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Episode 27

The National Gallery Podcast

In the January 2009 podcast, Hear about new acquistions at the Gallery by Monet and Gauguin. Plus learn about the journey of ultramarine through the ages, and find out how to get more from your cultural life.

18 min 35 sec | January 2009

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

Philip Ball: It was precious because it was extremely costly and the reason for that primarily was because it came from a long way away… it was very hard to get hold of. At that time there was only one known source and that was some mines in a place called Badakhshan in what is now Afghanistan, so they were very remote.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): In this month’s episode, author and chemist Philip Ball on one of the art world’s most precious pigments, ultramarine. And…
Sophie Haworth: We all have in our heads, or we might make it in a scrapbook or on a blog, some kind of a museum without walls which is our way of accumulating those artworks which, for whatever reason, mean something to us, and sort of carrying them round with us as we go about our everyday lives as a sort of talisman or support or as inspiration.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): … how to get the most from your cultural life.

Sainsbury Request

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But first, introductions… we’d like you to meet three new works in our collection. They’re the bequest of the late Simon Sainsbury, fourth-generation member of the grocery dynasty, businessman, philanthropist and the National Gallery’s life-long devotee. A great art collector, Sainsbury amassed a wealth of pictures during his lifetime with the specific intention of one day giving many of them to the Gallery. Three of those works – two Monets and an early Gauguin – have now arrived, and will be on display together throughout January until they’re dispersed to permanent positions among the rest of the collection next month. Leah Kharibian went to meet curator Chris Riopelle to consider how these Impressionist masterpieces are going to fit into their new home.

Leah Kharibian: Chris, the three pictures of the Sainsbury bequest range in date from 1875 to we think 1907, and they take us through the key stages of the Impressionist enterprise, don’t they?

Chris Riopelle: Yes, as you say, they range over some 30 years or more, show the formative years of Impressionism, with an early Monet, then show Gauguin in a Post-Impressionist moment doing a great still life, and then returning to a second Monet in the early years of the 20th century where he’s painting in his garden at Giverney, his last great cycle of paintings.

Leah Kharibian: And if we take a closer look at Monet’s snow scene at Argenteuil, I’m really fascinated as to how you see this picture fitting in with the other works already in the National Gallery’s collection.

Chris Riopelle: Well, the winter of 1874–5, which was a famously snowy winter at Argenteuil to the west of Paris, where Monet was living, was a moment when he painted 18 snow scenes. This is the biggest of them all and one in which he captures that sense of an envelope of atmosphere that he’d been trying to achieve with his Impressionist pictures.

Leah Kharibian: And what about its tonality – I’m quite intrigued as to how you’re going to hang it, because this picture is almost monochrome, sort of icy blues and whites… it’s a very strong and as you say, large, picture, is it going to knock out everything else on the walls that you put next to it?

Chris Riopelle: It is a particularly bright picture. We have two other snow scenes, one by Sisley, that will hang by it; the other one is also by Monet of about four years later. In that snow scene, all the snow is pink, so it will set up a very interesting contrast.

Leah Kharibian: And when we get onto the Gauguin… this is quite a sort of early, early-ish Gauguin and I’m interested again as to how you’re going to hang that, how it will affect the collection once you bring it in…

Chris Riopelle: The Gauguin is one of the artist’s most important still-life paintings of his period in Brittany, but it was painted under the direct influence of the art of Cézanne. He was trying to learn what Cézanne was doing – he was looking at a Cézanne still life he owned, so what you have in a picture like that is a dialogue with the absent Cézanne, so we can hang it beside the unfinished still life by Cézanne we have on loan from Tate, and we can hang it beside the Tahitian flower still life by Gauguin, painted about five, maybe six, years later that up until now has been our only work by that painter.

Leah Kharibian: It’s really interested that you’ve got them here together. It’s wonderful watching the way in which his touch develops; how his palette also develops.

Chris Riopelle: Yes, already in the still life in Brittany, he has achieved a kind of resonance of colour, and a startling range of colours that was quite new for him at this point.

Leah Kharibian: And when it comes to colour, the late Monet is a real… well, it sort of zaps the eye, these extraordinary limey greens and carmine reds…

Chris Riopelle: It is a very strong picture and what is most particularly strong about it is the difficulty, the complication of the composition. You’re looking down into the water, but you’re seeing reflections in the water, reflections of the setting sun, even more difficult at first to comprehend, you have the reflection of a weeping willow tree seen upside down, but you don’t see the tree itself, so it takes you a few minutes to figure out what exactly you’re looking at, but as you slowly figure out what it is, it sort of pops into place and you see how masterful a capturing of that particular corner of his garden at Giverney it is.

Leah Kharibian: It’s wonderful, but I mean getting three pictures like this, of this sort of quality, I mean this must be a little bit, for a curator, like winning the lottery.

Chris Riopelle: It is, it’s a wonderful moment for the collection. The three pictures incredibly deepen what we’re able to show and say about French avant-garde painting at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Curator Chris Riopelle talking to Leah Kharibian. If you’d like to see the three new paintings for yourself, come along to the Gallery; they’re on display together throughout the month in room 42 and entry is free. 

History of ultramarine

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One of the most celebrated and sought after pigments through the ages has been ultramarine, a vivid blue colourant originally derived from lapis lazuli. Take a walk through the National Gallery and you can follow the changes in its use from the medieval period to the present day as I discovered earlier, when I met up with chemist and author Philip Ball.

First stop on our tour was 'The Virgin and Child with Saints', an altarpiece by Duccio, which is dominated by the Virgin Mary swathed in an intense blue robe. As we looked at the 14th-century masterpiece, I asked Philip why ultramarine was so prized in the medieval age.

Philip Ball: It was precious because it was extremely costly and the reason for that primarily was that it came from a very long way away… it was very hard to get hold of. At that time there was only one known source and that was some mines in a place called Badakhshan in what is now Afghanistan, so they were very remote. And in these mines, a certain sort of stone could be found which was called lapis lazuli, and that’s the source of the blue pigment. And so to extract the blue pigment was a very laborious process that involved making the powder and then mixing it up with wax and oils and resins to make a kind of dough and then you had to kneed this dough in water repeatedly again and again and gradually the blue stuff within it flushed out into the water and that eventually settled to the bottom and could be dried and extracted.

So in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you see it being used only for the most precious parts of a painting. So in religious iconography, it’s very very common to see as here, the virgin painted in blue robes and that was, in a sense… that was a reflection of the fact that materials were considered then to almost be imbued with a certain sort of spiritual quality… that if you used precious materials in a painting, then you were creating something that was going to have more power as a devotional offering to God.

Miranda Hinkley: So you wanted to show me this Titian, Philip, which is ‘The Aldobrandini Madonna’, and there’s quite a lot of blue in this painting, but it looks quite different to the blue we were looking at before.

Philip Ball: That’s right. There’s a lot of sky and blue mountain-scape, which is painted in one of the cheaper blues, in this case azurite, but the Madonna here is again in blue robes, and again this is ultramarine, but it looks quite different from the Duccio painting. It’s much, much lighter. And the reason for that is during the Middle Ages and the early part of the Renaissance, to bind your pigment, primarily they used egg yolk, whereas Titian is using oils, and if you mix ultramarine, the pigment, in oil, it looks somewhat different; it looks in particular quite a bit more translucent, so if you’re concerned to get a strongly opaque blue, then you have to mix it with other pigments, you have to mix it with white, and here Titian’s used quite a lot of white with the ultramarine and the blue looks much, much lighter; in fact much more like he’s really, I think, concerned with mimicking the appearance of silk – so mimicking the appearance of an expensive material rather than simply laying down ultramarine in a sort of slab, if you like, and letting that speak for itself.

So, as painters started to use oils, they found that they had to change the way that they used ultramarine and other pigments, and they had to start, if you like, adulterating it with other pigments, and to use a lighter range of blues as a result. And that that had the consequence of changing not only the kind of blues that we see, but also of starting to erode the mystique that ultramarine had as a precious pigment, because if you’re applying it more or less pure, then you’re making a statement about the materials that you’ve used, the expense of those, and the role that that expense has in being a devotional offering, whereas you’re applying it here where it doesn’t look like the ultramarine that you’re so familiar with, then you’re not really making that statement anymore, you’re simply looking for a nice blue. 

Miranda Hinkley: Well, here we are in the Impressionist room and we’re surrounded by Van Goghs and Cézannes… I mean, the blues here are just a world away from the blue that we looked at before.

Philip Ball: Well, that’s right, and there are many reasons for that. In the 19th century, a whole range of new blues became available, most prominently the pigment known as cobalt blue. So it became much easier for artists to achieve the sort of bright blues that ultramarine offered. But all the same, they still wanted something that would give them the real appearance of ultramarine – in fact, they wanted ultramarine itself, they just wanted it at a cheaper price. And so 19th-century chemists set out to make it. It took painters a little while to trust it. To begin with they sort of had the prejudice that natural ultramarine had to be better in some way, but gradually they came round to the idea that synthetic ultramarine was as good as the natural material, and we see here the painting by Van Gogh, 'The Wheatfield with Cypresses', where he’s used it in his sky… you wouldn’t know that it was ultramarine here, the sky looks a fairly sort of pale, washed out blue, and this goes to show how routine it became for painters to use this stuff, and they didn’t really have to make a big deal…
Miranda Hinkley: And so really by this point, blue isn’t something that’s particularly special anymore, it’s just another colour in the palette. I mean, presumably, if you really wanted to you could go out and get synthetic ultramarine and paint your bedroom bright blue.

Philip Ball: You could! I guess we’ve kind of lost the aesthetic that would tend to make us do that… we would see that as incredibly garish. But it’s true that, you know, we take bright colours like that for granted now. But there are some artists who I think still retained a sense that colour and materials have some intrinsic sort of value to them, almost a spiritual value to them, and you can see that in the way that Yves Klein used blue. Ultramarine blue, the famous Klein blue, is simply ultramarine, but what he noticed and what you notice as soon as you see this stuff as a pigment is that as a dry pigment it’s incredibly deep and lustrous and it’s very hard to capture that in a paint. He wanted to try to do that and he worked with a Parisian chemicals manufacturer to find a binder that would bind ultramarine without destroying that lustre. So that’s what he came up with and that’s basically what international Klein blue is that he covered all these objects with. And he had a sense that I think harks back to medieval times that was celebrating the materials, the materiality of the paint, rather than simply thinking of it as a colour that you could put on canvas or whatever. It was a kind of illustration that materials were important.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Philip Ball, whose book 'Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour', is available in Gallery shops.

Making the most of the Gallery

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One of the age-old questions asked about culture is, what’s the point? What relevance has a play by Shakespeare or a painting by Titian in 2009? A lot, believes Sophie Howarth, this month’s final interviewee. She’s director of the School of Life, an organisation that raids film, art, literature, music and philosophy to bring us good ideas about everyday living. When I spoke to her earlier, I began by asking whether a visit to the Gallery can really transform the way we live our lives.

Sophie Howarth: Well certainly I’m interested in how our lives outside the museum and inside the museum can be porous. So in a sense when we come here… we never come as blank canvases to use the pun. Either we come on a Wednesday evening when it’s open late and we’re still full of the baggage of the office or we come and we’re worried that we’re going to lose our kids halfway round the museum. And similarly when we leave, we want to take a bit of the museum with us, we want to take some of that sanctuary, but also some of the characters, and one of the ideas that I thought I wanted to talk about today was the idea of a ‘musée imaginaire’, which is something that André Malraux came up with in the 1930s, which was this idea that we all have in our heads, or we might make it in a scrapbook or in a blog, some kind of a museum without walls, which is our way of accumulating those artworks which for whatever reason mean something to us and sort of carrying them round with us as we go about our everyday lives and sort of carrying them round with us as a sort of talisman or a support or just as an inspiration.

Miranda Hinkley: So it sounds like the musée imaginaire is probably something that we all have going on whether we realise it or not… I mean, it’s that lovely postcard that you couldn’t bring yourself to bin, stuck to the fridge, or the scrap of a wrapper or something… I’ve got a chocolate wrapper that has a really beautiful design of cherry blossoms on it that I just couldn’t bring myself to throw away.

Sophie Haworth: Well, I love that spirit, that it’s high art and low art. I collect food packets and I adore them in my kitchen, and also I think photographs can be there, and for many other people it’s probably as much an audio museum or a museum of fragments of literature, as it is a visual museum. For me it’s definitely visual because I suppose that’s where I draw a lot of my inspiration, and I do love the fact that, as you say, we have these wonderful things called postcards of which I hoard thousands and thousands.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve all sort of got our own version of the musée imaginaire and maybe after listening to this some of us will go away and add a few more things to it and think about it in a slightly more sort of objective way. What do you do with that material afterwards? How do you really engage with it? How do you make it have an impact on your life?

Sophie Haworth: Well, I think we turn to art works for a range of reasons. I think we turn to them when we’re feeling in need of recognition that someone else felt the same way that we do. When we’re wondering about those questions… you know… how do…. why did I fall in love with that person? How did I become obsessed by that person? How do I please my parents? Where do I get my opinions from? So some of the enduring questions that we turn over again and again and that sort of keep us awake at night. And if we think about art works as really our inheritance of other people churning over those questions as well, and sometimes it might be a detail in an artwork. So I often find that living in a city, I find it quite difficult when I go out into the countryside to try and make that step to engaging with what’s happening… and then I think about some of the details… perhaps a leaf drawn by Dürer, or a particular fragment of a poem by Wordsworth, where you really felt that they gave time and attention to a tiny natural detail and it helped them to engage with it. And so sometimes bits from our ‘musée imaginaire’ come back to the fore, and sometimes a detail, or sometimes a reinterpretation of a painting…

We’ve often had that moment where we thought that something meant one thing and then we saw it in a completely different light because somehow in our own life we engaged with a different emotional register, because somebody hurt our feelings or we got terribly envious or we felt full of anxiety about our relationships with a colleague, for example, and then we can often see those things echoed, and I think that’s why we treasure the paintings here in the National Gallery because they do speak to us all about the full range of human emotions and because they do offer us a set of characters, both the artists and also the characters they’ve drawn, who are in many ways dealing with the same things that we’re dealing with. You know the really, really enduring questions of how to live, for which we never really might find a single answer, but which our everyday lives are our version of answering.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sophie Howarth from the School of Life. If you’d like to add some works to your own 'musée imaginaire '– or just buy some postcards for the fridge – come along to the Gallery . We’re open from 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Wednesdays, until the end of February, when our late night becomes Friday. And don’t forget that this month is also your last chance to see the 'Renaissance Faces' exhibition, which closes on 18 January. You can buy tickets from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at An audio guide is available.

We’ll be back in February with news of a major retrospective of Picasso’s work – book now to avoid disappointment. Until next month – goodbye!