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Episode 26

The National Gallery Podcast

In the December 2008 podcast, unlock the hidden codes within religious art. Plus interviews with artist Humphrey Ocean and photographer David LaChapelle.

20 min 33 sec | December 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:

Humphrey Ocean: Well, I think if you’re going to be, if you’re going to fall in love with somebody and I don’t know how long that takes – there’s some people who say it takes 17 seconds – then you’re taking in a staggering amount of information, but as one does when one looks at somebody, you meet somebody, you look first of all at the eyes, and Christina’s eyes are alluring and probably maddening as well.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Artist Humphrey Ocean falls for a Renaissance face. And, a 13th-century ‘Da Vinci Code’ – we discover how a medieval bestseller can help unlock the symbols of the Gallery’s paintings today.

David LaChapelle

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Even those who don’t think they’re familiar with the intensely coloured, often surreal compositions of our first interviewee, probably are. As a photographer and director, David LaChapelle has created memorable portraits of some of the most famous stars of the age – David Beckham, Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz to name but a few. He’s responsible for eyecatching ads for any number of major brands, as well as an acclaimed trailer for Channel Four’s ‘Lost’, in which the cast dance in 1920s costume amid burning wreckage on the beach. With such a modern resumé, it might come as a surprise that many of his influences are anything but – and yet that’s just the case, as he explained to Colin Wiggins during a recent visit to the National Gallery.

Colin Wiggins: David, the first thing I’d like to ask you is when did you start using Old Master paintings as a reference in your work?

David LaChapelle: Well, I’ve always been inspired by art and definitely the Renaissance even back in 1984 when I did my first show – ‘Angels, Saints, Martyrs’ was making a lot of references to Bernini and Michelangelo – so really early on as a photographer. But even before I knew I was going to be a photographer when I was a little kid, I was always just in awe of mostly Renaissance paintings and sculptures.

Colin Wiggins: What is it do you think about the Renaissance that has attracted you, then? Why are you drawn to that period and those pictures?

David LaChapelle: There’s something… there’s a real purity in it for me. I just think that the intention that the work was done… there’s a completely different feeling than, say, going to Versailles, or something, in going to the Sistine Chapel – a feeling of awe – the mastery and the idea that God exists. You know, Michelangelo’s idea that God must exist because he created something so beautiful as man and, you know, really finding the sublime in art. I’ve never seen an art piece that’s actually made me feel that sense of the sublime as I did when I was fortunate enough to see the Sistine Chapel on a private tour when there was nobody in it without any of the noise or distraction of the crowds. It was really breathtaking, and moving, and emotional.

Colin Wiggins: Let’s look at the Botticelli then because this is a work that you’ve been drawn to for a long time and you’re just at the moment using it as a point of departure for a new work of your own. Can you tell us about that?

David LaChapelle: Well, I’m interested in it because of the idea of the god of War and how humanity has always exalted beauty and warriors and here are the two in a union: the goddess of beauty and the god of war, and the sort of tension that that creates in a sense, conceptually. It’s an interesting idea because there’s certainly nothing beautiful about war, but there’s certainly something heroic and beautiful about the warriors and the victors. And so here they’ve come together in this sort of scene, this post-coital kind of moment, and yet the goddess of beauty is left seemingly unsatisfied, while you have these three or four satyrs sort of frolicking around with his armour and sword and helmet.

I just love the details in these paintings and I find that there’s so much to work with. And I like to work intuitively, so I just take that idea and then reinterpret it for myself. These are the things I love – I love paintings and photography and all art that uses the verbal language and not the written word. Because when I look at these paintings that we’ve talked about here today, they do give the viewer… you don’t need to be an art historian or even have completed high school to be enriched by these paintings, to find their life and to create your own ideas about these tableaux that are presented and the stories that are happening. And coming from your own perspective – you can interpret them in any way you want. And then, yeah, you can read about it, and it gives you a whole new take on it, but it’s still a process of exploration which starts with the visual, which does not start with an artist’s statement or a definition or a book you have to read or a museum curator who must explain it to you or something like that.

And one problem I have today with a lot of contemporary art is that it is so reliant on the exploration, the explanation, rather, and the written word, and the concept outweighs its aesthetics completely and, you know, you have to understand what it means before you can first appreciate it – unlike these masterworks. You know this is where the aspiration… why not be inspired by the moon? Why not reach for the moon and be inspired by the Michelangelos and the Bronzinos and the Botticellis of the world, and that’s always where I’ve looked to as my heroes and of course modern artists – Picasso, Warhol – these are my heroes.

Colin Wiggins: So you come to these things because they communicate immediately and they allow you time to consider different interpretations…

David LaChapelle: And they’re sensual and they’re beautiful and they give me a sense of peace and they give me a sense of enrichment, and they give me a sense of something greater than myself, almost a spiritual quality. And it’s an emotional experience which I find lacking in a lot of contemporary art that I’ve seen – not all, but a lot.  

Colin Wiggins: Brilliant – thanks.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): David LaChapelle talking to Colin Wiggins about Old Masters and Botticelli’s ‘Venus and Mars’.

’Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: our big autumn exhibition. Renaissance Faces explores the dramatic rise of portraiture between the 14th and 16th centuries, giving us a unique chance to stand and stare at everyday Renaissance men and women immortalised by the great painters of the age. As visitors to the exhibition will know, an audience with a portrait is often an intimate business, an exchange of glances across a crowded room. That’s certainly the case for artist Humphrey Ocean – a man who’s painted many an acclaimed portrait in his time.

When we asked him to introduce us to his favourite subject in the show, Humphrey chose ‘Christina of Denmark’, a picture made by Holbein to help Henry VIII assess the princess’ suitability as a wife. Leah Kharibian began by asking what he saw as an artist when he looked at the work.

Humphrey Ocean: Well, I think if you’re going to be, if you’re going to fall in love with somebody and I don’t know how long that takes – there’s some people who say it takes 17 seconds– then you’re taking in a staggering amount of information, but as one does when one looks at somebody, you meet somebody, you look first of all at the eyes, and Christina’s eyes are alluring and probably maddening as well. And in this case, one of the eyes is looking at you – her right eye – and the left eye seems to be wandering slightly as if it’s possibly interested in something else. And she has this in common with the ‘Mona Lisa’, which is, I think, what makes her very fascinating, and actually also the model, Kate Moss, who has a wall eye. I think it’s something that keeps one questioning – is she, isn’t she, is she, isn’t she? So I can imagine Henry being immediately engaged by this 16 year old, who of course eventually turned him down, and that must have been even more maddening.

Leah Kharibian: And for a portrait that has such a specific job to do – I mean, Henry’s there, he’s looking for a new bride, he needs to know whether this is a woman he can find attractive, but he also needs to know that she’s got a mind, and somehow Holbein manages to communicate this. He seems to get the poise, the wit of the woman. I mean, she was somebody who said, I think slightly later, that if she had two heads she would gladly put one at the disposal of the King of England. I mean, she was smart.

Humphrey Ocean: Yes, and she looks it. There are all sorts of movements in the picture. She appears to be walking off to our left but she is almost full frontal, certainly in her face and in her torso. But then what Holbein has done… I mean, you look at the clarity of the drawing of the hat, which shifts over to the right and the way that her dress like a bell is shifting and swinging to our right, her left, and yet if she was going to walk, she’d be walking in the opposite direction. So there’s an immediate strain and conflict here and all the while she’s holding in her hands, the glove, and the glove is one of the things that shows she’s probably not a washerwoman – it’s an indication of her rank. And then the fur – oh dear – it’s a very, very alluring looking thing.

Leah Kharibian: I mean, it is, there is actually quite a strong erotic charge almost, with the hands, these beautiful hands with the gloves that have been taken off for the portrait. I mean we know that Holbein had only three hours with her. He was there – they’ve got very precise details about it – he went to see her on 12 March, 1538, and he was with her from 1 o’ clock till 4 o’ clock in the afternoon, and then he left Brussels, which is where he had to go to make this portrait that self-same evening, and went straight back to London with what we presume was a drawing for Henry to see, from which this portrait was made. But just in three hours…

Humphrey Ocean: Well, in a funny sort of way, I think there’s a wisdom in that. There’s a kind of impact you know, when one looks at something, you see something immediately and it makes an impression, it etches an image on your eye, and you don’t want to spend overly long analysing. And, I mean, he had this way, this economy of line. He was like… I kind of think of him as like Matisse, you know, the opposite to Picasso, the bull… you know, Matisse with his scientist’s coat on, when he was sitting three feet away from a nude model, you know, looking at her, drawing. And I think Holbein was something similar, although of course in the Northern tradition. It’s like Cormac McCarthy’s writing – there are no superlatives there, he just hands something to you on a plate, and you fill in the rest.

Certainly, he would have concentrated probably on the hands and the face; that’s where he would have put the hours in. He then would have got a dress – he would have taken notes, I would imagine – but he would have either designed a dress or certainly got a dress made up. He was a designer as well and did a lot of work for Henry VIII’s court, you know, he was designing jewellery, and shoes, and dresses, and robes and all that sort of thing. So he had this extraordinary range of knowledge that he could apply later, but those three hours, I would imagine, you know, a sharp dart went bulls-eye into his mind, and he’d carry that home. And then he thinks, ‘how can I do something that will get under Henry’s fingernails?’ And this is what he came up with.

Leah Kharibian: Well, that’s wonderful – thank you very much indeed.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Humphrey Ocean. If you’d like your own audience with ‘Christina of Denmark’, come along to the ‘Renaissance Faces’ exhibition. It’s open throughout the month and features works by an array of artists including Raphael, Titian, Botticelli and van Eyck. Tickets are available at the Gallery or online with a booking fee, and an audio guide is available.

Saint attributes

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): What do the following have in common – a lamb, a wheel, manacles, a book, and a set of keys? Well, if you’re not up on your medieval symbolism, my clue is that you might find them on a church façade… or in one of the paintings in the National Gallery. They’re known as attributes – that’s the name given to the visual symbols traditionally used to identify saints – and for those not intimately acquainted with the medieval mind, they can prove hard to decode. Unless that is, you have a copy of the ‘Golden Legend’, an unlikely bestseller written by the Archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine, in the mid-13th century. How can a medieval tome help us understand the Gallery’s paintings today? Karly Allen and James Heard from the Education team explain.

James Heard: When you’re in a gallery and looking at saints, they’re usually identifiable by their halos – but who are they? And usually they’re holding something or there’s something about them that gives you an idea of who they are and this we call the attribute and that’s where the ‘Golden Legend’ really comes in because if you know the story you can connect instantly with the various people depicted in the picture. This is a wonderful collection of stories of the saints which was a book that every artist must have read, or at least consulted in some way, because so many of the paintings in the National Gallery are clearly derived from the stories contained in this book which was written in 1266 and was a bestseller. In fact, Caxton was printing it in 1483 and it was literally his bestseller, so everybody was reading this book, and even today this book is incredibly useful and if you’re an art history student – no, an ordinary gallery goer would love to read these stories – instantly you can enjoy the people in the paintings.

Karly Allen: So we’re standing in front of a painting of Saint Lucy which has particular significance for December because Saint Lucy’s feast day is on 13 December, which by the unreformed Julian calendar in the past was the longest night of the year. And her name derived from ‘lucs’, the Latin for light, helping us to understand her meaning that she is the way of light. So she has this very particular significance during the winter. In the ‘Golden Legend’, we’re told right from the start that the most important element of her story is that she was a very chaste virgin and that she vowed to retain her virginity. She refused to be married and she decided to give away her dowry instead and in fact her intended… she had been betrothed to one suitor and when he finds out that she’s happily giving away what’s going to become his wealth, he’s not too happy. So he reports her to the authorities and she is rounded up and tortured and there’s this really rather surprising account of how when she’s being dragged away, her body is filled with the holy spirit and she becomes so heavy that she’s rooted to the ground. They bring 1,000 men to drag her away and they can’t manage it. Then they bring 1,000 oxen, but still she’s unmoveable and she dies there on the spot.

James Heard: I’m actually rather puzzled because reading the section on Saint Lucy it doesn’t mention what I see in the painting, which is this lady holding a plate with her eyes.

Karly Allen: We can see that Lucy in fact has two pairs of eyes in this painting, painted very differently. One set, sitting on the plate, as James mentioned, and the other gazing heavenwards, so her eyes are very distinctive; she glances upwards out of the painting, whilst sort of offering up this plate. And because of Lucy’s connection with light, and seeing the light and vision, a lot of legends arose around this theme of her eyes and her eyes being removed, and it is very interesting that in fact in the ‘Golden Legend’, for some reason, the compiler decided to edit this out, which is strange when we think of how many paintings there are of Saint Lucy, and this is her emblem, this is her attribute, her eyes on a plate.

James Heard: So now we’re actually going to look at a painting that’s peopled with saints. It’s a painting by Moretto – who was a follower of Titian really, in that he works in a Titianesque style. It’s a very large altarpiece, and right at the top of the painting, identifiable very easily, is Mary with Jesus. But we’re not going to talk about all of these saints. There’s one in the corner, the right-hand corner, wearing a bishop’s mitre and cope, but it’s what’s in his hands that has intrigued Karly Allen.

Karly Allen: Saint Nicholas we’re told in the ‘Golden Legend’ became the Bishop of Myra and this is why he’s represented in bishops’ robes, but as James said, he’s holding out his hand to us and in his palm are three gold balls. This relates to the stories of Saint Nicholas as a bringer of gifts. He’s best remembered today in his new form – if you take the name of Saint Nicholas in Dutch, ‘Sinta Klaus’, which is very close, of course, to ‘Santa Clause’ – but in the ‘Golden Legend’ we’re told that Saint Nicholas, a wealthy man, decided to give away his wealth. He was looking for ways to put his money to good use and he wanted to give money to the poor. He learns of a neighbour who has lost all his money and has three daughters and therefore has no money for their dowry – they will remain unmarried and he’s forced to send them into prostitution. Saint Nicholas decides to help this man by throwing a bag of money into their window and we’re told, well there are different versions – one is that he throws one bag for three consecutive nights, another story is that because there were three daughters then therefore three little bags of gold coins were sent through the window, so this is where we get the three balls from.

So here we have a saint that’s particularly connected to Christmas time and his saint’s day is on 6 December which is traditionally a period of celebration for children. He’s the patron saint of children. Together with Lucy, whose saint’s day is also in December, they really represent this period of thanksgiving and celebration – we have processions in the name of both those saints and of course Nicholas in particular has this strong connection with Christmas Day itself.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Karly Allen and James Heard. If you’d like to see the works they were discussing for yourself, come along to the Gallery: you’ll find Saint Nicholas in Moretto’s ‘The Madonna and Child with Saint Bernardino’, and Saint Lucy in Crivelli’s ‘Demidoff Altarpiece’. And if you’d like to get up on your 13th-century symbolism, you might like to know that copies of the ‘Golden Legend’ are available in Gallery shops. Reprinted, of course.

That’s it for this time. More news throughout the month on our website – – where you can also download past episodes of the show. We’ll be back in the new year, so until then, happy holidays, and goodbye!