The National Gallery Podcast
Gallery news, including the new Tim Gardner exhibition and Frank Skinner's pick of the collection, plus interactive sound art.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello and welcome to the third in our series of monthly podcasts from the National Gallery, London. I’m Miranda Hinkley, and over the next 15 minutes I’ll be bringing you news on a selection of exhibitions and events taking place at the Gallery in January. First up:
Frank Skinner: ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’, I guess is the old thing… and I really like those five paintings, and I hope you liked at least one of them, and honestly, I would very much recommend this place…
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): He came, he saw, he had a surprising amount to say about art! Comedian Frank Skinner came to the galleries to celebrate the joys of free entry to museums and gave a tour of his favourite works from the collection. Plus, we’ll be hearing from young Canadian artist Tim Gardner about his new exhibition at the Gallery. And I’ll be experiencing the art of noise with sound artists David Toop, Scanner and Martyn Ware, and offering you the chance to create a piece of sound of your own to be played in a future podcast.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The National has always championed free entry to its permanent collection so this December it celebrated the fifth anniversary of free entry to many of the capital’s major museums and galleries by enlisting the support of an unexpected fan. Better known for his comedy and worship of football, Frank Skinner – as I discovered when I met him – also turns out to be a devoted art lover and a passionate believer in keeping entry to Britain’s galleries and museums free for all.
Frank Skinner: Ok, now this is my kind of painting; I love a battle scene because there’s always loads in it.
Miranda Hinkley: Out of the paintings you chose today, which one is the most important to you?
Frank Skinner: Well, the trouble is it’s tempting to say the Leonardo because it’s Leonardo and I always try to fight that urge. Although I was saying earlier that I think the whole celebrity thing when you go to an art gallery is fine – it’s ok to get excited because it’s Leonardo. I love the fact that it’s rough – that it isn’t finished, that it wasn’t intended for public display, that it’s a kind of work in progress from Leonardo – you feel like you’re getting to a secret place.
Miranda Hinkley: Four out of those five paintings were from the Quattrocento, or early Renaissance period. Was that a conscious decision?
Frank Skinner: It wasn’t – I didn’t know that until you just told me. I find that I do tend to like, I very much like church pieces and stuff like that and religious themes mainly ‘cos they’re a bit magic. There’s a thing here – I think it’s ‘Mystic Nativity’, do you know that one? – which I very nearly chose. And it’s the Nativity scene but it’s loads of angels, it’s an absolute angel-fest, there’s angels dancing round the bar, and you look up and you get, like, a view of heaven and the angels are all dancing in the streets in heaven. It’s like a massive party because Jesus is born. And I love the kind of weirdness of that, the magic of it.
The interesting thing about that painting as well is that Joseph looks really done in, you know the way expectant fathers go through it, especially when you think it isn’t your child – I suppose that’s particularly tough. And he wasn’t really in a position where he could go and beat up the father. He’d have stood no chance. And he looks, if you look at him in that painting, he looks so forlorn and down, while there are all these angels dancing… I feel really… it really changed my opinion of Joseph, that painting. I’ve never really thought about him before as a key figure. It must have been tough for him. But I think you only get that kind of stuff out of paintings if you look at them for ages. And I think there’s a temptation to go to an art gallery and see how many you can squeeze in. And I… unless I’m doing an exhibition when I’ll try and do the whole exhibition, but even if I do an exhibition, the last couple of rooms I’m often flagging a bit… I find it incredibly tiring, trying to look at it properly. So I’d recommend that people just do, like, half a dozen paintings, certainly at first. I’ve been here and just looked at one and then gone home – otherwise it’s like speed-dating. You know, when you go and talk to someone for two minutes, you’re not really going to get to know that person, or have any idea of what they’re like.
Miranda Hinkley: If there was one painting in the Gallery that you could take home with you, which one would it be?
Frank Skinner: If I was going to hang one on my wall, I think if we just forget about the cost of it, I think it would be the one I looked at today which was the ‘Allegorical Figure’, just because I find it an incredibly sexy bird, if you like, to make it a bit like the ‘Likely Lads’ terminology. And I think it’s great that somebody can look… can contain sex appeal over 500 or 600 years like that, and it’s a great one to have on your wall I think because it’s an incredibly rich painting, and she’s just a babe.
Miranda Hinkley: There’s a big London derby going on, what can we suggest to people to pull them away from that and get them into the Gallery on Saturday afternoon?
Frank Skinner: Well, on Saturday afternoon, I shall be watching West Bromwich Albion play Derby, so it may be you’ve asked the wrong person there. I’m not saying that art’s better than football, for God’s sake! I am saying it’s good to have a life where you… as I will be doing… you can go to a football match and catch an art gallery that morning. It’s not poncey, or tragic, or something that just posh people do. Mainly posh people do do it, but then we should try and… that should be reclaimed. It is the National Gallery, so I suppose everybody’s kind of paid for it – they might as well come and have a look. I still think it’s not… one of the things that they’re talking about today, is that it’s been free to get into galleries for five years. I still think a lot of people don’t know it’s free to get in, and I think if people knew it was free, they might be a bit more prepared to give it a risk.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Comedian Frank Skinner talking about Leonardo’s ‘The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist’, Tura’s ‘Allegorical Figure’, and Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’. If you’d like to see these works for yourself, they’re all on display here at the National Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next up: born in 1973, Canadian artist Tim Gardner first broke onto the art scene in 2000. Since then he’s won international acclaim for his exquisitely crafted photorealist watercolours and pastels. Invited to spend some time at the National at the end of 2005, Gardner has a show of 20 new works opening at the Gallery on 17 January. We spoke to him at his studio on Vancouver Island, but first we asked the curator of the show, Chris Riopelle, why the Gallery chose an artist best known for paintings based on snapshots of everyday North American life.
Chris Riopelle: We were interested in showing Tim Gardner at the National Gallery because of the way in which his images address the great themes of Old Master paintings, and addresses them in a way that is almost invisible.
Tim Gardner: Mainly I focus on the most immediate subject matter, so it’s just elements of my life and people and experiences, places that are close to me… and it’s just about looking at who I am through, sort of, where I’ve been… the experiences I’ve had.
Chris Riopelle: You really have to look long and hard to understand that even though he is working from very banal, everyday images of contemporary life, nonetheless he’s investing them with a kind and a level of significance that a great Old Master painter would recognise, and that they’re dealing with the same themes of love, of friendship, of heroism, of political relations, in an extraordinarily sophisticated way.
Tim Gardner: I think it has to do with not so much the subject matter, the way the picture’s taken, but just the fact that the image is painted, and that time that’s put into it and the process, sort of, adds an element of… just attention to the work… and maybe even affection for the subject matter. And I think that’s what translates in the work and in a way it’s transforming that photograph into something where maybe there’s more of a human touch to it. And people can connect with that a bit better.
Chris Riopelle: One of my favourites in the show is a picture called ‘Two Men on a Bus moving through the Landscape’. Tim is very worried in a sense about the way in which we’re losing contact… we’re losing touch with the glory of nature.
Tim Gardner: In a lot of the images you see these figures that are sort of, kind of uninspired looking guys and they’re not really aware of what’s going on behind them in this sublime setting.
Chris Riopelle: Here are two middle-aged men on a bus moving through a landscape that has magnificent mountains beyond, magnificent clouds piling up into the sky – it’s just the sort of thing which in earlier centuries people would have been wrapt in admiration of, and these two men are chatting, looking away, not bothering with it.
Tim Gardner: And that’s kind of what I was looking at, in this work, like I was really inspired by the idea of the sublime. You see it in Turner’s work, but trying to look at it from more of a contemporary standpoint.
Chris Riopelle: It is a large pastel executed with the most extraordinary technical virtuosity and, as I say, it kind of sums up the whole exhibition.
Tim Gardner: I had a professor in art school who said… kind of forewarned me, saying ‘soon you’re going to be out in the world, showing your work, and you might have a Rembrandt or something on the wall behind… in the room behind where your exhibition is…’, and it kind of came true in a way… it’s become really literal and I never really expected that to happen. It’s hard to wrap your head around but it’s a good challenge I guess.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): The very modest Tim Gardner ending that report compiled by Leah Kharibian. You can see Gardner’s extraordinary pictures from 17 January in Room 1 of the galleries. Entry is free and the catalogue is sponsored by The Canada House Arts Trust.
'Sound of Inspiration' competition
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Tim Gardner mentioned the inspiration he drew from the paintings by Turner that hang here in the galleries, and my next guest, Danielle Chidlow, believes the collection is crammed full of works to move and inspire even those who wouldn’t think of themselves as art lovers. Danielle is the National Gallery’s Head of Communications and she joins me now to help launch our ‘Sound of Inspiration’ competition for which we’re asking you, the listener, to create a sound piece inspired by the collection that we’ll play on future podcasts.
Danielle, what is it about the collection here that you think is so inspiring?
Danielle Chidlow: Well, I think one of the things that the National Gallery collection has that’s fairly unique really amongst galleries is that our pictures tell the most amazing stories. The stories that you see within our pictures deal with many of the great themes of life – we’ve got stories that talk about love, and passion, and death and beauty and many, many more. I mean basically every theme that you hear about on the news at night, for example, is right here in the Gallery on our walls. And that’s what makes them so relevant and I think that’s what makes them so inspiring as well because they very much reflect the human condition. And whereas people may be wearing different clothes or expressing themselves in different ways, they are universal themes that are meaningful to us today.
And I would say to anyone thinking about taking part in this to get down to the Gallery, have a look, engage with the works on the wall. I mean, it’s free to enter, it’s right in the heart of London and I would say that there are so many amazing things going on in the pictures, that I would defy anybody not to see something here that would touch them in some way, or that they would be able to identify with in some way. I mean, pretty much whatever’s going on in people’s lives, it’s down here in the Gallery.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Danielle, thank you. And now it’s your chance to let us know what inspires you about the collection. We’d like you to make a short sound recording of no more than two and half minutes in length, based on one of the National Gallery’s paintings. You can pick any of the works and be as creative and experimental as you like. You might decide to have a conversation with a character in a painting, make an audio diary, put a news report together, or just create an ambient soundscape. To get inspiration, I spoke to three renowned sound artists earlier to find out what happens for them when sound and art meet.
Scanner: My name is Robin Rimbaud, otherwise known as Scanner.
Martyn Ware: My name is Martyn Ware from the Illustrious Company.
David Toop: My name is David Toop, musician, composer, I write about music. I think clearly there are many connections between what one sees and what you hear. I think the history of art has been the history of not only looking, but listening. One of the challenges I think is how you create a soundwork in a gallery context.
Martyn Ware: What happens when you look at a picture? I look at a picture and I mentally try to recreate the scene that created it.
Scanner: I think the way one can begin is looking at what shaped this artist to make the work that they did, what resonances suggested something. And it’s the same for any artist whether you’re working with sound or whether you’re working with a paintbrush. The same thing can generate this majestic experience that can lead you to want to create something and so one needs to follow a little bit of research in a sense and see where and how this original artist for example would have responded or what was suggesting them or what was encouraging them to make work at that time in that manner.
David Toop: I think if somebody was going to try and make sound which was a response to one of the works in the National Gallery, the first thing to do is to really look – to me that is what this exercise will be about – how to look, how to really experience something. It’s not a thing, it’s a process.
Martyn Ware: In the National Gallery there are many scenes when you’re trying to figure out whether it’s allegory, whether it’s like capturing a moment in time that’s significant, or whether it’s trying to, if you like, condense maybe the actions of a few years into one painting. I’d be interested in recreating a soundscape that gave the impression and elucidated what was going on in that scene.
David Toop: So a Constable painting may look conventional because we’ve learned to make it into a conventional image, but it’s more a question of what’s going on in that work, you know – if it was just a pretty picture then it wouldn’t still have meaning to us. These are works that still continue to have meaning and can still be analyzed and can still update their meaning, so trying to think about what’s going on at that level…
Martyn Ware: The atmosphere is as important as the actual content and I think from an abstract point of view, it doesn’t need to be as literal as creating a radio play around a piece, it can be… allow your imagination to inspire you to create a more abstract interpretation of the feeling that it gives you.
David Toop: Most people have computers today. It’s very easy to put sound into any computer and reverse it so it changes the pitch or changes the speed – there’s lots of free programmes people can download. I think everybody has the ability within them to be a painter, and at the same time everybody has the ability to be a composer, or a sonic sound artist, or whatever terms we want to use. It doesn’t necessarily make you a good or a bad painter, or a good or a bad sound artist, the important thing is to have joy and pleasure from it. If that can then be experienced and shared by others, that’s even better.
Sound recording: Did I remember to tell you I loved you last time I saw you…
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Music there courtesy of Martyn Ware and Scanner. To enter our ‘Sound of Inspiration’ competition, all you need to remember is that your piece must be based on a picture in the Gallery and that it should be no more than two and a half minutes long. Send your entries on a CD by Friday 9 February to The National Gallery Podcast at The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, WC2N 5DN. We’ll have a listen to anything you send in, and play the best recordings in future episodes.
Just to repeat, the closing date is Friday 9 February, and please remember not to send us your originals, as we won’t be able to return your CDs to you. All these details, along with more information, can be found on the National Gallery website at: www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And finally, if you haven’t seen the blockbusting ‘Velázquez’ exhibition yet, there are just a few more weeks to go. The show closes on 21 January, and is open until 9pm every night from Monday 15 to Friday 19 January and until 11pm on Saturday 20 January to give as many people as possible the opportunity to view these extraordinary paintings. Sponsored by Abbey, the exhibition brings together almost half of the Spanish master’s surviving works, including his opulent portraits of the bewigged and beribboned members of the royal court, and early paintings of humble street scenes in Seville.
And if you’d like to view the exhibition in the company of curator Dawson Carr and the Prado’s Gabriele Finaldi, an audio guide features interviews with them both. Here’s a clip of Dawson Carr discussing ‘The Rokeby Venus’:
Dawson Carr: One has to wonder… why after depicting this beautiful body, did not Velázquez also depict a beautiful and distinct face? The indistinctness of Venus in the mirror could be Velázquez’s metaphor for the idea that true ideal beauty was unrepresentable.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Tickets can be purchased by telephone on 0870 906 3891, or online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
That’s it for this episode, but join us again next month when we’ll be looking forward to the first ever exhibition of the landscapes of Auguste Renoir – the Impressionist well overdue for a major reappraisal. Until then, goodbye!