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Episode 38

The National Gallery Podcast

In the December 2009 podcast, we walk through the National Gallery’s red-light district. Plus 17th-century special effects, and cooking with Carlo Crivelli - download here a recipe of a dish cooked by Joyce Lussu, a Resistance heroine, pioneer of feminist and Green movements, in her home near Fermo in the Italian Marches.

19 min 51 sec | December 2009

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode: 17th-century special effects – we pay a visit to The Sacred Made Real exhibition to discover the techniques Spanish artists used to bring wooden sculptures to life, and…

Gillian Riley: This painting is often admired for the consummate skill with which Carlo Crivelli handles perspective and the wonderful details of the furnishings and the buildings, but to us who are greedy it is full of really good things to eat that we can go home and cook.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Food historian Gillian Riley with a mouthwatering new perspective on great art.

The Hoerengracht

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with a new exhibition that’s transformed the Gallery’s Sunley Room into a walk-through evocation of Amsterdam’s red-light district. Peopled by half-dressed, garishly lit mannequins, The Hoerengracht, by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz, recreates the glowing windows and mysterious doorways of the city’s claustrophobic streets. A highly polemical tableau, it echoes visual traditions well established in European art, recalling in particular the Dutch masters of the 17th century, whose work is strongly represented in the Gallery’s collection. We asked Colin Wiggins from the Education team and curator Betsy Wieseman to introduce the show.

Colin Wiggins: So Betsy, my first reaction to the ‘The Hoerengracht’ when I first saw it, which was now just over four years ago when it was shown at the Baltic in Gateshead, was to experience a sensation that I’m walking into a 17th-century Dutch townscape, because you have all of the details of the buildings, the bricks, the door frames, the window frames, and you go round corners and up alleyways and it was just a kind of delightful, uncanny sensation of being in a two-dimensional environment.

Betsy Wieseman: I’ve had that same experience as well. I wasn’t expecting it. You know, suddenly you see a little dog, or you see a bouquet of flowers, much as you do looking into a 17th-century Dutch interior. There are all of these details, symbolic or otherwise that you’re discovering.

Colin Wiggins: Yeah, the details are one of the things that’s so wonderful about ‘The Hoerengracht’, because you’ve got… looking into these windows you have the sinks and the taps and the U-bends and the curtains and the light fittings and the shabby wallpaper and you can explore the interiors through these glass windows, just as you’re exploring a painting by, let’s say, Pieter de Hooch or Jan Stein.

Betsy Wieseman: And I think there must also be this component of how realistic is this. And I know for a long time 17th-century Dutch paintings were interpreted as being absolute transcriptions of reality, but we know now that there’s a large component of artistic license going on – what we see in the 17th-century Dutch paintings is not precisely photographically what life was like in the 17th century and I think there’s that parallel as well with ‘The Hoerengracht’ – it recreates a certain image of prostitution in Amsterdam.

Colin Wiggins: Yes, ‘cos the realism is very convincing and compelling, but actually when you look a little closer, the girls themselves, their heads are shop-window dummies, which of course aren’t realistic, but somehow the whole mood of the piece convinces you that it is realistic, that these aren’t shop-window dummies that you’re looking at – they’re real women with a real history and real issues that have got them into this situation.

One or two of them they’re kind of heart-rending – it’s as if they’re not displaying themselves for sale, or they’re almost saying ‘help me, rescue me from this situation’, whereas others seem to be very hard-nosed and business-like about it and matter of fact – there’s a real contrast in all of the different personalities that are presented to us. Each figure was moulded from a real person in the Kienholzs’ Berlin studio, either by prior arrangement, or occasionally unfortunate visitors to the studio would find themselves being corralled into stripping naked and being covered with wet plaster while these were cast and in the end the plaster is then taken off and painted and topped with the shop window dummies.

Do you find yourself empathising with the women in ‘The Hoerengracht’?

Betsy Wieseman: Yes, and I think the one thing that so powerfully produces that sort of reaction are the cookie boxes, the glass boxes that enframe their heads and that also has parallels in the 17th century. It’s a device that clues you into the fact that this is a piece of theatre – this is a piece of display, and you start reading it from that perspective.

Colin Wiggins: The cookie boxes are actually real boxes that were used in displays of sweets and cakes in shops in Amsterdam and Berlin, and the artists bought up as many of these as they could in order to use them in the sculpture – to just take these frames and their glass lids, applying them, kind of clamping them onto the girl’s heads, so the girls, in the words of the artists, can shut their frames and seal themselves off from their clients. That is, you can buy their bodies, but you can’t buy their minds.

I read them differently… I see them as kind of cruel appliances that have been almost drilled onto the heads of these girls. For me they indicate pain and suffering, but for the artists, they meant it to be read differently. I think that’s part of the delight of looking at not just ‘The Hoerengracht’, but all pictures – that we can always make our own interpretations, we can look at things and find things in pictures that have a personal meaning to us, and we can read our own histories and our own stories and our own ideas into them, never more than in ‘The Hoerengracht’, and I think one of the things about it is that it’s so un-judgemental – it’s not saying that prostitution is a good thing or a bad thing, it’s presenting it to you to make your own moral judgements.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins and Betsy Wieseman. If you’d like to visit, ‘Kienholz: The Hoerengracht’ runs until 21 February next year. Admission is free.  

'The Sacred Made Real'

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now we return to the Gallery’s exhibition of 17th-century Spanish religious art, 'The Sacred Made Real'. Visitors to the show have been fascinated by the intensely naturalistic, painted wooden sculptures on display. Featuring glass eyes and tears, ivory teeth, and real eyelashes, these works demonstrate the extraordinary lengths to which Spanish woodcarvers and painters went to achieve realism. One man who understands the extent of their efforts is Neill Gorton, a leading expert in special effects makeup, whose credits range from ‘Doctor Who’ to ‘The Da Vinci Code’. He visited the exhibition with Leah Kharibian, who began by asking for his reaction to a sculpture by Gregorio Fernández. It shows the recumbent figure of the Dead Christ just after he’s been taken down from the Cross.

Neill Gorton: The first thing that strikes me is the pose, I mean the body is so relaxed, I mean it’s very real in the sense of how a body would just lose all… the muscle tone’s gone, and the pose itself is very realistic. The head is tilted to one side, the jaw is slack, the eyes are half open or half closed, and he really does look dead. It’s amazing the impact it makes.

Leah Kharibian: And the wounds that Fernández has depicted here – these all seem to be really quite carefully observed.

Neill Gorton: Yeah, they very much tell the story, because we’ve got the… on the knee, both knees, and on the left shoulder, are these kind of older wounds with congealed blood and almost scabs forming already which would be the wound caused by carrying the Cross, and the wounds from Christ falling to his knees, which would then have begun to age as he’s on the Cross, so they form scabs and have grown older, whereas the wounds from the spear in the side and obviously the hands and the feet are much fresher and they really tell the story of what’s happened to him. They follow a logic in terms of the timeline of what’s happened to him as he was taken to the Cross and put on the Cross.

Leah Kharibian: And also Fernández has used really interesting materials, hasn’t he? He’s got… well, he’s got a whole variety – he’s got ivory teeth, glass eyes, he’s used the horn of a bull for the fingernails and the toenails, and also where you’ve got these scabs, he’s used the bark of a cork tree. I was really interested in what you made of these materials?

Neill Gorton: They’re very organic things and so using the cork for basically the scabbed knees, you’ve got that texture there already – you’ve got the colouration and the texture that… ‘cos it’s wood, it would be very difficult to carve those subtle organic textures so he’s gone for those real materials that give the right feel and the right texture and again with the fingernails and the teeth, he’s taken something that’s got the right look and texture – it’s got a bit of translucency about it – it’s just those little details that really add to the realism.

Leah Kharibian: Now all these wounds obviously show, as you say, a great imagination in terms of telling the story of Christ’s Passion and his death, but they also seem to be really closely observed as if he’s seen something of the same in real life. Is that the way that you work too? Do you try and observe?

Neill Gorton: I mean obviously when you try… especially on something like a drama, a television drama, that’s got bodies or autopsies or that kind of thing, you’ve got to try and be as realistic as possible. So we naturally go back to the real thing and I have books on forensics and pathology and do that kind of research to find what the real effects are on a body and how a body will look, and again, here, you know, with the spear wound in the side, they’re very clean, because you’re talking about a bladed object gone in there, a sharp object, and it’s very clean cut, and the way the… the split in the flesh and the way it’s open is very like a, you know… what I’d possibly do in a prosthetic maybe where you’ve got to do a stab wound, and it looks very similar to the kind of thing I’d model now from reference material, so it’s clear that he’s used some sort of real reference, because it’s not stylised at all, it’s very real.

Leah Kharibian: I think probably Fernández, who I know was a very pious man, would be slightly appalled at the idea of us talking about special effects as such, because everything he’s doing is attempting to stir the faithful to prayer, to make them think about the suffering of Christ, and also to honour Christ. How do you feel about special effects that draw attention to themselves as special effects? I mean, are you hoping that when somebody sees something that you’ve done, say, I don’t know, on 'Doctor Who', they’re going to go… wow, what a special effect!

Neill Gorton: I mean, if it’s something like 'Doctor Who' it’s a big alien, it’s a monster, you know, it’s… everyone knows it’s got to be a special effect. But I mean personally the stuff I kind of prefer doing are those things you don’t notice, or the audience doesn’t realise or the audience doesn’t even think about because they’re lost in the drama and in a way it’s a similar kind of thing, with this effectively what he’s trying to do is get an emotion out of the audience and tell a story.

Leah Kharibian: And I suppose, finally, often you’re creating effects for actors where the actor is doing part of the work. But here it’s all done with paint and wood, everything about it. How do you respond to that?

Neill Gorton: It’s absolutely amazing, 'cos it’s… that kind of carving, I mean just from an artistic point of view, we have the advantage now that we’ll use things like… if we have to make a replica of an actor, we’ll actually take moulds of their body, so we start with the real thing, whereas this is – you’ve started with a lump of wood, so that’s quite an amazing achievement. And the whole anatomy of the piece and the realism is incredible. We’ve got that advantage of modern materials that we can do live casts and reproduce whole actors – we can even now digitally scan people and have copies of them machined out on a computerised milling machine, so we’ve got all these advantages, but to… yeah, take a lump of wood and be able to carve it so beautifully and the anatomy so perfect. I mean I love the way the rib cage shows through, it’s amazing, it’s incredible skill.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Neill Gorton. Well, as we’ve been hearing, these works deserve to be seen 'in the flesh', so if you’re in London this month, do come along. 'The Sacred Made Real' is open throughout December and a combined exhibition and audio guide ticket costs £11 – available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at  

Gillian Riley

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: ‘tis the season for overeating. With Christmas on the horizon, we asked food historian Gillian Riley to make our mouths water with her idiosyncratic take on great art. Where others admire technique and composition, Gillian looks for cooking tips – plundering paintings for information about what we ate in centuries past. She chose to speak to us about a work by the 15th-century Venice-born master, Crivelli. The Annunciation, with Saint Emidius depicts the Virgin Mary shortly before she discovers she’s destined to give birth to the son of God. It’s a subject that traditionally inspires piety rather than pies, and when I met Gillian in the Gallery, I began by asking her to explain why she chose the work.

Gillian Riley: There’s an awful lot to eat in this painting. First of all, we have the cucumber and the apple in the foreground. They’re there for symbolic reasons, because the apple is the symbol of the Virgin Mary and the cucumber is the symbol of Christ. But it gets better – it gets more edible, because if you look at the shelf above her bed, you’ll see an interesting collection of objects. The jar next to the candle there is probably holding fruit in a runny syrup, which would be offered to guests as it still is in Greece today. Next to it is a flat wooden, circular wooden box, with some white bowls on top of it, and inside the box, I’m pretty certain must be 'cotignata', which is quince paste. And the books which it’s standing on – these are always said to be devotional books, but I do wonder if they’re not household manuals, cookery books, books of recipes. About that time, there would be in circulation the cookery books of Maestro Martino who was writing in Rome in the 1460s. His cookery recipes… one of which is for peacock which we’ll come to later…

Miranda Hinkley: Ah, because just above all of that, there’s… standing on the upper parapet, is a peacock with its tail hanging down, right almost close to those cookery books.

Gillian Riley: The peacock has a lot of symbolic meaning because it signifies imperial and kingly power. That’s political, earthly power. But it also symbolises the immortality of Christ because it is said that the flesh of peacocks does not go off quickly, so it’s quite a useful thing to have in your larder. And because Christ was immortal and peacocks are almost immortal, there’s this connection there. And also the splendour and majesty of Christ is there in the peacock with its tail splayed out.

But when you come to cook it, it gets really interesting because the peacock was skinned with the feathers intact so that the tail feathers and even the head and the neck would be preserved on the skin. The bird was cooked on a spit, spit-roasted, and the bird itself, once cooked, would have metal rods inserted in its legs and possibly even a clockwork mechanism inside the body of the bird, so that it could be made to stand upright on a stand and the skin and the feathers would be sewn back on and if the clockwork mechanism is working it can be made to walk along the tablecloth. 

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, that’s not the only bird for the pot, is it, because I can see that there are plenty of doves up towards the top of the painting.

Gillian Riley: Yes, up top on the left, you can just see in this very extreme perspective, there is a dovecote and in and out of the holes are coming semi-wild pigeons which will have been treasured and protected by law by the townspeople because they were for the pot. And there are wonderful recipes in the Marche, the Italian Marches, where Ascoli Piceno was, and one of them – I’ve had it cooked there with rabbit, but you can perfectly well apply this to pigeons or to guinea fowl, which has something of the gamey, slightly chicken qualities that these cultivated pigeons would have – and if you time, it’s a very good recipe, very quick – you joint your rabbit or guinea fowl or pigeon or whatever, brown it in olive oil with some chopped up pancetta, onion and garlic, then you tip into it a glass or so of white wine, and raise the heat so that the wine is more or less completely evaporated, then you tip some more wine in and add capers, stone black olives, mushrooms, or dried funghi porcini, plenty of herbs – and the characteristic herbs of the Marche would be wild fennel, which has this wonderful aromatic flavour, and it’s growing wild there, but if not use fennel seeds, along with fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, whatever you have, and cook slowly, uncovered, so that the liquid is almost completely evaporated, so that you have this very strong, dense sauce.

Miranda Hinkley: That sounds wonderful – it sounds like there are lots of flavours going on. It’s not just those herby flavours, but you’ve got the olives, and the capers, and really quite strong flavours as well.

Gillian Riley: Yes, that’s characteristic of the cooking of the Italian Marches. But the thing about this painting is that everybody who looked at this and admired the peacock would also know of the gastronomic significance – so why shouldn’t we?

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Gillian Riley. 'A Feast for the Eyes', Gillian’s cookery book inspired by the collection, is available from National Gallery shops – and if you’d like to try her recipe at home, you can find all the details in this month’s bonus download. That’s it for this episode. If you’d like to know more about any of the works in this month’s show, do visit our website – Or, if you’re in London, why not pop in – the Gallery is open 10 till 6 daily and 10 till 9 on Fridays, and a visit to the permanent collection is free of charge.

Until next month, goodbye!