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Episode 71

The National Gallery Podcast

Titian’s paintings inspire leading poets: Seamus Heaney reads new work. Plus what twilight meant (before vampires) and Millet’s ‘Winnower’.

16 min 29 sec | September 2012

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

We start this month with a visit to one of two paintings in the National Gallery’s collection by the French nineteenth-century artist, Jean-François Millet.

Born into a peasant community in a small Normandy village, Millet is best-known for his realistic depictions of rural life. Art-historian Jacqui Ansell introduced me to The Winnower – a striking portrait of a peasant farmer at work in a barn.

Jacqui Ansell: You’re drawn in by the light that defuses its way through the painting. It’s almost Rembrant-esque, actually… he emerges from the darkness. And if you think about it there are very few working class people at all depicted in the Gallery and he’s not just a worker, he’s someone who is visibly working before your eyes.

He’s winnowing – he’s separating the wheat from the chaff. The light is shining on the back of his neck, which gives you the sense of the strain as he’s heaving that great big winnowing basket up onto his knee and if you look down towards his feet, you’ll see they’re rooted very firmly into his sabot, these peasant wooden shoes, and he’s tried to make them a bit more comfortable by stuffing them full of straw, so there are all these little details, and if you look back at the knee-pads, they’re actually pieces of cloth that have been fasted on by pieces of straw that have been woven around to make rope.

So it’s a very simple painting and it shows actions that anybody really who lived in the countryside would be really familiar with and that’s why I think really it needs a bit of explanation today because we haven’t really seen those activities played out before our eyes.

Miranda Hinkley: As you say, it’s a far cry from the sort of very prim and pampered images of aristocrats with beautifully embroidered clothing, sitting very still or perhaps making a stylish gesture.

Jacqui Ansell: Absolutely. I’d just like to read you an extract from Gautier’s salon review because this was a painting that was exhibited in 1848 at the French salon, and he says ‘'The Winnower' rises to his feet in a masterly way, lifting his winnow from his shabby knees. The powdery effect of the grain spreading through the air could not have been portrayed better and this scene makes you want to sneeze.’

Miranda Hinkley: It does look as though it could give you an allergy, doesn’t it?

Jacqui Ansell: It does really.

Miranda Hinkley: The focal point of the painting really seems to be his hand gripping the side of the winnowing fan – it’s so strong and muscular… you can almost see why perhaps that might have alarmed people.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, if you think about descriptions of workers generally in novels of the time as ‘hands’ and the idea of course that the hand that now grips a plough, if you like, could soon hold a weapon… action a la rue – where you pick up the cobblestones and throw them at people is something that would very clearly be in the minds of contemporary observers, I think – you know, with the 1830 revolution and the 1848 revolution.

Miranda Hinkley: There’s also not very much colour in the painting, apart from the red hat that he’s wearing.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, and the red hat is significant of course because it reminds you of the Phrygian slave… the cap of liberty that was used as a potent symbol in the 1789 revolution.

Miranda Hinkley: And there’s a tale, isn’t there, that hangs upon his shoes which are these wooden clogs…

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, I suppose so… the idea that they’re sabot… these wooden clogs, and the term ‘sabotage’ – the idea of workers horrified at the machinery that was taking away their work, sticking their sabot into the machinery.

So certainly I think there are various ways in which the public would be shocked by it, not least in fact the way in which it’s painted, because one thing you could pick up on from the idea of making you sneeze when you look at the painting is the dryness of the paint, and Gautier talked about this in his description… he said, ‘on dish-cloth material, without oil paint or turpentine, he applies with a trowel a brick-work of colours which soaks up all the varnish. Nothing else looks so coarse, wild, spiky and unrefined’.

I mean this was an artist who trained under Delaroche, who is one of the most archetypal, academic artists, but now he’s hailed as the son of Normandy peasants, who makes the peasant his subject. And I think people can over-state the political implications of that, but certainly this is a painting that could be seen to horrify the bourgeois on many levels.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell, talking about Millet’s 'The Winnower', on display in Room 41.

Now to Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – the Gallery’s ambitious exhibition and multi-arts celebration of three masterpieces by the great 16th century Venetian painter, Titian. Over the past few episodes, we’ve heard how contemporary artists, composers and choreographers have been inspired by the paintings to create a series of stunning new art works and ballets.

This month, the poets get their turn. Carol Anne Duffy, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage and other leading writers have created poems based on Titian’s paintings of the beautiful but terrifying goddess Diana, as portrayed in Ovid’s epic, Metamorphoses. Diana is bathing naked in a woodland spring when a mortal man, Actaeon, stumbles upon her. In a fury, Diana transforms the young hunter into a stag. He flees… only to be hunted and killed by his own hounds.

Jillian Barker, the Gallery’s Director of Education, Information and Access, explained how the poetry project came about. 

Jillian Barker: When I was thinking about the whole idea of the exhibition, Metamorphosis, I was very taken with the way in which Titian himself had looked back at Ovid. So I began to wonder what would happen if we asked some contemporary poets to look back on Titian and that’s how the Titian poetry project came about.

We decided to invite 14 contemporary poets to respond to the three Diana paintings, which were going to be included in the Metamorphosis exhibition. Established voices such as the Nobel prize-winner, Seamus Heaney, and our poet laureate, Carol Anne Duffy, but also some newer voices, people like Patience Agbabi and Frances Leviston.

Patience Agbabi took the idea of writing through the voice of the black servant girl who sits behind Diana, so in that case the poet has taken on one of the characters from the painting and is writing from that perspective.

Patience Agbabi:
Actaeon, you’ll pay the price for looking
like a god; athletic, proud, immortal.
Diana, goddess of the hunt, will hound you.
She is too harsh; you should have looked at me.
I am her shadow, black, yet fairer than
the mistress, clad in cloth finer than cirrus.
I want you, Actaeon. I wish I were
shroud-white; O that you’d notice me and mouth
each monumental curve. Her handsome face
off-guard, you brushed aside the drape to see
how cool she bathed; with the pool’s spray, she cursed you
for looking. In this pine-sweet grove you turned
from man to horned and dappled stag: sentenced.
Look how your fate reflects itself in water.

Jillian Barker: You get this whole range of different voices, different ways into the paintings, and possibly one of the most challenging is by Tony Harrison, famous for his drama. Actaeon accidentally stumbles on this scene and becomes the voyeur. Tony Harrison challenges us as the reader to question have we too become the voyeur.

Tony Harrison:
And you, sir, yes, sir, you who just began
to read these lines you're, maybe, a marked man.
Haven’t you half thought while you view
Actaeon’s intrustion, you’re intruding too?
Perhaps too chubby for most modern tastes
for less ample pulchritude and skinny waists,
Diana, scorned by connoisseurs of scrawn,
punishes those who'd pimp her as plump porn.

Jillian Barket: One of my most amusing moments was walking through the galleries with Seamus Heaney and taking him to see Diana and Callisto for the first time and he described it as looking at a ‘congregation of limbs’, which I just thought was a wonderful way of expressing what you see in the painting. And Seamus himself has taken a very dramatic moment in the story: the moment when Actaeon is hacked to death by his own hounds.

Seamus Heaney:
High burdened brow, the antlers that astound,

Arms that end now in two hardened feet,

His nifty haunches, pointed ears and fleet

Four-legged run … In the pool he saw a crowned

Stag's head and heard something that groaned

When he tried to speak. And it was no human sweat

That steamed off him: he was like a beast in heat,

As if he'd prowled and stalked until he found

The grove, the grotto and the bathing place

Of the goddess and her nymphs, as if he'd sought

That virgin nook deliberately, as if

His desires were hounds that had quickened pace

On Diana's scent before his own pack wrought

Her vengeance on him, at bay beneath the leaf

-lit woodland. There his branchy antlers caught

When he faced the hounds

That couldn't know him as they bayed and fought

And tore mouthfuls of hide and flesh and blood

From what he was, while his companions stood

Impatient for the kill, assessing wounds.

Jillian Barker: All 14 poems have been published in a rather gorgeous book which sets the poem against a close-up image that relates to the poet’s inspiration.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Jillian Barker, Patience Agbabi, Tony Harrison and Seamus Heaney.

You can watch the poets reading their work on the Gallery’s website –

And as Jillian mentioned the project has also generated a book. Metamorphosis: Poems Inspired by Titian costs £8.99 and is available from the National Gallery and all good bookshops. Look out for the e-book, which will be launched later this month.

Finally, there are just a few more weeks to visit the exhibition. Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 brings together Titian’s masterpieces with new work by contemporary artists Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger.

The show runs until the 23rd of September and admission is free… and if you’re coming along, you might like to know that there’s a special offer on the exhibition audio guide – it’s two-for-one on Tuesdays and Thursdays after 2.30pm.

Before Hollywood turned ‘twilight’ into a mega-grossing vampire franchise, it was a time of day… or perhaps night… that moody moment in between.

Art-historian Ben Street has made a study of how painters have portrayed dusk over the centuries. He took Cathy FitzGerald to see two of the Gallery’s twilight highlights… beginning with a painting by the 16th century artist Savoldo, which shows St Jerome kneeling on a rocky outcrop, beating his chest in penitential prayer in front of a crucifix.

Ben started by pointing out the figure’s luminous backdrop… the sun sinking behind distant hills.

Ben Street: So what we’re seeing is a transitional moment, a kind of threshold moment, between two times of day. And what interests me is the way that Savoldo uses that particular kind of time of day to represent or reflect something that is going on within the character. So St Jerome here is himself at a kind of threshold moment. He’s yearning for spiritual succour, let’s say, from Christ, but his body is the thing that is chaining him perhaps to the earth.

Cathy Fitzgerald: So the twilight scene becomes symbolic of what’s going on for the figure. It’s his emotional conflict writ large?

Ben Street: Exactly. I mean it certainly creates the sense of melancholy mood that you get in the painting, but also yeah… it’s a way of providing an insight into that sense of threshold that’s within the character too.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And is the depiction of twilight something that begins to happen at this time?

Ben Street: It’s something that we associate particularly with the Venetian renaissance like Giorgione and Giovanni Bellini on the cusp of the 16th century who were interested in using landscape as a way of creating atmosphere or mood – what they would refer to as ‘poesie’ or poetry in painting.

What we’re talking about is this moment between religious paintings that depict a narrative using figures and paintings that depict a narrative using the whole of the painting. The backdrop is not just a kind of placeholder to tell you ‘oh, we’re in the mountains or we’re in the desert’. The feeling is in everything.

I mean you don’t have to know about the story of St Jerome to understand this sense of anxiety and melancholy that pervades the painting because the twilight does a lot of the job. So this is a theme that’s very important in 16th century Venetian painting, but it comes back again with particular importance in the Romantic period… and we’ve got a great example of that in the Gallery.

Cathy Fitzgerald: Let’s go and have a look.

Ben Street: So a scene of the end of the day. It’s a painting by Turner called the Evening Star, which was painted around 1830. In the foreground there is a young boy sketchily painted – quite hard to make out – who is shrimping. His little dog is by his side and he’s leaping up. You can see rising up in the sky, Venus. It’s a very mysterious painting… it’s very hard… typically Turner that… very hard to make out that many details in the painting which I would argue is actually deliberate.

Cathy Fitzgerald: And how does Turner’s use of twilight differ from what we saw earlier?

Ben Street: If we think of Romantic thought as being a kind of alternative to or reaction against Enlightenment rationality and clarity and empiricism, the theme of twilight perhaps can be seen as being an assertion of uncertainty… something that Keats described as negative capability, about ten years before this painting was made.

So whereas in the Savoldo you have a sense that the twilight setting is providing an extra level of meaning to the narrative, let’s say, what Turner does and his other contemporaries in both writing, philosophy and painting is that he makes it in and of itself the subject.

It’s not about a narrative. It’s not about shrimping. It’s not about Margate, it’s about the condition of twilight… almost like a celebration of the uncertain… of this time where there’s a slight sense of magic in the air perhaps, where order and logic have gone out of the window… a real assertion of a Romantic idea that the liminal moment… this sort of transition or threshold between two states is the time when creativity can really take place.

So although it looks indistinct and it looks vague, it is in fact quite a powerful statement in a way about creativity.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Ben Street. And you can find Savoldo’s St Jerome in Room 9, and Turner’s Evening Star in Room 34.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting this month, don’t forget the National Gallery is open from ten till six daily, and till nine on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!