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Episode 70

The National Gallery Podcast

New arrival: Vermeer’s ‘Guitar Player’. Plus poet Ted Hughes reads a tale from Ovid, and a guide to the (ancient) Olympics.

18 min 9 sec | August 2012

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

With the first medals already awarded at the London Olympics, we start this month with a visit to one of the Gallery’s sportier pictures. Degas’s Young Spartans Exercising depicts a group of young Spartan girls taunting a group of Spartan boys – perhaps challenging them to wrestle.

Sparta – as one of the Greek city-states – would have sent such athletes to the ancient Olympic Games, so we asked historian Neil Faulkner, author of 'A Visitors Guide to the Ancient Olympics', to take a look at Degas’s painting and tell us what it might have been like to attend the festival two and a half thousand years ago. Back then it seems, just being a spectator at the games was an endurance event in its own right.

Neil Faulkner: No stands, no shade. The Games take place in August which is immensely hot in Greece, so you’re standing under the burning summer sun in order to watch the events, jostling for a position, but I think a lot of them anyway would be pretty leaden-headed, once they were into the festival, because conditions in the Olympic village were pretty dire.

It was an improvised campsite, running for miles along the dried up flood plain of the River Alpheus with minimal sanitary arrangements. There would have been infestations, I think, of rodents and flies and mosquitos and wasps – terrible smells and congestion – and of course people partying all through the night, and prostitutes touting their services all through the night.

Respectable women in Greek terms would not have gone to the games. They would all have been left at home and the boys would have gone with other members of their family, their neighbours and friends and so on, and for them it would have been a kind of sex holiday and it’s a homoerotic charge of course because the Games are performed by men in front of men, but by men who are completely naked and are coated in oil. And there’s a lot of reference in the ancient sources to the way in which older men would very often be hanging around in the gymnasium in the city centre watching the young men exercising and sometimes making an advance to a young man who’s taken their fancy.

Miranda Hinkley: Let’s talk a bit about the sports; of course, we would have had the pentathlon, there were running races, the chariot races and the equestrian events… the thing that I’m quite excited about which I have tickets to see at the London Olympics is the wrestling which we know now as Greco-Roman wrestling.

Neil Faulkner: Yes, there were three combat sports at the ancient Greek Olympics and in order of brutality and probably in the order in which they were performed, there was wrestling, there was boxing, but even the boxing, much more bloody than our own, wasn’t as brutal as pankration which was a kind of all-in, no-holds barred wrestling.

The only exceptions, the only rules restricting what you could do were that you couldn’t bite bits off your opponent and you couldn’t gauge his eyes out, but pretty well anything else would go. So you could crush his ribs, you could break his fingers and his toes, you could pull limbs out of their sockets and twist them around, you could do pretty well anything to inflict the maximum imaginable amount of pain on your opponent in order to secure a submission.

Miranda Hinkley: Coming back to this image, Degas’s 'Young Spartans Exercising', we see young men and young women together in an athletic context, but of course, in the ancient games, women weren’t present.

Neil Faulkner: Yes, the only place in ancient Greece where you would have seen young men and young women exercising together was in fact, Sparta. Sparta was exceptional in this sense and was regarded as quite odd by other Greek cities, which were very patriarchal, though Sparta too was patriarchal and the reason why they encouraged girls to exercise was because they wanted them to be efficient breeding machines of young men who would serve as soldiers.

And sport is deeply embedded in this highly militarized culture, where there are a thousand city states, all competing with each other and all using their young men as a fighting militia. I mean Greece is an extraordinary phenomenon in the sense that, in some sense, it seems so progressive and advanced with democracy and with these great achievements in drama and philosophy and so on, but in other respects it’s a very alien place, a superstitious place, and a reactionary place. I think we would have suffered extreme culture shock were we to be transported back to the ancient games.

Miranda Hinkley: Thanks to Neil Faulkner. Degas’s 'Young Spartans Exercising' has been away from the National Gallery on loan for several months, but as of a few weeks ago, it’s back home and on display – if you’d like to see it for yourself, it’s in Room 46.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 - the Gallery’s ambitious multi-arts event organised as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival.  The project, which brings together the work of contemporary artists, poets, composers and choreographers, draws on the powerful stories of change found in three National Gallery masterpieces by the great 16th century Venetian painter, Titian. 

Each of the works focuses on a tale about the beautiful, but terrifying goddess Diana – as portrayed in 'Metamorphoses', the epic poem by Ovid.

Leah Kharibian met up with Helen King, Professor of Classical Studies at the Open University, to discuss one of the paintings – Titian’s Diana and Callisto – in which the goddess takes revenge on a former favourite amongst her band of nymphs.  But first, the late Ted Hughes – reading his own translation of Ovid’s 'Metamorphoses' in 1998 – sets the scene. A pretty girl has caught Jupiter’s eye…

Ted Hughes: And there she was – the Arcadian beauty, Callisto.
He stared. Lust bristled up his thighs
And poured into the roots of his teeth.
Of all Maenalus’ nymphs she was Diana’s
Favourite. But favourites have to fall.
She slackened her bow
And setting her quiver as a pillow
Flung herself down among the anemones
On the sun-littered floor of the woodland.
And that is where Jupiter spotted her.
Defenceless, drowsing, languid. ‘A wonder!’
He breathed.

Helen King: She’s been one of the nymphs who attends the goddess Diana and who goes hunting with her, but she’s had a sexual liaison with the god Jupiter. Now that wasn’t her choice – the god disguised himself as Diana and she thought that it was all fine – and then she was raped, and she got pregnant.

And nine months have passed and here we are: she’s been invited to take off her clothes and bathe with the other nymphs but she won’t take her clothes off because she knows what terrible secrets she has. She doesn’t want to reveal that to Diana. So the other nymphs here are stripping her, showing what the secret is. She’s pregnant, this is her pregnant belly and she’s going to be punished for it.

Leah Kharibian: The picture is really interestingly divided in two. On the right, there’s Diana and her retinue and on the left is the poor hapless Calisto.

Helen King: Yes, the painting falls into two very clear halves divided by the water in the middle. On the right, Diana is enthroned, supported by her nymphs, and on the left, Calisto is in a very similar position – she seems to be echoing Diana – but whereas Diana is resplendent and pure and light, Calisto is abject.

And there’s lots of colour on the right; there’s lots of action. On the left, it’s muted shades, shadow – the shame of Calisto is coming out, I think, in the colours that are being used.

Ted Hughes: How hard to keep guilt out of the face!
She no longer led the troop –
Was no longer the boisterous nearest
To the goddess. She hung back, eyes to the ground,
As if slinking along from hiding to hiding.

Leah Kharibian: Now actually the figure of Diana herself seems to be both infinitely interesting to Titian, but also to Ovid – she seems to be multi-faceted as a figure.

Helen King: Yes, even in the ancient Greek world from which Artemis comes – Artemis who becomes the Roman goddess Diana – she’s already a goddess with many roles. She’s associated with the hunt, with the wild, with all the areas outside the city, and that’s not just because she’s out there killing wild beasts – she’s also got a role as protector of the infants of wild beasts and humans.

She’s a mother goddess in a weird sense because she’s also perpetually virgin, one of three perpetually virgin Greek goddesses. And her virginity is a sort of wild virginity and she’s wild and she enjoys her wildness. She’s not a tame goddess at all.

Leah Kharibian: And what is her particular role with young women, because it seems that her nymphs here are really important to her?

Helen King: They’re her protectors in the sense that they look after her - they’re her servants – but she’s also teaching them her wild ways, teaching them to hunt. But weirdly the idea is not that they stay with her forever, they are of a certain age – they’re at puberty – and when they reach puberty they’ll get married and when they leave Artemis’s service – they’ll leave Diana’s service – and at that point they will become normal married women.

And Artemis-Diana, although she herself never crosses the boundaries into marriage, supports women who do, so you will dedicate your clothes to her for example, when you give birth, you’ll earlier dedicate to her when you get married, you’re sort of appeasing her; you’re saying ‘I’m no longer a virgin like you’, but she’ not opposed to that – she doesn’t hold you back. When the time is right and only when the time is right, she will encourage you into full maturity.

Leah Kharibian: So essentially what’s happened is that Calisto has done this at the wrong time – this is all about timing – this isn’t the right moment for this change to be happening for Calisto?

Helen King: I think that’s right. Diana is all about timeliness, about doing things at the right period in your life, so getting married, having a baby – these are all fine – but they must happen in the right order, at the right time. So I think what we’re having here is one of those instances where Diana is associated with change but timely change – change within the human life cycle - not forced change.

Ted Hughes: Diana led her company into a grove
With a cool stream over smooth pebbles.
“Here is a place,” she called,
“Where we can strip and bathe and be unseen.”
The Arcadian girl was in a panic.
The rest were naked in no time – she delayed,
She made excuses.
Then all the others
Stripped her by force – and with shrill voices
Exclaimed at her giveaway belly
That she tried pitifully to hide
With her hands.
The goddess, outraged,
Cried: “Do not defile this water or us.
Get away from us now and for ever.”

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Helen King, and you heard extracts from Ted Hughes’ 'Tales of Ovid'.

Our exhibition, 'Metamorphosis: Titian 2012', runs until the 23rd of September. Admission is free.

And you can find plenty more about the show – and the ambitious series of artistic commissions it’s spawned – on our website, including background on Titian and his three extraordinary works.

And that’s also where you can find information about the Metamorphosis poetry project. The National Gallery has commissioned a series of leading poets – including Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage and Wendy Cope - to create their own responses to Titian’s mythological paintings.

We’ll have more about that in next month’s episode, but ‘till then you can see films of the poets reading and talking about their work at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We now welcome a very special visitor to the Gallery – a world-class masterpiece by the Dutch 17th century artist, Johannes Vermeer. This picture, known as 'The Guitar Player', is never usually lent for exhibition. But for the next year it’s on loan to the Gallery while its regular home – Kenwood House in London’s Highgate – is being refurbished. Gallery curator Betsy Wiesman took us along to Room 25 to give this superb picture a closer look.

Betsy Wieseman: Vermeer is one of those artists that fools you into thinking he’s doing something very easy and in fact it’s incredibly complex and sophisticated.

In this painting we see a woman seated playing a guitar. She has her head tilted, she looks off to the left and she seems to actively strum her guitar – I’ll get back to that in a second. Behind her there’s a landscape painting on the wall in a gold frame, and then to her right is a small table with a couple of books and a window with a curtain hanging in front of it.

Amazingly simple composition, but Vermeer tweaks it in a number of ways that makes it incredibly sophisticated. For example, the figure rather than being dead centre is skewed off to the left, she’s almost edging out of the picture plane and this is something we’re not used to in 17th century paintings, where things are very symmetrical, very planned.

In 19th century paintings – Impressionist paintings by Monet and a lot of his colleagues – we’re used to that; figures being cut off by the edge of the picture plane, giving a sense of motion, of movement, of spontaneity. We’re not used to that in the 17th century, so right off the bat Vermeer is doing something quite unexpected.

One of the other things he does is to give a sense of active fingering of the guitar, and he does that by a very simple means of blurring the representation of the strings, so it seems as if she’s just strummed a chord and the strings are still vibrating. And it’s a very quiet, very subtle way of adding a bit of sound to the painting.

Leah Kharibian: It’s wonderful from that point of view. And yet it seems to constantly be throwing up questions. She’s looking out of the painting, but we don’t know who at; we’ve got this strumming of the guitar, but we don’t know if she’s playing for other people – he seems to be teasing us almost in some way…

Betsy Wieseman: Absolutely and that is one of the great charms of Vermeer. He always leaves us guessing – there’s always an element of ambiguity, of not knowing in his paintings. One of the main ways in which he does this is to blur the painting a bit. In many 17th century Dutch paintings, we’re used to a lot of detail and every aspect of the painting is meticulously laid out for us, and that’s one of the great charms of 17th century Dutch painting: we have this window into perceived reality.

But with Vermeer it’s as if we’re seeing it through a slightly fogged lens. From a distance, this painting looks very detailed, but when we get up closer he’s blurred the details almost to a point of abstraction. So no matter how close we get, we can’t ever grasp the fine details – and it keeps us wanting more; it’s a very clever trick.

Leah Kharibian: And finally, we’re really lucky to have this picture on loan, because the rest of the works at Kenwood House have gone on tour – to the States I believe – but this lady has stayed here. Can you tell us why?

Betsy Wieseman: Absolutely. The painting is in remarkable state of preservation. Many paintings – old master paintings – during their lifetime are backed with a canvas to strengthen them or they’re put on a new wooden stretcher, again, to stabilize them.

This painting has survived in its original state, so we’re seeing this painting as it left Vermeer’s studio – with a little bit of aging in the way. And because of that reason it’s extremely delicate and can’t travel outside of London – so we’re very fortunate to have it here for an extended residency.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Betsy Wieseman. And you might like to know that this painting – and the Gallery’s other masterpieces by Vermeer – will be at the heart of a National Gallery exhibition that’s scheduled for next summer. The show will explore Vermeer’s relationship to music… we’ll have more news nearer the time.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting this month, the National Gallery is open from ten 'till six daily, and 'till nine on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!