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Episode 55

The National Gallery Podcast

In Episode Fifty Five (May 2011), Gossaert's nudes: the naked sensuality of an Old Master painter. Plus curating Leonardo and artist Michael Landy work in progress.

16 min 46 sec | May 2011

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

Artist Michael Landy tells us what’s inspiring him...

And all the latest on this autumn’s big exhibition at the Gallery: ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we begin with a visit to our major exhibition ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’.  One of the many surprises of this show is the overt sensuality with which Gossaert treats the depiction of naked human flesh.  This, it turns out, was of very much to the taste of the man who became his main patron.  Leah Kharibian met the art historian Paula Nuttall in the exhibition to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Paula, we’re here in front of a depiction of the goddess Venus that Gossaert painted in 1521 and I wondered if you could start by describing it for us and telling us what it is about Gossaert’s depiction of the nude that sets him apart really from other painters in the Low Countries?

Paul Nuttall: Well, Gossaert’s nude is an extraordinarily erotic visualisation of Venus and she’s standing in front of us, very much presenting her entire naked beauty to the observer and she’s gazing at herself rather lovingly in a mirror.

And she has got these wonderful, silken tresses which I think themselves would have been very erotic at the time because we’ve got to remember that ladies went around with their heads very firmly covered in this period, so it’s not just her naked flesh, but actually her hair that is lending to her erotic appeal and then of course her left hand is placed very sort of... a humorous mixture of concealing and revealing there in the way that the hand is placed – this is a pose that goes back to classical antiquity, the idea of the modest Venus who is covering her nakedness, but of course her fingers are parted in just such a way that nothing is concealed at all.

Leah Kharibian: Yes, she’s actually very rude! Now it’s thought that this picture was painted for Gossaert’s patron, Philip of Burgundy – who was he?

Paul Nuttall: Philip of Burgundy was the youngest of many illegitimate children of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy in the 15th century, and it seems that Philip’s father, Philip the Good, was himself a man who loved the pleasures of the flesh, because he had many, many illegitimate children, and it seems that some of these tastes may have been inherited by his son.

But Philip was a member of obviously the highest class in the Netherlands – a man of royal descent... he was admiral of the fleet during the period that Gossaert was working for him. He rather bizarrely then became Bishop of Utrecht.

Leah Kharibian: Bishop?

Paul Nuttall: Yes, it’s slightly unlikely as a career path but yes, from admiral to bishop. More seriously I think he was also one of the most cultivated, learned men of his day. In the Low Countries, he was esteemed as somebody who was interested in the sort of Italian humanist world and I think that’s reflected in the choice of subjects that he gets Gossaert to paint for him... these mythological subjects. Philip is also supposed to have been a trained artist himself which is of course fascinating for someone from his class and very unusual. But he is supposed to have been trained both as a painter and as a goldsmith and it’s interesting that there are some exquisitely painted pieces of metalwork, goldsmith’s work, in the Gossaert Venus, which perhaps reflects those interests.

Leah Kharibian: There’s a really interesting little picture that’s hung quite close to the Venus here in the exhibition which shows the two mythological figures, Hercules and Deianeira and the picture again has this really quite strong erotic content. The pair of figures are nude... they’ve got their legs all wonderfully intertwined and I was just wondering – is it a case that Philip’s interest in the erotic, was that just peculiar to him?

Paul Nuttall: I think Philip was very interested in the erotic, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to him. We actually know that he made presents of erotic paintings to several of his friends and so they presumably shared his tastes, but more importantly there was I think a huge tradition of erotic imagery in the north of Europe long before Gossaert’s time. Very little of this survives today but there’s plenty of documentary evidence for that kind of thing. And I think what Gossaert is doing is actually updating a very long-standing tradition of I think quite explicitly images actually. He’s updating this tradition in Italianate terms – you know, making it trendy for the 16th century art-lover.

Leah Kharibian: Wonderful, thank you very much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Paula Nuttall. ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’ is open throughout the month. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Every few years a contemporary artist is invited to make the Gallery their home. They work in a studio within the building and have full access to the collection and all that goes on behind the scenes. The latest appointee is Michael Landy, best known in recent years for ‘Art Bin’, a project about failure that saw him offer fellow artists the chance to throw away work they were disappointed with. It’s a year since Landy became the National Gallery’s artist in residence – so we sent Colin Wiggins from the education department to find out how he’s been getting on. 

Colin Wiggins: Michael you’ve been here a little while now and you’ve started drawing and you’re drawing from a very limited range of pictures. Basically we’ve got the El Greco, the Degas, the Cezanne, and this funny thing – do you want to tell us about this picture that I’m describing as ‘this funny thing’.

Michael Landy: Yeah, that’s Dosso Dossi’s ‘Lamentation over the Body of Christ’ and I’d never heard of Dosso Dossi and you’ve obviously got a couple of pictures upstairs and this is only a very small painting but I’ve made it into a much larger watercolour drawing and it’s got the three Maries, I think they’re called, and they’re kind of hovering over the body of Christ and he’s just laying on the floor horizontally and they’re weeping over him, and what attracted me in the first place was the actual passion of the... the raw passion of the painting really and the women themselves really... they’ve got this very distinctive kind of faces and their arms are just absolutely massive – they’re like Geoff Capes, shotputter-from-the-1970s, arms so it’s just the raw passion that really interested me in the beginning and obviously what I’m doing... I’m drawing paint, basically, and so the paint cracked so I tried to draw in the cracks as well. ... So the actual drawing itself, I don’t put in the background or anything so it’s just the actual figures, so like with most of my drawings, I just hone in on a plant or the figures... I’m not interested in the background so it kind of hovers on a white piece of paper.

Colin Wiggins: And then on this scale because as you point out the original painting of Dosso Dossi’s is very, very small – it’s kind of A4 size. And you’ve done a drawing that must be – what six feet high? And that to me really brings home the distortions in the original painting... those incredibly short stumpy arms that you talked about as if they’re shot-putter arms, but also it does weird things to the faces, doesn’t it... these huge foreheads and then little tiny pinched features in the middle of it. Had you really noticed that before you started drawing it?

Michael Landy: Yeah, yeah, that’s kind of what attracted me... because it was just such an unusual kind of painting and I guess that’s why I was drawn to it. And you make a good observation about I’ve only drawn three paintings from the collection.

At the moment I don’t seem to want to draw any more, so it kind of feels like that’s enough for me at the moment.

Colin Wiggins: So you’re really forming a relationship as it were with just a small amount of pictures and drawing them again and again and again...

Michael Landy: Yes, that’s what I normally do... sort of attach onto something and then kind of repeat it.

Colin Wiggins: And do you know why you do that? Why you don’t move on to something else?

Michael Landy: Not really... I just... they’re the particular paintings that I’m drawn to try and copy and... no I mean obviously I look upstairs and is there any other victims that I could draw, but there isn’t, at the moment. So maybe I’ve stopped drawing for now and I’m kind of trying to reassess what I want to do.

Colin Wiggins: So you’ve drawn from this painting but there’s always an intermediary in terms of the photograph – you get a photograph ordered and you work from that. Is that purely because you don’t want to be working in front of people or is there another reason?

Michael Landy: What that I can’t draw? No, no... I think drawing in front of people it becomes more performative in a sense and downstairs I can literally staple the drawing that I’m working on to the wall... which I don’t think you’d be very happy with in the galleries. So I quite like the we were talking before about artist in residence and exactly what that means and how visible one should be really as artist in reverence...

Colin Wiggins: You almost said artist in reverence then... that was a Freudian slip, wasn’t it? So I’m going to pick you up on that because we can’t let that go... are you in a bit in awe of these paintings as artist in reverence?

Michael Landy: Well, obviously I am and I think actually before I came here much more so than since being here because I’m sort of down in the bowels of the gallery and what’s great about here, you can just pop up into the galleries and just look at one painting in particular and you can take that away with you.

Colin Wiggins: In a state of due reverence...

Michael Landy: Obviously.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Michael Landy talking to Colin Wiggins. If you want to see the work that’s inspired Michael for yourself, it’s ‘Lamentation over the Body of Christ’ by the 16th century painter, Dosso Dossi. 
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to the Gallery’s much-anticipated exhibition ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’.  Advance tickets for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the master’s work go on sale this month.  And with just six months to go before the opening in November, what’s it like to be the show’s curator - Luke Syson?  Leah Kharibian went to find out.

Leah Kharibian: Luke, we’re here in your office, surrounded by books and paperwork and there’s six months left to go – what’s still left for you to do?

Luke Syson: Sometimes it feels like practically everything. On other, saner days, I realise that we’ve already got quite far. So lots of decisions really about where things go, how they’re labelled, how they’re explained. Then I suppose some very keen loans just to pin down at this last stage – discussions that have been going on for quite a long time... people don’t lend pictures by Leonardo lightly – I mean there are so few of them and they’re so important for each institution as an emblem of the particular galleries that contain them as much as anything else. So yeah... discussions that have been going on literally for years in some cases.

Leah Kharibian: And is there anything in particular that’s keeping you awake at night?

Luke Syson: Funnily enough it’s probably the cumulative stuff as much as anything else. Little things and big things and little things that can become magnified into big things in the middle of the night especially. I suppose the thing that’s keeping me awake most at night is the idea that we have, I think, pulled off a show that will be amazing and I need to finish a catalogue which is up to par, which is as good as it should be, and Leonardo is a very, very difficult artist. This is a real challenge – it would be a challenge for anybody, I think, but what we’re trying to do is explain an artist who wasn’t just a painter, he was a painter-philosopher, and therefore I’ve had to get my head around an extraordinary range of things that Leonardo was interested in, and you know it’s like being a tiny little person trying to understand a giant, and that’s part of the thing that’s making me... giving me the heebie-jeebies now and then.

Leah Kharibian: I’m not surprised... I’m not surprised at all. Now, the show I know has got some absolutely amazing loans, and once you’ve got this exhibition list together how do you go about deciding what’s going to be hung where?

Luke Syson: Well, I think it’s probably easiest to explain that in front of the 3D model that we use and some layouts and I’ll take you to where we keep that now. ... So here we are with the cardboard model of the temporary exhibition galleries of the Sainsbury Wing and what I’m provided with by our design department is tiny, tiny little postage stamp reproductions of each of the pictures and drawings that are going in the show, or that we hope will... so sometimes it’s a bit speculative this. But on the whole what we’re doing with this is using the shapes of the rooms to work out where absolutely everything will go. If we fail to achieve a loan, then it comes off the wall and the little bit of blue tack is stuck somewhere else. So that’s what we’ve got there.

And what I’m thinking about is the logical order in terms of the story we want to tell, but also the visual impact and how those two things relate to each other. So for example, we’ve got our own ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ on the vista in the big room, but equally we want to take people through the sequence of rooms at the beginning and those climax with the St Jerome coming from the Vatican. And of course the other thing we’re doing here is thinking well these spaces are going to be crowded and so do we have to tell a story in a completely linear way or can it be one where the story builds up even if you see things in a slightly different order.

Leah Kharibian: Now there are six months to go but can you actually at the moment picture yourself at the opening, you know, proud curator at the opening, or is a case that there’s just still too much to worry about?

Luke Syson: I think it would be fair to describe my state of mind at the moment as a bit of a roller coaster in that at my most optimistic I think this is going to be the most extraordinary assemblage of works by Leonardo that has ever been seen in one place and then the enormity of the task of pulling that off suddenly will make me sit up in bed at 3.30 in the morning.

And so I’m just really waiting to see those last loans fall into place and then at the same time I’m finishing off the catalogue and I need that to be worthy of a really great show.

Leah Kharibian: I’m sure it will be – thank you so much Luke.

Luke Syson: Pleasure.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Luke Syson. ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ opens in November, but as we’ve heard, advance tickets go on sale from the 10th of this month. To be sure of getting yours, visit

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting, don’t forget we’re open 10am to 6pm, and 10am to 9pm on Fridays.

Till next month, goodbye.