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Episode 31

The National Gallery Podcast

In the May 2009 podcast, find out about the versatility of Pablo Picasso. Plus social climbing with Joshua Reynolds and the appeal of Ruben's nudes.

20 min 56 sec | May 2009

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

Chris Riopelle: What he had long been capable of doing was painting in different styles at the same time, going from one Cubist picture, then to a Realist picture that afternoon, then back to a Cubist one in the evening…

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One man, many styles: curator Chris Riopelle on the versatile Pablo Picasso. And location, location, location: what Joshua Reynolds’s fashionable London address tells us about life as an 18th-century portrait painter.

Peter Paul Rubens

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with a few words from a regular visitor to the Gallery.

Agnes Cameron: You know, you can see he’s a really good painter because of the way he uses colour, but he hasn’t really chosen something particularly interesting to paint, really…

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): That was 14-year-old Agnes Cameron, talking about the celebrated Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens. She’s not a fan – and she’s not alone. Rubens divides opinion. His masterpieces take pride of place in galleries around the world, including this one. But his fleshy female nudes – described in ‘The New Yorker’ as having ‘the erotic appeal of a mud slide’ – are too much for many. Leah Kharibian and Agnes asked curator Betsy Weiseman, just what’s so great about Rubens?

Leah Kharibian: The National Gallery has a fantastic collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens who was probably the most famous artist in mid-17th-century Europe. And we’re here in front of one of his grand-scale mythological paintings, 'The Judgement of Paris', and I wondered, Agnes, if you could start us off by describing what it is you see when you look at this picture.

Agnes Cameron: Well, in the foreground are the three goddesses who are posing for Paris, who’s on the right, and next to Paris is Hermes, the God with the winged helmet, and at his feet is his sheepdog, because Paris is a shepherd.

Leah Kharibian: Well, that’s a fine description and your problem with Rubens, which I think is actually possibly one that quite a lot of people share, is the naked ladies… the large scale… is it the scale of them that bothers you?

Agnes Cameron: It’s kind of like he just wants to paint nude women. It does look like that though… I mean, it’s fair enough for Rubens… but do we really want… is this really what everyone thinks is such an amazing painting?

Leah Kharibian: Well, Betsy what do you say to that?

Betsy Wieseman: I can’t argue with it. I actually started out hating Rubens and he was one of my least favourite artists, and I thought, you know, there’s got to be a reason why people like him, why I have to learn about him in school. And I decided that I wanted to find out more and the more I found out, the more respect and understanding I had for the artist.

Leah Kharibian: I mean, Betsy, Agnes has a point – I think a lot of people have difficulty looking at Rubens, and quite specifically when he’s doing nude women, these larger nudes… How do you respond to that yourself?

Betsy Wieseman: Rubens loved painting women and he loved painting naked women and I think that’s a part of his work that people have real trouble with. Rubens’s first wife who he married in 1609, died in 1626; four years later at the age of 53, he married the 16-year-old Hélène Forment. So at the age of 53, he marries this 16-year-old woman who was absolutely beautiful and he idolised her. He based a number of representations of goddesses and the Virgin Mary on Hélène’s likeness and she in fact was probably the model for the figure of Venus in this picture. As you can see, she was not a very skinny bony woman – she was very amply endowed – and Rubens, I think, like no other artist, you can sense that he really loved every contour of flesh. So I look at that and I see such an expression of love and devotion that I can’t help but look at it and smile in appreciation.

Leah Kharibian: And Agnes is quite right though – he’s done his very best to make sure that we get to see every single aspect of a naked woman, even though we get three of them – we get a front view, a side view, and then this splendid back view. Is this also his patrons, I mean, the sorts of people he was painting for? They were just saying ‘give us lots of…’

Betsy Wieseman: More, more, more? No, I think this is part of Rubens’s creativity and his continually inventive approach to the craft of painting and composition. Rubens based a lot of his compositions and his understandings of the human figure on either classical statues or works by earlier artists and this was a common practice throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but what Rubens does is absolutely amazing. Like no other artist, he has the ability to imagine how a statue, or even how a two-dimensional painting might look from another way around. So we have all these drawings by Rubens in which he’s studying a statue or another work of art from the front, from underneath, from the left, from the right – even though it would be impossible to do that in real life, in his mind, he’s seeing it in three dimensions as if it’s rotating. And to me that aspect of his creative imagination and his inventiveness is just extraordinary.

Leah Kharibian: And as a final thought Agnes, having had a look at this now, where are you at with Rubens?

Agnes Cameron: Well, I have been kind of convinced a bit. I think there are Rubens’s paintings that I’m never going to like though… but probably less so now.

Betsy Wieseman: [Laughs]

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Betsy Wieseman and Agnes Cameron. If you’d like to judge for yourself, come along to the Gallery. Many of Rubens’s masterpieces are on display, including 'Samson and Delilah', and 'A View of Het Steen', as well as the work Agnes was talking about, 'The Judgement of Paris'.

Pablo Picasso

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Picasso famously rejected the whole idea that an artist should stick to one way of painting by citing God: ‘God is really only another artist’, he said, ‘he has no real style, he just keeps trying other things’. As anyone visiting the Picasso exhibition will see, ‘trying other things’ was something Picasso did right from the very start of his career. In our last look at the show, which runs until 7 June, Leah Kharibian met up with Chris Riopelle to discover that Picasso’s compulsion to change certainly didn’t diminish with age.

Leah Kharibian: It’s the charmed hour before the Gallery opens to the public, and Chris, we’re standing in the Picasso exhibition with all the pictures to ourselves, which is absolutely lovely, to discuss the issue of Picasso and style, or rather Picasso and his continual change of style. You’ve brought me to this one picture, Picasso’s 'Women of Algiers', which I see is painted in 1955. Why this particular work?

Chris Riopelle: Well, this is a picture in which you can see him working in different styles on the same canvas. The large seated woman on the left of the picture is what I would call a unified figure, you can read it as a woman, but all of the other figures to the right of her are broken up, are kind of proto-Cubist, as if on that side of the canvas, he’s returning to a style he had invented 45 years earlier.

Leah Kharibian: Now, he’s about 74 years old at this point, isn’t he, so this is really quite late in his career… and putting these two styles together, is this something he’d been doing all the way through his career, or is this something quite new?

Chris Riopelle: Putting together different styles on the same canvas was relatively new. What he had long been capable of doing was painting in different styles at the same time, going from one Cubist picture, then to a Realist picture that afternoon, then back to a Cubist one in the evening. To put them all together on one canvas and see the conflict of styles working itself out there, is something I associate with these variations of the 50s.

Leah Kharibian: And do you think also this freedom with which Picasso is playing with style here – this being able to mash two things together – has something to do with the fact he no longer has any rivals, he is actually alone, the greatest painter probably of the 20th century and he knows it. Can he play now with impunity?

Chris Riopelle: He’s outlived them all and he’s in the full still, as an old man, with the full power of his technical facility with paintbrush in hand. And I think much of the late work is him enjoying that dexterity that he has, enjoying the ease with which inventiveness comes to him.

Leah Kharibian: So what about this famous quotation where Picasso says ‘God is really just another artist. He has no style and that he just tries out other things’. Is Picasso comparing himself to God – is he saying ‘well, I’m just like God, I don’t have a particular style, I try out lots of things’. Is his ego that huge?

Chris Riopelle: Comparing himself to God, I’m not… I wouldn’t say that. What I would say is that he’s using a very old trope in which the artist as the creator is like God, is like a god. It’s not Picasso’s invention to think in that way, but at this point, he’s finding it very useful to allude to that tradition.

Leah Kharibian: We’re now up in the main galleries, in Room 1 where there’s an additional exhibition of Picasso’s work devoted to his prints. And a number of these were made right at the end of his life when he was approaching his 90s. And there’s one here, Chris, called 'Ecce Homo: Le Theatre de Picasso' (‘Picasso’s theatre’) where he does exactly the same thing as the 'Women of Algiers' – mixing styles…

Chris Riopelle: His starting point here is a print by Rembrandt, which is itself a very complicated image, but he really goes to town, building up figure after figure across the surface of this print, mixing figures that allude to styles of the various points of his career until it becomes a kind of cacophony of figures, but also a tour de force of simple printmaking skill.

Leah Kharibian: And it’s dated at the top right-hand corner to the day. He’s actually put the actual date on the work. He was making prints wasn’t he, one a day, paintings one a day, even at this late stage in his career?

Chris Riopelle: More so than ever before, and he had said at a certain point that his paintings were his diary, and this very specific dating of his works to the day that you see in the later years, is a kind of proud statement of his continued fecundity as an artist.

Leah Kharibian: So all this extraordinary juggling of styles that he’s been able to perform throughout his career – he’s still saying, ‘I can do it… I can still do this, and in fact I can do it all on one image’.

Chris Riopelle: In a print like this it’s almost as if he couldn’t stop himself from just inventing and then inventing something else, and just letting them all crash together to see what came of it.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Chris Riopelle. There’s still time to visit the show if you haven’t seen it yet or want to take another look – it runs throughout the month until 7 June. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee. And if you come along, don’t forget the exhibition audio guide. It features images as well as the usual commentaries and lets you enjoy Picasso’s paintings alongside masterpieces by the artists who inspired him.

Joshua Reynolds

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): To be an artist in modern Britain – or a successful one, anyway – is to have made it. Artists are well rewarded and well reported – their works sell for eye-watering sums and they appear regularly in the media and the New Year’s honours list. But that hasn’t always been the case. Back in the 18th century, painting was an altogether less reputable pursuit, a social inferior to its sister art of poetry. Our final interview this month is devoted to a man who felt this slight more keenly and did more to rectify it than most. The son of a Devon schoolmaster, Joshua Reynolds rose to become one of the foremost portrait painters of his age, and the very first president of the Royal Academy of Arts. Art historian Jacqui Ansell told me more.

Miranda Hinkley: It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I’m standing in Leicester Square listening to the sound of the birds and the huge building site right behind me to discover one of Britain’s best known and loved artists, and I’m joined by Jacqui Ansell. Jacqui, tell us a bit more about Joshua Reynolds. He wasn’t originally from London, was he? He was a Devon lad…

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, he was from Plympton in Devon and he came to London to study under a fellow Devonian, Hudson, and he soon decided to make a mark for himself. He started out living on St Martin’s Lane and that’s where the more ordinary members of society might have lived, and certainly then by 1760 he moved west to Leicester Fields, and that may be a small move geographically, but it was quite a significant move in terms of the circles in which he was moving. So the significance of that is that he moved away from where the colour men were and the working men in the East End were, to the West End where the great and the good lived, people like the Prince of Wales, who lived in Leicester Fields at one time.

Miranda Hinkley: Which of course brings us to where we’re standing now in Leicester Square, which is pretty much in front of the site of where we think his house would have been.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, we think so. His house was to the west of the square. So he had it specially built to house a picture gallery so he could show off his paintings. And most importantly then he could have open house to the great and the good.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, we’re standing right underneath his bust now, which is looking a bit weather-beaten and as though a few layers of stonework have dissolved off the front… but tell me a bit more about Reynolds as a person – what kind of a man was he?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, if you look at the bust, he looks very much like the image of an Old Master. He bears a superficial resemblance to Rembrandt, because the hat that he’s wearing, this old beret, is part of the doctoral robes. He was given a doctorate from Oxford and so he’s wearing his academic robes. Off course, any sitter can project an image through their clothing, and the image he wants to project is one of a scholar, as well as a gentleman, as somebody who practises the liberal arts.

Miranda Hinkley: And in fact, Reynolds’s aspirations to be an intellectual and a scholar and to distance himself from the common limners and colourists, is something that really had an impact on the status of all artists that went after.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I think so. I mean he was very, very keen to place painting on a rank with poetry – its sister art of poetry, he says – because poetry as part of rhetoric had already been accepted as a gentlemanly profession. So as a mere face painter, you were looked down on in society, because face painting is imitation and he was very keen that rather than merely imitate, the great artists should seek to enlarge the conceptions of the spectator. So in raising his own social status and exploring that through this grand house of his, he was able then to raise the professional status of all artists and presumably also the economic status as well.

Miranda Hinkley: There is, of course, a slight problem here – Reynolds was mainly a portraitist. So how does this come across in his art, this aspiration for gesturing towards greater things than just painting people’s portraits, which is what he did?

Jacqui Ansell: Well, of course, Reynolds really wanted to be a history painter – that was the most intellectual way of painting – and he couldn’t do that because his sitters, of course, demanded likeness. So what he had to do was somehow transform the raw material of the sitters in front of him into great gods and goddesses. He did this through fancy dress, and props, and gesture – body language for example. And thereby he was flattering not only his sitters, but also his public, who would recognise those classical allusions, and of course, he was giving himself a pat on the back as well as an intellectual.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, at this point, I’d like to move our talk into the Gallery to go and have a look at one of Reynolds’s portraits of Lady Cockburn. So let’s wander across there now…

So, here we are in Room 34 and this is Reynolds’s portrait of 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, she’s a rather hardworking lady because she married aged 20 and became the second wife of a chap who already had three daughters. So here she is, stepmother, new mother to three little boys – she subsequently goes on to produce even more children – so she’s got her heir and a spare and one left over as well. And she’s looking far from harassed by the three children that swarm around her…

Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking very sort of calm indeed, and in fact looking away from the viewer, out towards the corner of the canvas.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, in fact she almost looks as though she’s looking very contemplative and there is rather a stark contrast in her gaze compared to the gaze of the painting that inspired this. Reynolds was an artist who was very, very interested in the Old Masters – it’s not just Picasso who goes around challenging the past – and what he did was he went on an extended Grand Tour and he filled his sketch books with information and well as Italian Old Masters, he also saw Flemish Old Masters like Van Dyck. And we’ve got a painting in our collection which is 'Charity' – a personification of charity by Van Dyck, where the woman is absolutely surrounded by these three little chubby children. She looks up to heaven and to me she looks as if she’s saying ‘God ‘elp me’, but she really is saying ‘God help me’, and she’s a personification of the Christian virtue of charity. So of course as soon as you know that and as soon as you look at this painting you see not just a portrait of Lady Cockburn and three little children, you see her almost as a personification of charity.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, he’s basing his composition on a Van Dyck and the interesting thing there is of course that Van Dyck was an artist, originally a history painter, who became a portraitist when he arrived in Britain, who also had very great aspirations, and he wanted to be seen as an equal and did manage to gain quite significant status for an artist of his day. So perhaps Reynolds is choosing to hark back to Van Dyck for that reason. But of course at the same time this is a portrait of a society lady, isn’t it?

Jacqui Ansell: Reynolds strongly believed that you had to give a female sitter something of the modern for the sake of likeness and the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity. Now when this was on display at the Royal Academy – and it was actually greeted by a round of applause when it appeared – the erudite public would recognise this not just as Lady Cockburn, but they’d also see in it charity, this Christian virtue, but they’d also see in it something we don’t see today, and that is her as Cornelia. Cornelia was the Roman matron who was the mother of the Gracchi, these three fine soldiers, and when a companion of hers was showing off her jewellery, Cornelia allegedly brought forth her three sons and said ‘these are my jewels – my children are my jewels’. And this for me is one of the jewels of the collection if you like…

Miranda Hinkley: Well, they certainly look like lovely children in this painting at least. Jacqui, thank you very much.

Jacqui Ansell: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell on Joshua Reynolds. 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons' will be on display throughout the month. And if you’re visiting, don’t forget we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays, and there’s no charge to visit the thousands of paintings that make up the permanent collection. 

That’s it for this episode. Until next time, goodbye!