Skip to main content

Episode 61

The National Gallery Podcast

This month, get a sneak preview of the 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan' exhibition, and how Titian's paintings are inspiring dance works at the Royal Opera House.

17 min 11 sec | November 2011

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

‘Twas the night before Leonardo... your chance to get an early glimpse of this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition...

And... Titian goes to the ballet... how the Italian master’s paintings are inspiring a series of new dance works.

Well... the waiting’s nearly over. 'Leonardo: Painter at the Court of Milan', sponsored by Credit Suisse, will be the most complete display of Leonardo da Vinci’s rare surviving paintings ever held. The show opens on Wednesday the 9th of November… but – in an exhibition first – you can get a preview of the paintings the night before... either at the cinema or on your own TV.

'Leonardo Live' will be broadcast from the National Gallery at 7pm on Tuesday the 8th of November. Leah Kharibian met up with presenter, Tim Marlow, to find out more...

Leah Kharibian: I’m here with Tim Marlow at the Stratford Picture House Cinema in London in the rather plush surroundings of screen number three. And this is one of the cinemas that will be showing 'Leonardo Live', but Tim it seems like a bit of a wild idea really – why would we want to see these pictures on a screen rather than in the Gallery?

Tim Marlow: Well emphatically it’s not an either/or. Exhibitions absolutely, first and foremost, bring us directly into contact with these extraordinary, vulnerable, moving, powerful, fragile, works of art and we should never forget that. But it’s great also to be able to see things in a slightly different way. Television does that, of course, but a large screen really will enable us to see Leonardo in ways we’ve not really ever done before, certainly I’ve never done before.

But the idea here is also the sense of an event. We wanted the idea of an occasion. This is one of the greatest artists in the entire canon of western art history. This is a once in a lifetime show; it’s the formative period in Milan, amongst the greatest achievements and we want the idea that people get a private view... the kind of view that the art world tends to have all the time and people like me get and I never try and forget that this is a kind of privilege.

Leah Kharibian: And you’ve got 80 minutes – how are you going to be filling your time in this live broadcast?

Tim Marlow: Eighty minutes sounds quite a long time to me as an arts broadcaster and then I thought about it and I thought about what’s actually in this exhibition and the richness of it; not just the paintings but the sketchbooks, the drawings, the comparative material and actually it’s going to be very tight.

But what we’re going to do is as often as possible either me or my co-host, Mariella Frostrup, we’re going to be in the Galleries, although we’ve got a sort of little studio just outside as well, and we’re going to be engaging with the works of art, as directly as possible, but also we’re going to have all kinds of guests; we’re going to have different perspectives, so we’re going to be talking to artists, architects, theologians, dancers, choreographers, philosophers, actors, film directors, curators, art historians, and a whole load more.

Leah Kharibian: You are going to be quite busy then, in 80 minutes... Now I think you can watch this either on Sky Arts HD on your telly at home or in a nearby cinema – is that right?

Tim Marlow: Yeah, it’s going to be simultaneously cast on Sky TV or, I think there are nearly 40 cinemas around the country signed up from Aberdeen to Exeter to Liverpool to Birmingham and beyond... and hopefully more will sign up before the event itself.

Leah Kharibian: And we have had live broadcasts in cinemas of opera and of ballet, but this sort of simulcast is the very first time it’s been done in an exhibition. How do you feel about taking part in something that’s actually broadcasting history?

Tim Marlow: I’m really excited and I think this is something that is both an experiment of which artists like Leonardo, I hope, would have approved, but also I think it does give the opportunity to engage with art in a slightly different way.

What I want to make clear though... I think the programme will have a great sense of energy and a sense of an event and I think it will reveal things that often other programmes don’t reveal or sometimes other exhibitions don’t reveal, but in no way are we trying to water down or dumb down. Leonardo specifically, but I think visual art exhibitions in general, have good audiences. They don’t need to be dumbed down or watered down; people are engaged enough as it is, so what we’re doing, I hope, is paying a kind of homage or tribute, both to Leonardo himself and the exhibition, but also offering different perspectives; different ways of thinking about Leonardo; different ways of viewing Leonardo.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Tim Marlow and everyone at the Stratford Picture House Cinema.

'Leonardo Live' will be broadcast on Tuesday the 8th of November – you can watch at home on Sky Arts HD or at cinemas nationwide. Check our website for your nearest venue:

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Right now, exhibition curator, Luke Syson, is probably the busiest man in the Gallery... but we caught up with him... briefly... to hear about one of the highlights of the show.

The exhibition will bring together two pictures that bookend Leonardo’s 18-year stay in the city of Milan. These are the artist’s two versions of his great altarpiece 'The Virgin of the Rocks' – one of which is among the National Gallery’s most treasured pictures, the other, an extraordinary loan from the Louvre.

With just a week to go before we can see these works together for ourselves, Leah Kharibian asked Luke how significant it will be to have them both in the gallery.

Luke Syson: More than historic, it feels almost miraculous. The Louvre’s extraordinary generosity in lending their version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks' means that we can see these two pictures, theirs and ours at the National Gallery, together for the very first time and this may be something that even Leonardo never saw.

Leah Kharibian: You don’t think he may have had them in the studio at the same time?

Luke Syson: It seems a bit unlikely. Obviously we can’t tell precisely, but certainly in modern times nobody’s ever seen these two pictures together in the same room. And I think what’s exciting about it is that although I already have my ideas about what the differences between the two pictures mean, this is really a moment for everybody to look at the two of them and to make up their minds about the relationship between the two pictures.

Leah Kharibian: Now the Louvre version of 'The Virgin of the Rocks' is the earlier of the two pictures, and it’s also – am I right? – the first picture that Leonardo paints after coming to Milan in about 1482 and I was wondering if you could describe it and what you feel it actually tells us about Leonardo’s ideas and ambitions for art at this date.

Luke Syson: You’re seeing Leonardo here still very much a Florentine painter and he’s done certain things which mark him out in that way. It’s a picture that shows the four different characters, the Virgin, an angel and then the two babies, to the left, St John the Baptist, and then in the middle, the sweetly charming Christ Child blessing his cousin on the other side of the picture. And they’re all set in a very careful stage in a way... this is a rocky grotto, but it’s also a space that’s really quite clearly defined.

And what you see here is really Leonardo, the ultimate naturalistic painter. You’re seeing flowers, for example, in the foreground, irises, which are exquisitely observed... or lilies... ivy growing up the rocks in the background. And all of these show Leonardo at a moment when he’s been studying the world around him with a concentration that perhaps nobody... that was perhaps unprecedented.

Leah Kharibian: So coming to the second version of the picture, can you tell us what you think might have changed?

Luke Syson: Well, there are certain quite formal things which have changed, so whereas in the first, the angel looks out at us and points at the Baptist, he’s really there as a kind of guide to the painting. But in the National Gallery painting, that pointing hand has been eliminated and the angel’s gaze is now looking inwards... it’s averted from the viewer and if it’s as if the whole of the rest of the scene becomes dream-like; it’s as if it’s occurring in the head of that angel.

The figures have become more monumental; the draperies in particular are much less complicated and busy and perhaps most importantly the sense of relief and colour has changed very profoundly. So where the red robe for example worn by the angel in the Louvre picture has become a kind of muted dusty version of the Virgin’s blue robe... and whereas, as I say, the Louvre picture is carefully set on a defined stage, the National Gallery painting is much more complicated in terms of the space that’s being described.

Leah Kharibian: And what about Leonardo’s personal circumstances? What had changed between the two pictures?

Luke Syson: Leonardo arrived in Milan as a painter of extraordinary talent but no substantial record and without any real guarantee that he was going to make a success of it in this new city. What he was aiming to do was to catch the eye of Lodivico Il Moro the ruler of Milan, although as regent rather than the Duke at that particular point, and I think over the course of the next few years, that’s exactly what he did. He persuaded the Duke that what he needed was a court artist of his calibre... somebody who could do much more than glamorous, interior decoration, and who could stand for his own talent. And this was a mutual benefit society if you like because at the same time Lodivico could demonstrate his own particular ability by the recognition of great talent.

And in a way that’s what Leonardo’s stylistic decisions very subtly mirror and echo. Leonardo’s view of a perfect world was one that could express Ludivoco’s. So whereas he begins by thinking that painting should be the mirror of nature; that it should accurately reflect everything that you could see around you, by the time he’s painting this picture he’s settled at court; he’s got a salary, and the time and space to think more about what a painting can be... what a painting can do. And I think now he’s thinking about the painter’s ability really to see more than nature; to arrive at an ideal which is perhaps closer to the perfect idea of everything that it was believed God held in his head, that we’re seeing here painted, for our delight, God’s perfect plan for the universe.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Luke Syson, who – you might be interested to know – also features in the exhibition audio guide, along with the Gallery’s Head of Conservation, Larry Keith.

And if you’re planning a visit to the exhibition, it’s a good idea to book in advance – we’ve already sold a record number of tickets. You can buy yours at the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Now, the second of our two-part series giving you a preview of 2012’s exhibitions at the Gallery. Last month, Colin Wiggins told us about a show opening in March, 'Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude'. Now he’s back with news of two exhibitions coming up later in the year... both rather unusual.

The first – 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' – is sponsored by Credit Suisse and sees a group of contemporary artists, poets, choreographers and composers offer responses to a series of Titian’s paintings – all of which were inspired by Ovid’s painting, ‘Metamorphosis’. These commissions will result not just in an exhibition, but also the performance of three new ballets at the Royal Opera House in July.

Colin began by explaining the origins of the project – the recent acquisition – after a UK-wide fundraising campaign – of Titian’s 'Diana and Actaeon'.

Colin Wiggins: What we are doing with this picture to celebrate its coming to Trafalgar Square, is making it do what we want all of our paintings to do which is to inspire new art and in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, we will be showing set designs by Chris Ofili, Mark Wallinger, and Conrad Shawcross – three of the most important contemporary artists working today – who are making set designs for a ballet that is being inspired by the acquisition of this painting. And that’s very, very appropriate, because Titian’s painting itself was derived from ancient literature.

Titian took his cue from Ovid’s great 'Metamorphosis' which was written when Augustus was the ancient Roman emperor and has been inspiring artists and writers and musicians ever since. So it’s a matter of continuity; it’s a matter of art generating art; it’s a matter of artists looking at the achievements of the past and basically, I think, taking it on. And I’m particularly interested to see what these three living artists make of this challenge because it’s a big ask for them and one has to admire their courage in doing it because if you’re a contemporary artist taking on Titian, making a response to Titian, you are setting yourself up for a fall. So – good luck to them, and please come along and again, make your own judgements.

Miranda Hinkley: Titian’s certainly a heavy-weight and this is quite an ambitious project because it’s multi-disciplinary in that we’ve got visual artists responding and then of course there are poets who are providing the libretto... there are choreographers, I mean it really ranges across all of the arts that you would expect to go into a ballet.

Colin Wiggins: That’s right, that’s right, and it’s been a great exercise for the National Gallery in collaborating with outside partners, people who are not immersed in the visual arts world and I think it’s exciting for them as well to be connecting with the visual arts, with the art of painting, just as much as it is for us to be collaborating with them.

Miranda Hinkley: So that exhibition – 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012' – will be running from the 11th of July to the 23rd of September and there’s free admission on that one so do come and have a look. The final exhibition which we’d like to tell you about which I’m personally very excited about is something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see at the National Gallery in that it’s a photography exhibition.

Colin Wiggins: Photography is really the new kid on the block. It started as an art form in the 1840s, 1850s, and right from the beginning its validity as an art form is being questioned and that’s still true today – I know that we’re going to get people saying ‘photography isn’t art’ when we put this show on. But the show is double-edged... we’re going to be investigating the links between the original photographers in the 1840s, 50s, 60s... the links with old master painting, because of course the early photographers are taking their visual cues from a visual language that has already been defined by the painters. And we’re bringing it right up to date by carefully selecting some contemporary photographers who again, likewise, are very, very visually literate and are responding to the visual traditions as invented by painters over the centuries.

So we have got names that I think an audience will be familiar with like Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, in the early part of the exhibition and then we’ve got artists, contemporary artists, like Tom Hunter and Craigie Horsfield who have made works that are directly – I think ‘inspired’ is not quite the right word because again I think there’s an element of confrontation, but they are taking their cue from painting and I think staking their own claim for their own artistic validity. So we want this exhibition again to make people look and think – we don’t want the visitors to any of these exhibitions to come passively, thinking they’re going to sit and be spoon-fed... we want people to actually actively engage with the juxtapositions, with the old and the new that we’re working with. We want to set up a whole dialogue with our audience both the real audience and a virtual audience to actually get people looking at the National Gallery paintings and using these paintings to stimulate their own creativity.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins. 'Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present' will open at the end of October next year – we’ll have more news nearer the time.

If you’re visiting this month, we’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays  - and don’t forget to buy your Leonardo tickets... they’re selling fast.

Until next time, goodbye.