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Episode 64

The National Gallery Podcast

This month: Monet’s inspiring final years. Plus notes on Leonardo and how not to behave in church.

17 min 7 sec | February 2012

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

This month we start with a look at the pin-sharp detail of Pieter Saenredam’s 'Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht'. The mid-17th century work depicts – with great accuracy – a lofty church interior flooded with natural light. The vaulting architecture captures all the peace and tranquillity of the sacred space.... but beneath there’s a far more secular scene – a dog and two small children... one busy drawing graffiti on the church wall. We asked curator Betsy Wieseman and Professor Erica Fudge – an expert in the representation of animals – what this tension tells us about life in the 17th century. Betsy began by describing the work.

Betsy Wieseman: What I find so interesting is that a lot of the detail and the action is focused at the bottom quarter of the painting. And if you just visually scan down from the top to the bottom... at the top you have this almost ethereal... this almost ethereal arrangement of very pure lines of the arched ceiling of the church and then you slowly move down and the network of arches becomes a little more complex, and then you get this flood of light from the windows, and then you move down the walls of the church and then you have this patterned floor and the figures – and suddenly it becomes a lot more active with a lot more visual interest and just a buzz of human activity.

Erica Fudge: But I think what’s most interesting of course are the two children, one of whom looks like they are graffitying the walls of the church which is fantastic – which is of course what children might do – and the other one sitting down with a well-trained dog. And I think – on one level – children in churches might draw on walls. They may still draw on walls these days.

But I think what’s really interesting is that that fits with this idea of the light, the ethereal height – that at the base of humanity we are bodies, and children and dogs in this period become really clear representations of the fearful fleshiness of humanity – that children must learn not to be children... to be adults, to be reasonable, to be rational – and I suppose this is the distinction between the child who appears to be drawing on the wall, and the adults – with a young person with them, who are reading what is on the wall, and meant to be on the wall – so there’s that nice distinction between the good child and the naughty child. And I think it’s worth saying that the base of the painting – while it brings in colour and darkness – it’s also of course an image of gravestones. So what we know, of course, beneath the painting – outside the frame of the painting, or below the frame of the painting – are dead bodies. Are the very fleshy remains of humans. That is all we are and there they are, just beyond the picture.

Betsy Wieseman: One detail that I particularly liked was the juxtaposition, right above the childrens’ heads of Moses with the Ten Commandments – shown with the tablets. And he’s this very fierce looking figure. But it does support that idea that through law – through reason and conforming to certain standards of civility, of behaviour, whatever, that you can be raised.

Erica Fudge: I mean one of the things that’s happening in England in Protestant culture as well as the Netherlands is what Norbert Elias called, the historian Norbet Elias said was a shifting boundary of embarrassment. And so what we would see as normal behaviour – not blowing your nose on a tablecloth – is actually being constructed in the 16th century. And there are some fantastic manuals that Norbet Elias pulled out – you know, people told not to pee in corridors, people told not to pee in the dining room during a meal. And it’s stuff that we just think – you’re joking! – and so I think dogs again, are symbolically attached to this, because a dog will pee anywhere. And in another one of these genre paintings there are dogs peeing in churches. And I think this just reinforces the fact that how that child becomes human is not simply putting down the crayon and stop drawing on the wall; it’s learning to control his body. And urination becomes a very simple part of that. And of course it still is. You have to teach a child to... you have to potty-train a child. And so at the bottom of this we have – with this great picture of these two children and a dog – a sort of mid-point. There’s a child who’s being childish – drawing on a church wall, this is very bad – drawing a picture of a very secular story. We’ve also got a child training a dog – it’s on the way to control. And so I think the picture is hopeful. It’s making sure we know humans are fleshy but also making sure that we know there is light. And there is the hope of eternal possibility if we are able to take it. And of course it’s God’s will that we will be able to take it in Protestant thought. You know, control yourself and it will all be alright. Don’t act like a dog!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Betsy Wieseman and Erica Fudge, talking about Saenredam’s 'Interior of the Buurkerk at Utrecht'. If you’d like to see the painting for yourself, it’s on display in Room 16.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next. The Gallery’s collection includes many works produced by artists who – when judged by the standards of today’s youth-obsessed culture – might be considered past their prime.  Among these pictures are an astonishing group painted by the French Impressionist, Claude Monet – all made at an age when most people might think of retiring.  Irma Kurtz, the writer, broadcaster and agony-aunt, has made it her mission in recent years to address social attitudes to creativity in old age. And she’s made a special study of Claude Monet, from whom she thinks we can learn a lot.  Leah Kharibian met her in the Galleries to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Irma, we’re here in front of Monet’s 'Waterlillies, Setting Sun', probably painted in around 1907, when Monet was 67 years old and maybe only completed when he was in his eighties and it’s a view down onto the surface of his lily pond in his garden at Giverney, and it’s an extraordinary picture, isn’t it?

Irma Kurtz: It’s a wonderful feeling having stood in this very place in the garden. This feels like the pond at Giverney. But this is especially interesting because first, we’re lucky to have it. When he grew old like a lot of old artists he sometimes changed and even destroyed canvases – and this could well have been one of them in 1907 – so we’re very fortunate to be able to see this wonderful, bright, beautiful piece of work.

Leah Kharibian: And you’ve really been interested in old age as an age where it’s a moment when people are actually incredibly inspired and creative... and I wondered what it was that drew you to Monet in particular?

Irma Kurtz: I think it was... I was drawn to Monet partly because he did his – arguably – best work in old age. And I would argue that by the way – I think he did do his best work in his old age. And I also know that he had to overcome terrible things... the death of his second wife stopped him painting for a while – and without the encouragement of people like Clemenceau who was a great friend of his, he would probably have given up. But he didn’t give up. He didn’t go gentle. He resisted; he fought. It was hard work – and it is hard work in old age to hang onto your dreams and your vision because a man who nearly lost his sight in old age. Can you imagine what a painter and artist feels when that gift is threatened? And he finally only had the operation a few years before the end – and it was successful. Thank goodness it was successful.

Leah Kharibian: And it’s thought that it was after the operation that he actually put the final touches on this picture including that wonderful bright red signature in the corner.

Irma Kurtz: Exactly, because in fact the condition of his eyes made red and black problematical in his work previously. So he actually had something in old age that he had lacked for a long time before.

Leah Kharibian: And do you think it’s actually the fact that he had to deal with things like cataracts... he had to deal with bereavements... he was dealing with – in fact – the whole gamut of things that happen in old age, do you think that actually prompted this great flowering really of creativity at the end of his life?

Irma Kurtz: Flowering is the perfect word because of course the water lilies are a wonderful example of that flowering, aren’t they? He coped with a great many things too; don’t forget that there was a war in 1914 and he actually – the smoke from the war nearby, was drifting over his head in the garden. So it was not just his personal life that he had to resist giving in... I think he should be very proud... I’m very proud.

Leah Kharibian: That’s good that you’re proud. But I mean older creatives – what’s our recipe? What do we need to be holding onto, do you think?

Irma Kurtz: For one thing – friends. Because he had good friends who helped him a lot through the crises. And helpers – even paid helpers. He paid a young man, do you know, to go out in a little boat and clean the leaves of the water-lillies before he painted them. It isn’t a bad idea to have a support team in place.

Leah Kharibian: So support and determination?

Irma Kurtz: And determination. And of course genius helps!

Leah Kharibian: Thank you so much.

Irma Kurtz: Not at all.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Our thanks to Irma Kurtz. 'Water-Lilies, Setting Sun' is on display in Room 43.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): One Friday last month we held a special event to coincide with our major exhibition, 'Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan'. Hosted by writer and broadcaster, Robert Worby, it explored Leonardo’s fascination with music and featured a performance by the Guildhall Viol Consort of a number of pieces from the artist’s time. Among the topics for discussion, was a portrait by Leonardo called 'The Musician', which shows a beautiful young man holding a scrap of music. Robert Worby asked his guest – musicologist Dr Tim Shephard – what he made of the work.

Tim Shephard: It’s a very interesting painting. This was a particularly interesting time for portraiture. Portraiture was undergoing a bit of a mini-revolution. Early 15th century portraits tend to focus absolutely on a profile, so you see the sitter like this... But towards the end of the 15th century the sitter sort of moves sort of towards you – he sort of wants to look at you, but he doesn’t quite. Now that completely changes the way in which a portrait can be used... what it’s for... what it can say. In particular it can start to encode more of a personality and that’s what a lot of people think of with Leonardo’s portraits. Now here we’ve got rather a strange attitude in the sitter. He’s showing us his piece of paper which has a little bit of music on, but he’s not looking at us. Who is he showing the paper to? Who is he looking at? Now the music is slightly decipherable. It was actually over-painted for a lot of this painting’s life... someone painted over the top of it and then it was discovered when the painting was cleaned. Now that means that probably a lot of the detail from that patch has been lost. So it may be that – I mean you can see how much there is left of the music – really just snippets... but what there is, is very precisely painted. So it seems like Leonardo intended for us to see all of the notes and to maybe able to recognise it or at least recognise what kind of music it’s supposed to be. As it is, we’ve got very little to go on.  You can see that we’ve got a line of recognisable notes at the bottom – and just above them is some text, which suggests to me that maybe it’s a song. The text should go with whatever notes were on the line above it. However, what kind of song, we really don’t know.

Robert Worby: Maybe, Liam, you could play that for us. I notice there are two symbols that look like modern day sharp signs or natural signs...

Liam Byrne: It’s a cleft telling you where ‘C’ is...

Robert Worby: So to do with the musical interludes...

Liam Byrne: So there are two possible resolutions depending on where that cleft goes and I can play them both for you.

Robert Worby: Yeah, that would be good.


Robert Worby: Tim, can we just go back to the painting so we can see the music. It strikes me that the music... two things... it’s folded – and it’s also facing out to us. The musician is not looking at the music; we can see the music. And also – it’s mentioned often – that the sitter’s eyes... there are tears just in the bottom of his eyes. And his lips are just parted.

Tim Shephard: What strikes me is all the verse that was popular at the courts at this time and particularly the poetry that was sung, is about adopting the position of the unsuccessful lover. Every courtier yearned to be spurned by a beautiful lady, which would give them occasion to complain about it at great length in song. So it strikes me that perhaps that’s what... perhaps that’s the scenario that Leonardo is trying to give us in this picture. Maybe the song that’s being shown to us expresses the grief in love that this courtly gentleman is feeling and experiencing. But of course it’s actually one of the features of this kind of poetry that even though the poet is saying or singing his words – what he says is ‘Oh, my grief in love has made me silent. My voice stills in my chest’. So he goes on and on about having a broken voice, which is a little bit of a contradiction in terms. Whereas here, actually he is apparently silent. Actually his weeping has brought his song to an end so he can only show us the score, so that we can understand the sensations that he is experiencing. However, sadly we can’t because someone painted over it.

Robert Worby: Thank you very much!

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Tim Shephard, Robert Worby, and the performers: Arngeir Hauksson, Matthew Long and Liam Byrne. That’s nearly it for this episode – but just before we finish, some news for listeners living near Liverpool, Norwich or Cardiff. Titian’s masterpiece 'Diana and Actaeon' will be on tour for the next few months – visiting each of those cities in turn. If you’d like to catch it near you, see the website for details – that’s

Until next time, goodbye.