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Episode 33

The National Gallery Podcast

In the July 2009 podcast, discover our latest exhibition ‘Corot to Monet’. Plus optical illusions and the Gallery on your iPhone.

18 min 21 sec | July 2009

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

Louise Govier: I’ve sat in front of this painting with all sorts of groups of people, school children, and asked them what this weird object is, stretched out, white object in the front, and often they say, ‘ooh it’s a feather; it’s a baguette; I’m not sure’, and you have to wait for one person to be sitting at the right-hand side of the painting who suddenly says ‘ooh – it’s a skull!’

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We get a new perspective on the art of creating optical illusions. And your chance to put a painting in your pocket, with a new application for your iPhone.

'Corot to Monet: A Fresh Look at Landscape from the Collection'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with Corot to Monet, the National Gallery’s latest exhibition. Subtitled 'A Fresh Look at Landscape’, the show brings together masterpieces from the Gallery’s outstanding collection of 19th-century French landscape painting. It gives visitors a unique chance to understand French Impressionism in the context of an older tradition of sketching and painting outdoors and also reveals a long love affair between artists and one very particular type of French landscape. Leah Kharibian donned her bathing suit to find out more…

Leah Kharibian: Well, we’re not actually at the seaside, but we could well be as we’re looking at a wonderfully evocative little depiction of the Normandy coast. It’s a work by the 19th-century French artist Eugène Boudin, and it’s temporarily here in one of the basement galleries awaiting hanging in the ‘Corot to Monet’ show. And I’m here with Nicola Freeman who’s the Gallery’s Interpretation Editor, and I wondered Nicola if you could begin by telling me a little bit about Boudin and about his real talent for capturing something of a day out by the sea.

Nicola Freeman: Yes, Boudin was… he was born in Honfleur in the beginning of the 19th century and he was born into a family of mariners, but he decided not to go that route. His family moved to Le Havre when he was ten, and he later studied in Paris, but he came back and for the rest of his life he spent his time between Paris and the Normandy coast. He was completely fascinated by the coastal light.

We’re actually looking at a beach scene in Trouville and the railway to Trouville was inaugurated in 1863 and this is when smart Parisians came to Trouville to spend a day on the beach. And Boudin really found his subject. He set up on the beach… set his easel up on the beach… and as you can see, he’s focused in on a group of Parisians huddled together, having conversations. As you can see, they’re in the fashions of the time, the very heavy crinolines and bustles, and the ladies have their parasols up to make sure that no sun reaches their body. And it’s almost unimaginable how that experience must be… to be sort of so constricted and so warm…

Leah Kharibian: And they’re also doing quite a lot of sitting down. I mean, there are a lot of chairs – actual sort of proper chairs that you might have round a table – on a beach.

Nicola Freeman: Yes, again, just very uncomfortable. This was before deck chairs were invented. As you can see there are two chairs just blown over by the wind, so they’re trying to maintain this decorum and this sophisticated set up, but of course the elements are conspiring against them here. We recently filmed at Trouville for the DVD for the exhibition and to get the viewpoint here, Boudin must have been almost sat on the sand. In fact, there’s a picture of him, an engraving, which shows him on this very low collapsible seat with his knees – he was quite a big man – with his knees almost up around his ears, clutching his panel, or his sketchbook, in one hand, with his right hand, with his brushes, a brush in his mouth, and then painting with his left hand. With this long coat and a peaked hat to protect him, so he’s quite separate from this group, and yet I can imagine he’s hearing snippets of their conversation as it comes across, in that particular way that sound travels on the beach.

Leah Kharibian: Now this is actually quite a small little picture, isn’t it? I mean it’s only about 15cm high, about 30cm across, and we know that Boudin did lots of these didn’t he – I mean, this isn’t just a one off?

Nicola Freeman: Exactly, no… he really had found his subject and it brought him fame and money and he did several hundred of these very similar compositions, which he referred to, I think, quite affectionately, as his ‘petite poupée’, or little dolls.

Leah Kharibian: Well, what’s so wonderful about this picture… I mean, the freshness, that feeling of the sea breeze, almost the smell of salt in the air – it’s something that Boudin seems absolutely marvellous at capturing… but he is one in a long line of French artists that have been painting out of doors.

Nicola Freeman: That’s right. Since the 17th century artists have been going outdoors to make sketches; since the 18th century it rose in popularity, but it wasn’t really until the 19th century that you get this real sense of being with the artist on that beach. You know, you get a sense of, as you say, the atmosphere – the wind, the smells – it’s very evocative and that sort of spontaneity, it’s unique really to this period, and I think that’s what the exhibition is really showing us.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Nicola Freeman. Boudin’s 'Beach Scene, Trouville' will be on display as part of the ‘Corot to Monet’ exhibition from 8 July, along with masterpieces by many other French masters. Admission is free, and there’ll be daily screenings of Nicola Freeman’s film about the show in the Sainsbury Wing cinema.

Anamorphic art

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): 'Anamorphic art' is a term unfamiliar to many. A type of optical illusion, such images tend to be hidden and unique by their very nature. Unless you look at a piece of anamorphic art from exactly the right angle, you won’t see the intended image, which is often only visible to one person at a time. I spoke to Professor Philip Steadman, an expert in perspective, and podcast regular, Louise Govier, to find out more, and began by asking Louise to point out the most famous anamorphic illusion in the Gallery – the mysterious white smudge at the bottom of Holbein’s masterpiece, The Ambassadors:

Louise Govier: Yes, it’s in the skull in the foreground of the painting. I’ve sat in front of this painting with all sorts of groups of people… school children… and asked them what this weird object is, stretched out, white object in the front, and often they say, ‘ooh it’s a feather… it’s a baguette… I’m not sure’, and you have to wait for one person to be sitting at the right-hand side of the painting who suddenly says ‘ooh – it’s a skull!’ It’s a distortion that allows you to work out what it is when you just stand in the right place, it seems to pop into position.

Miranda Hinkley: And in fact there’s a clue as to where you have to stand because if you look at the floor in front of the painting there’s a very worn patch over to the right. And if we now go and stand in exactly that spot, then it all begins to make sense.

Louise Govier: Yes, absolutely. Now I’m standing right in the place where you should be it looks recognisably like a skull. Sometimes a bit more three-dimensional than others, but you can really see that it is meant to be a reminder of death. Of course, this is an amazing, very lavish portrait, and if you follow the line up from the skull towards the top left-hand corner of the painting you realise that tiny thing peeking out is a crucifix. It’s a reminder that these two men are aware of their mortality and of the fact that salvation lies through God, Christ and the afterlife.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’re also joined by Philip Steadman who’s an expert on perspective in art and architecture. Philip, is it significant that we’re stood off to the right? I mean, would this effect also work if we were on the other side?

Philip Steadman: No, there’s got to be a particular viewpoint from which you look at it, like all perspectives, but with anamorphic perspectives, it’s particularly important that you go to the viewpoint. In most pictures in perspective, they’re quite forgiving, you can look at them from many points of view, but anamorphic perspective is a very distorted kind and it only looks correct when you get round to wherever the viewpoint is.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, there’s another example of visual trickery that we’d like to take a look at and ironically Holbein’s two ambassadors are in fact looking directly at the spot in the Gallery where we can find it, over with the Dutch Golden Age pictures, so let’s go over there now. Well, here we are in the Dutch room, just across the way from Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, and we’re at Hoogstraten’s Peepshow, which is a box mounted on a stand which has painted scenes round the outside, but there’s a little hole in one of the sides, and if you look through it in fact shows the interior of a house. Louise have a look through there and tell me a bit about what you can see.

Louise Govier: Oh, I love this. It’s absolutely fantastic. What always happens when I look into this is that I end up banging my head, because I’m so busy trying to crane round and see all of the different rooms and spaces. Basically you look in and you’re drawn into this interior world. I can see a dog, I can see a chair, and the thing is it’s done in such a clever way that some of these things really do look three-dimensional and you can see doorways in that open out into other worlds, and little glimpses of people – it’s absolutely fantastic.

Miranda Hinkley: Philip, I mean, if we come round the back of the box – the way it’s exhibited now, there’s in fact a glass plate so that we can see exactly how Hoogstraten’s achieved this effect, and I mean this whole thing works on perspective, doesn’t it?

Philip Steadman: It does, yes. Part of it is quite conventional perspective. What Hoogstraten has done is that… it’s like Doctor Who’s tardis, it’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. You’ve got these images of a great many rooms that you can see – there are long perspectives through doorways to other rooms beyond. And those are painted in, as I say, conventional perspective, but there are some details which overlap the surfaces of the box, and in particular there’s a little dog, who springs up when you look through one of the peepholes, but when you come round here, as we’re looking now, you can see that he’s painted half on the wall in ordinary perspective, and then half of him, his legs, are painted on the floor, and they are stretched out, and that part of the dog is an anamorphic perspective.

It’s painted on this very steeply angled surface as you’re looking at it from the peephole. It’s all correct, and when your eye is confined to the peephole it all comes out right. And there’s also some very strange red rectangles on the floor, one with a little white rectangle. Now that looks like a carpet or something. But when you look from one of the peepholes, it pops up as a table – it’s the top of a table, and the rectangle is a letter addressed to van Hoogstraten, so perhaps this was his house.

Miranda Hinkley: How do artists go about creating this technique? Do they have to get right down with their sort of eye close to the surface that they’re drawing on, or do they have to stand at a funny angle to the canvas? I mean, how do they do it?

Philip Steadman: Well, I think that’s an open question. I mean there could be a lot of debate about how it’s done. There are discussions in the literature about different methods. Sometimes done with strings, so you would put a frontal view of the object and then draw, stretch strings from the eye-point, through the picture to an oblique plane, and then you would mark out the respective points on that oblique plane. That’s one way of doing it. The way I think van Hoogstraten might have worked here, which would have been equivalent geometrically, is he might have had a bright light, had little models of the chair, and projected shadows. And the shadows would be the same as the anamorphic views, so he might have had a little chair about here, projected a bright light from the peephole and it would have cast the shadows as they are on the three sides of the box, on which the chair is painted.

Louise Govier: It is meant to be a real artistic tour de force, and van Hoogstraten has written himself into the interior of this perspective box in all sorts of ways. So he’s included his own coat of arms and his wife’s family coat of arms, and this is really a lot about him showing off his superb skill, but also what he thinks that can bring for artists, because it connects with what’s on the outside of the box, which is beautifully decorated too, and there are all sorts of little allegorical scenes about what motivates the artist. A desire for money, certainly, is one of the things, but also for fame and glory, and you know, this really is the most extraordinary surviving example of a perspective box, far more complicated than anything else, specially with the two peepholes, that’s very unusual to have two different views…

Philip Steadman: There are half a dozen boxes, but this is the only one with two peepholes…

Louise Govier: And ultimately, it seems to have been something to get the viewer curious about different effects, but also just to show off van Hoogstraten’s supreme mastery of this art.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Louise Govier and Philip Steadman. To do anamorphic art justice – as you’ve heard – you really need to see it in the flesh. So if you’re passing the Gallery, why not pop in? Admission to the permanent collection is free and Holbein’s 'Ambassadors' and van Hoogstraten’s 'Peepshow' will be on display throughout the month.

Love Art app

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): If you’ve ever wished you could take a painting home with you at the end of a visit to the Gallery, our next feature is for you. In association with Antenna Audio, we’ve just launched Love Art, an application that lets iPhone and iPod touch users enjoy 250 of our best known paintings anywhere they like. And best of all, for a limited time, it’s completely free.

Miranda Hinkley: I’m with Charlotte Sexton, who’s the Head of New Media at the National Gallery and Alyson Webb from Antenna Audio. Charlotte, tell me a bit more about this iPod touch and iPhone application you’ve been developing.

Charlotte Sexton: Well, we’re really excited, it’s the very first one, and the Gallery really likes to try and use technology in really new and innovative ways, and this application, I think, is a great example of that – where we’ve been able to take some of the best examples of works from the collection and put it out there, so that you can take a little bit of the Gallery home with you.

Miranda Hinkley: Alyson, you’ve been involved in developing this application, haven’t you, and this is in fact the first of its kind…

Alyson Webb: It is indeed, and when we started development it was really important for us to think about what the experience would be for the users, and the idea behind it is very much that this is inspirational, that it will encourage people to the Gallery, that it includes more than 200 minutes of content. You are able to hear curators, conservators, artists speaking, and the wonderful thing is that it’s packed full of facts, and obviously beautiful images, so more than 200 images, but it’s also inspirational – you hear really, not only the expertise of the curatorial team, but their absolute passion and love for the works in the collection.

Miranda Hinkley: So I’ve had a chance to play with the Love Art application and I think the thing that I find the most fun about it, is that you can actually zoom in to quite an amazing degree into the paintings… I mean, the images are such high-resolution you can kind of use that functionality of zooming in and zooming out to have a look at the details, can’t you?

Charlotte Sexton: Absolutely, and I think this is where the Gallery is very fortunate, because we have such fantastic high-resolution images of the collection and I think one of the things that’s so great about the iPhone in itself as a device – and these things have come a long way in the last few years – is that the quality of the screen is so good now that you really benefit from seeing the details in these paintings. And you’re often seeing things that are actually very, very, difficult to see when you’re physically standing in front of some of these pieces.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, just looking at some of the detail on the painting we’re actually in front of now, ‘Madame Moitessier’ by Ingres, if we zoom into her face, you know, the quality of the paintwork is just incredible – you’re seeing things you would never be able to see.

Charlotte Sexton: Absolutely. I mean, Ingres is an amazing painter. I mean, the way he treats flesh and hair and fabric, you know, is incredibly detailed and very beautifully applied. And I think what you see in these scans is really, you’re almost down to each eyelash, and his painting, his technique really allows you to see that, to bring that to the fore.

Miranda Hinkley: Charlotte, what would you say to people who would suggest that this is really no substitute for actually seeing the works in the flesh? I mean, how do you see this application sitting alongside an experience in the Gallery?

Charlotte Sexton: Obviously there is no substitute for standing in front of the real thing and we would always encourage you to do that and the collection is here for everyone. But let’s face it, if you’re in the outback or if you’re in the hills of America, or even if you can’t get to London easily and you’re in the UK, this is a great substitute. It gives you a little window onto the collection, it showcases I think some of our finest pieces, and you know, whether you’re a novice, or you’re interested but not knowledgeable, what I think we do really well is provide you with great framework information. You can really arm yourself with some fascinating facts, presented by people who really know what they’re talking about, and I think that bit of knowledge really allows you to come back to the painting and look at it in a new way.

And we take that approach across everything we do, so for people that can’t get here, we’ve got the podcast, we’ve now got this new application which is fantastic, and very soon now, we’re going to have a brand new website. So I hope everybody listening to this is going to come back and check out that new site. And we always want to hear from people… you know, if you’ve got new suggestions or other things you want to see – we want to innovate, and we can only do that in collaboration with our audience.

Miranda Hinkley: So Alyson how can listeners download the application? Where can they find it?

Alyson Webb: They can go to the iTunes application store. There’s also a link on the National Gallery website and that will take you directly to the application store where you can download it, for the moment, for free.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): I was speaking to Charlotte Sexton and Alyson Webb.

That’s it for this month. You can visit the National Gallery’s permanent collection, free of charge, any day of the week – we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!