hear more from Susan Foister, an audio tour will be available featuring interviews with her and another podcast regular, curator Luke Syson.

Bonnie Greer on Ingres’s ‘Madame Moitessier’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Playwright, novelist, broadcaster and cultural critic: our next interviewee brings the concept of the Renaissance man, or in this case woman, right up to date. From her appearances on the BBC’s ‘Late Review’ to her position as trustee of the British Museum, Bonnie Greer has always had an inspiring and idiosyncratic take on great art as I discovered first hand when I joined her on a recent visit to one of her favourite paintings in the National Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of a very striking portrait. It’s by Dominique Ingres, it’s of Madame Moitessier, who was the wife of a wealthy banker and it was painted around the middle of the 19th century. Now I’m joined by playwright, Bonnie Greer. Bonnie, what is it that fascinates you about this image?

Bonnie Greer: I love this image because if you come closer to it, which is how you really come to understand this painting, if you come closer, you start to see how, say from a distance, it looks very sort of classical, with the Greek pose – she’s got her hand on, a finger on her head, and her hand resting quite tranquilly – but when you come closer, you can see just how sensual this painting is and that’s the big surprise. Look at the blush on her skin, look at the way that he’s detailed so exquisitely the dress. It’s almost as if the dress and the colour of the dress are coming out of the frame itself. You can see the dress continue past the frame. Look at the blush on her face and the light in her eyes, the way she looks directly at you, which is always amazing to me, and also the fact, if you look at the frame – Ingres designed this frame, and it matches the dress – it’s quite extraordinary. So I love it because you get this double surprise from the distance, you get this classical look, and then when you come up close, you really, really see how sensual and emotional this painting is.

And the other thing about it that I really, really love is that he has a great photographic quality, so that you can believe in a strange way that this painting may be roughly what this woman looked like; it’s as if she’s going to stand up in a moment and walk right out of this whole frame to you. And I really, really love that kind of immediacy, and also that you know that this woman is very wealthy and she’s not very comfortable with her wealth, because her clothes are of course designed for her body, but she’s sitting there as if she’s just really, really bored and she wants to get out of this as quickly as she possibly can.

So it has so much story and narrative to it, and I always come back to it and look at that. It’s also, one other thing… it’s about women as well, it’s about being trapped in the kind of finery of the day. This sort of pose that a rich woman has to do to show how much money her husband has, and I love this look on her face – it’s like, 'who cares?' So it’s just really a most wonderful painting to me.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s kind of ironic that he wasn’t so keen on the idea at first, was he? But then he accepted the commission when he saw her and realised how striking looking she was. I guess to us she probably doesn’t look that beautiful, but to him there was something kind of almost goddess-like about it.

Bonnie Greer: I think that first of all he really hated doing portraiture anyway, he thought these things were beneath him and he did these things for money. I mean he was a pupil of David, so he wanted to do the kind of heroic things, and the way he kind of compensated for that was to put these sort of bourgeois subjects in heroic poses, so they kind of at least gave you some idea of gods.

But then, as you say, he was a man who was highly erotic and we don’t understand that word anymore. We think it means sensual or sexual, but what it deeply means is the ordering of materials of this world – the sort of connection with nature, things that are made, so that you actually want to touch and feel these things, and he’s very much like that. So when he saw her, he was quite struck by the possibilities of recreating this woman in paint. So he took the job. But what’s most amazing to me is that he didn’t finish it. He came back a couple of years later, when he was an older guy. She wouldn’t have looked like this, but what he painted was what was from his memory, so that in fact what we have here is not Madame Moitessier as she really was, but as she was remembered through a man who still obviously had a quite strong sense of his own sexuality even at an age where most of us think that that’s past it. It wasn’t with him, so you get to see a man basically raging at the dying of the light and that actually gives it its very strong central power and its beauty for me. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Bonnie Greer. And if you’d like to visit ‘Madame Moitessier’ yourself, Ingres’s painting is on display at the Gallery throughout the month.

If the Paintings Could Talk’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to the tender care of the Conservation department, our paintings don’t show their age, but most are many hundreds of years old and like any gathering of long-lived veterans they’ve got some tales to tell. Now a new book ‘If the Paintings Could Talk’ gives them that chance and offers us the opportunity to catch up on the colourful but little known histories of some of the Gallery’s best loved works. When I met up with the book’s author, Michael Wilson, I asked him to tell me some of his favourite stories. He began with Longhi’s ‘Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice’.

Michael Wilson: Well, the subject of this picture is rather interesting. As you see it’s a rhinoceros being exhibited at a carnival in Venice in 1741. Well, rhinoceroses in Europe at that time were very rare, and as far as we know this was only the fifth rhinoceros to have appeared in Europe since Roman times and this one was probably the most famous of them all – it was a real celebrity.

I should say ‘she’, she was called Miss Clara, and she toured Europe. She was given to the director of the East India Company, she came to Holland, and then she went through all the European capitals over a period of more than 10 years. She was seen by the Empress Maria Teresa, she was seen by the Elector of Saxony, she came to London, where she was exhibited with two dwarfs, a contortionist and a crocodile and finally she ended up in Venice, so she was a real celebrity. She appeared on paintings, tapestries, porcelain, medals were struck, all sorts of things were made. Women even had their hair done in a kind of hairdo à la rhinoceros, with a great feather horn sticking up. Sadly you see that the poor rhinoceros doesn’t even have its horn anymore and the keeper is holding it aloft. And she does really look rather dismal standing in this stall, being stared at by all these Venetian carnival goers wearing their masks.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, from the topsy-turvy world of Venice carnival, we’re now going to look at a painting that’s suffered a topsy-turvy fate. So here we are in front of Van Gogh’s ‘Long Grass with Butterflies’. What happened to this work?

Michael Wilson: Well, the story about this work doesn’t reflect too well on the Gallery because in 1965 a schoolgirl was visiting the Gallery with a party from her school and she made a beeline to the Van Goghs – he was her favourite artist – and she discovered that this picture was hanging upside down. Now looking at it you can see it’s a very abstract work even for Van Gogh; there’s no horizon line, the whole surface is really… shows an area of grass and garden. It’s very vigorously painted, not at all naturalistically painted and so it’s understandable that a mistake like this could have been made, but it was a 15-year-old school girl who spotted it, and she went off to the Chief Attendant’s office, knocked on his door and told him that she’d found that one of the Van Gogh’s was hanging upside down. He was rather dismissive, it has to be said. He responded by saying ‘well, how do you know’, and they had to actually go and find a postcard of the picture to compare it with what was on the wall before he was convinced.

I think there might have been a bit of dispute then, you know, which way to hold the postcard, but another attendant, who was in the room, came to her defence and said ‘I think she’s got a point, I think it’s right’. And it turns out that it had been taken off the wall that morning for photography and when the working party came to put it back, they put it back the wrong way up. How long it would have stayed like that had the girl not spotted it, we don’t know, but it’s a rather amusing tale.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, Michael, thank you very much for talking to me. Your book is coming out at some point this year, isn’t it?

Michael Wilson: That’s right – it’s coming out very soon, this autumn. And it’s an anthology or a miscellany in a way of these kind of anecdotes and stories about National Gallery pictures. Each of them has got its own story to tell and it’s not necessarily the stories that you read in the art history books. These are the stories about the adventures of these pictures in a way.

Miranda Hinkley: Michael, thank you very much.

Michael Wilson: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Michael Wilson. ‘If the Paintings Could Talk’ will be available from late October – mention this podcast when you buy your copy from the National Gallery shop and you’ll receive a 10% discount. 

If you’re going to be in London during October, don’t forget the Gallery is open from 10 till 6 daily, and from 10 till 9 on Wednesdays; entry is free. Join us again next month for all the latest news and exhibition updates. Until then, goodbye!