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Episode 28

The National Gallery Podcast

In the February 2009 podcast, Picasso takes on past masters at our latest exhibition. Plus find out more about Tintoretto's creation myths, and Kenneth Clark's 'Civilisation' at 40.

19 min 56 sec | February 2009

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

Karly Allen: I think my favourite account comes from Menelaus, the ancient Roman author, who compiled various explanations for the appearance of the Milky Way. He writes that the Milky Way is in fact a seam running across the sky. It’s the point at which the two halves of heaven are stitched together, and what we’re looking at is a bright light just visible through that seam.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We get to grips with the mythological 'Origin of the Milky Way' with a little help from Tintoretto. And we celebrate the anniversary of Kenneth Clark’s 'Civilisation’, one of the most influential arts documentaries ever broadcast on TV.

'Picasso: Challenging the Past'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with news of our next big show, devoted to arguably the most influential artist of the 20th century. Opening at the end of this month, the Picasso exhibition, as its subtitle, Challenging the Past, suggests, will explore Pablo Picasso’s intense relationship with the great masters of European painting. The work of Goya, Velázquez, Rembrandt and others formed a source book that Picasso dipped into again and again, taking up the artistic concerns of painters long dead and responding to them in audacious ways. It was an intense bond that, as Leah Kharibian now reports, was characterised as much by fierce rivalry as inspiration.

Leah Kharibian: For many of us, the name Pablo Picasso is synonymous with modern art. But the new exhibition at the National Gallery acknowledges a truth that’s been a matter of study among Picasso scholars for many years: that Picasso’s art – indeed Picasso’s whole personality and sense of self as an artist – was inextricably bound up with the Old Masters and the art of the museums. The Picasso expert and contributor to the catalogue, Elizabeth Cowling.

Elizabeth Cowling: Picasso seems never to have regarded the artists of the past as belonging to the past. When he went into a museum I think he probably felt that he was viewing a whole series of extraordinarily different options. He was not going in a spirit of, as it were, respect, and he certainly wasn’t thinking that ‘X’ was dead and could have no more meaning for him. On the contrary, I think that maybe he felt that the artists of the past were even more useful than contemporary artists, because with a contemporary artist there was a sense of fear in a way of following that artist, imitating something that the contemporary artist had just done and becoming a follower rather than a leader. Whereas going to dead artists, you had a great sense of freedom of interpretation. 

Leah Kharibian: Picasso’s evident sense of freedom within the Western art tradition is a remarkable thing that emerges from the exhibition. What other painters felt to be a straightjacket was Picasso’s source of liberation. In the last room of the show, for example, there’s a wonderful gathering of works produced when Picasso was in his seventies – an ambitious series of large-scale variations of works by past masters.  

Elizabeth Cowling: In interviews that he gave to close friends in the latter part of his career, he would talk about being in his studio with the artists of the past standing behind him watching him working, discussing and debating with him what he was actually doing. His head was, as it were, full of these Old Master paintings and ideas about the artists themselves who’d executed them. 

Leah Kharibian: But there’s a darker side to Picasso’s passionate hero-worship. Elizabeth Cowling.   

Elizabeth Cowling: Picasso’s attitude to the art of the past was never very straightforwardly respectful. When he went into a museum searching perhaps for inspiration, there was an element of competitiveness and the artists that he loved stimulated him, but he also felt jealous of them. There’s a famous quotation when he’s speaking of Delacroix when he says, ‘That bastard, he’s really good’ and that sums it up. He looks at Delacroix and he thinks, ‘I’m not sure that I can do that’.  

Leah Kharibian: Of course, on one level, Picasso could ‘do that’. From his earliest years he showed an extraordinary capacity to mimic other artists’ styles. In one of the pictures he made in his teens, called ‘Face in the Style of El Greco’, we see him trying his hand at an artist he would admire his whole life. A work attributed to the 17th-century master El Greco in the National Gallery shows the same elongated, anxious features, sunken cheeks, and feathery facial hair. But mastering someone else’s style was never enough for him. 

Elizabeth Cowling: Picasso’s sense of identification with artists sometimes took the form of imitating their signatures, for example. He might on a sketch page imitate Goya’s signature, you get streams of them, or Daumier. He also might say, ‘Yo El Greco’ (’I am El Greco’). It went that far, that sense of identification, inhabiting the artist, entering into the personality of the artist as well as into the personality of the work. It’s a sort of cannibalistic approach. If you enter into another artist’s work, you almost absorb it. Like a cannibal you’re taking over the power of that work and making it your own.

Leah Kharibian: The National Gallery exhibition throws light on so many different aspects of Picasso’s relationship to the past. But even for an artist of seemingly boundless energy – he reportedly exhausted everyone around him with his sheer intensity – there were limits. As the years progressed Picasso visited museums and exhibitions less and less.

Elizabeth Cowling: One of the reasons for this may have been a sense of being overwhelmed by all these great masters. How could he absorb them all, they all were so brilliant in their different ways. So he ended up perhaps by having to concentrate on favourites – Delacroix, Ingres, Cézanne, Poussin, Goya, Rembrandt and so on – rather than taking on everything because of this need to absorb, take into himself, use and also trump the art of the past.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Elizabeth Cowling. 'Picasso: Challenging the Past' is sponsored by Credit Suisse, and opens on 25 February. Book now to avoid disappointment. Tickets are already on sale from the Gallery, or online with a booking fee at And you might also like to know that Elizabeth Cowling and podcast regular, Chris Riopelle, will feature on the exhibition audio guide. More of which next month.

'The Origin of the Milky Way'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): In some ways, paintings are snapshots of other times. They tell us how people lived, dressed and relaxed, and bring us face-to-face with ghosts: farm hands at work in a picture by Constable, a Parisian waitress captured by Manet. And beyond this material detail, paintings are also a visual record of the stories used by past generations to make sense of the world. Many of our best loved pictures are based on such myths, including a work by a Venetian artist that explains how one of the most distinctive features in our night sky came into being. Karly Allen, of the Education team, told me more about Tintoretto’s Origin of the Milky Way.

Karly Allen: In the painting, set against a brilliant blue background, Jupiter, god of the skies is sweeping in from above, his red robe billowing in the wind and his eagle at his side, clutching thunderbolts. Jupiter is supporting his infant son, Hercules, born out of an illicit liaison with a mere mortal woman from earth, and so Jupiter is really very keen that he’s able to give the gift of immortality to his new child and he knows that the only way to do that is if the baby Hercules can drink the milk of a goddess. Rather conveniently, as we see here, the closest goddess to Jupiter is his wife Juno, and Tintoretto shows us Juno as this voluptuous nude reclining on a bed of silks and pearls high up in the clouds and we’re told in the story that Juno was sleeping and Jupiter hoped to creep up on her and allow the baby Hercules to suckle her unnoticed, but of course, not surprisingly, what we see here in the painting is Juno startled by this unexpected child at her breast and she jolts awake and as she draws back the milk sprays up into the night sky and forms the stars of the Milky Way.

Miranda Hinkley: And if you look closely at the canvas you can see the faint white lines of the milk going up into the sky, but there’s some more milk from the other breast going downwards and it almost looks as if it’s going down towards some figures at the bottom.

Karly Allen: That’s right. Well, what’s interesting about this painting is that it doesn’t just tell one creation myth, it makes reference to others. So in fact the real subject of the picture is not just the origin of the Milky Way – the title is only really known from the 19th century – but if we were able to see the picture when it was new, it was much larger, and at the bottom of the painting there was another reclining figure down on earth and the milk from Juno’s other breast is coming straight down, crashing down to earth, and where it lands, a new flower springs up and that’s the explanation for the first milk-white lily.

Miranda Hinkley: A-ha! And if you actually look at the bottom right-hand part of the picture you can still see perhaps a little bit of that original background. There are some sort of plants at the bottom.

Karly Allen: You can just make out a few green leaves, which look a little bit incongruous given that we believe ourselves to be up in the sky, but if we could see the rest of the picture we’d understand that this is just a last remnant of those plants that Tintoretto originally painted in and much of that detail has now been overpainted by clouds.

Miranda Hinkley: So this painting is actually packed with origin myths?

Karly Allen: It’s incredibly dramatic and inventive which makes it such a great subject for Tintoretto – his mastery of movement and colour and drama. But it’s also a reminder of how the Milky Way itself has served as a powerful source of inspiration for creation myths worldwide. It’s really interesting to look at some of these legends from other cultures. Many of them use very poetic language and pick up on this idea of the Milky Way as being a pathway, a route across the sky. In many East Asian countries including China and Japan, the Milky Way is described as a river, the silver river of heaven, and in one related story, we’re told that it divided two lovers. We’re told that they were only able to meet up once a year when a flock of birds would come together to create a bridge over the celestial waters across the sky.

I think my favourite account comes from Menelaus, the Ancient Roman author, who compiled various explanations for the appearance of the Milky Way. He writes that the Milky Way is in fact a seam running across the sky. It’s the point at which the two halves of heaven are stitched together, and what we’re looking at is a bright light just visible through that seam. 

Miranda Hinkley: And, of course, this is a fantastic kind of record of ancient mythology…

Karly Allen: Well, in just one painting we’ve got a reference to not only the Western European tradition but I think it does remind us of this great heritage, this shared enthusiasm across cultures for myth-making and great storytelling. Tintoretto is such a good storyteller and so the painting really celebrates through colour and movement and beautiful human form that sort of innate curiosity and is really a lasting record of a lost belief system.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Karly Allen. Tintoretto’s 'Origin of the Milky Way' is our painting of the month, and the star of a range of afternoon and evening talks, many of which are free. If you’re planning a trip to the Gallery, why not come along – you’ll find all the details on our website.

Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Forty years ago this month saw the first airing of a TV series that was to become a landmark in arts journalism. Written and presented by a former director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark, the BBC’s 'Civilisation' offered a panoramic history of Western art, architecture and philosophy. The first UK documentary series broadcast in colour, it was to prove highly influential – an example that subsequent cultural commentary has imitated and challenged, but rarely ignored. This month, we mark the anniversary of its first broadcast with a special study day at the Gallery. Attendees will include Sir David Attenborough, who commissioned the programme as the then head of BBC2; A.A. Gill, the son of the series’ director; the historian and presenter, Simon Schama; and the current National Gallery Director, Nick Penny. Leah Kharibian met the event’s convenor, Jonathan Conlin, to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Jonathan, we’re here in the projection room of the Sainsbury Wing Theatre where this study day is due to take place, and I have to say, you’ve got the most illustrious line up of speakers taking part. I mean, obviously, even 40 years on, Kenneth Clark is still a hot topic of debate, and I just wondered if you could begin for those who are unfamiliar with the series by describing what’s so special about it?

Jonathan Conlin: Well, the series was the first of a format that we’ve come to associate with the BBC of a series of multi-episode author documentaries where an established figure confidently leads you through a scientific or historical or artistic subject. Sir Kenneth Clark was really the first person; he took as his subject the development of civilisation in predominantly Western Europe, from the end of the Roman Empire to the so-called Dark Ages, right up to what was then contemporary events – the first flight of Concorde for example is shown at the end of the last episode.

Leah Kharibian: And it is an amazingly ambitious project, isn’t it?

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, I mean the budget allocated at the time was unprecedentedly massive. The BBC was very proud of having just made the technological spring to colour and so they threw this massive budget at Kenneth Clark. He visited over 117 locations; the crew covered 80,000 miles in their two-year journey, a pilgrimage really, around the sites of Western civilisation, so it was a massive and very ambitious endeavour.

Leah Kharibian: The series itself though, for all this spectacular quality was not without its critics, was it? His style of presenting could actually sometimes be quite abrasive, quite up-front and confrontational.

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, we see him throwing down the gauntlet, throwing down a challenge to the viewers and to modern society, issuing a challenge that we must recognise, rather than seeking to treat as a joke, or treat ironically, ideas of truth and virtue that civilisation has endowed us with.

Leah Kharibian: So his ideas about beauty, his ideas about the need to get back to civilisation… but it was just one civilisation, wasn’t it – it wasn’t a multicultural view of society at all.

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, we tend to be nervous of using civilisation as a word in the singular, we tend to see it as a word that can be used almost in an anthropological sense – there is an Aztec civilisation, even if they practiced human sacrifice, well it’s still a civilisation. Clark was obviously using it in the more absolute sense – something that is above historical time, that is, as it were, universal and has universal values and importance.

Leah Kharibian: Now, the book that you’ve written that will be accompanying the study day and also the screenings at the National Gallery, and also a whole series of events at the British Film Institute – you argue that in the attempt to get away from the Clarkian model of the art programme, other presenters more recently have taken a different route that you think is more problematic.

Jonathan Conlin: In the years after ‘Civilisation’, the model that Clark had established was followed quite closely by Alistair Cooke in his series, 'America’, and Bronowski in 'The Ascent of Man'. I think following on from that there was a trend much more towards doing arts programming in terms of a biographical focus on the lives of the artists, focusing on the artists and dramatic episodes, often reproduced through costume drama and those sort of filmic treatments…

Leah Kharibian: Yes, lots of clanking around with lit torches, candles, that sort of thing…

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, men… Caravaggio waving swords at the camera… Then the problem becomes that you’re very much borrowing a trope, that if anything has become rather tired, of the artist as the outsider, as the rebel. I think that’s become a rather unhelpful crutch for a lot of arts broadcasting, and indeed other kinds of writing about art.

Leah Kharibian: And so from that point of view, do you think that overall television has actually served art very well? I mean when we come to a gallery, we don’t have all the CGI, we don’t have the shamanistic presenter with the lamp leading us through ‘tableaux vivants’, we don’t have all that – is it a case that we become disappointed with just the simple encounter of ourselves and a work of art?

Jonathan Conlin: Yes, I think that’s certainly the problem if you’ve seen a programme about Caravaggio and heard about his murder rap sheet and everything else and you go and see some of his paintings, especially if you’re used to seeing… another thing that films often do, documentaries as well, is focus on rapid cross-cutting between details of a particular painting and that’s something that when you see the whole it can indeed be rather disappointing. You have to then, through your own personal imagination and engagement, try to create your own dramas.

I think one of the things that the more low-tech, less CGI model of TV broadcasting about art, which involves a presenter walking around a gallery – something that we’ve seen with Andrew Graham-Dixon and with Matthew Collings – I still think there is something genuinely useful in that model, a way of teaching us to engage, to walk up and down, and repeatedly return to the same work of art and wrestle with it.

Leah Kharibian: So do we need more Kenneth Clarks or do we need actually just ourselves to slow down and look more?

Jonathan Conlin: Well, I think those two things are more or less the same thing. Clark is there in the programme – he’s proposing ideas, throwing out questions for us to consider, but then, he’s very much taking a step back and allowing us to get on with the work that is justly ours.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jonathan Conlin. If we’ve piqued your curiosity, you can download an extract from 'Civilisation' as a bonus track with this podcast, or better still, come along to the Gallery. The ‘Back to Civilisation’ study day takes place on Saturday 21 February (tickets are available online), and we’re showing an episode of the TV series every Wednesday at 1pm from 25 February. Jonathan Conlin’s book is out now from the BFI, and the series is also available on DVD from 2entertain.

That’s it for this episode. The National Gallery is open from 10 till 6 daily and 10 till 9 on Wednesdays, until 27 February when our late night becomes Friday. More on that next month… Until when, goodbye!