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Episode 79

The National Gallery Podcast

Artist Michael Landy reanimates the saints for a new generation, plus a last chance to see Barocci’s masterpieces, and the man who discovered Rembrandt.

15 min 49 sec | May 2013

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

We start with the latest from the Associate Artist programme – a scheme that invites leading contemporary artists to work with the National Gallery’s collection over a two-year period.

This month sees the opening of 'Saints Alive', an exhibition of pieces created by the current Associate Artist Michael Landy – perhaps best known for the 2001 installation, 'Break Down', which saw him destroy all his possessions in the former C&A department store on Oxford Street.

For 'Saints Alive', he’s taken over the Sunley Room with a series of kinetic sculptures inspired by the many depictions of saints in the Gallery’s collection. Landy’s works consist of fragments of National Gallery paintings cast in three dimensions and assembled from junk-yard machinery. Towering over visitors, the seven sculptures swivel and turn, in movements that evoke the drama of each saint’s life. Cathy FitzGerald met up with Michael Landy to find out more as his first sculptures were being installed.

Michael Landy: I’ve kind of combined Renaissance art with kinetic art, that’s why the exhibition’s called ‘Saints Alive’, 'cause I’m kind of reanimating the saints – as I see it – for a whole new audience of people really, who don’t really know very much of the saints or of their stories – and are very much like me really, when I first began. And most of the people I’ve picked are martyrs… I haven’t picked Saint Dorothy who drops apples and flowers from heaven, or Saint Nicholas, who’s Father Christmas, who drops his golden balls through doorways or whatever to save young women from a life of prostitution. So I haven’t picked the good Samaritans… I’ve picked… I mean...

Cathy FitzGerald: … It’s suffering saints

Michael Landy: It's more... Yeah, confessors and martyrs. And so I have Saint Apollonia who has her teeth pulled out, based on a Lucas Cranach the Elder painting and she has a really beautiful dress – so I've made... she’s got a really beautiful vertical kind of lines on her dress... yeah, so that’s kind of really what drew me in. I kind of looked at this as the paintings to obviously make sculpture.

Cathy FitzGerald: And the sculptures – the actual mechanics – you picked up things from junk yards…

Michael Landy: Yeah, kind of rubbish. I like the idea that the saints have been rubbished – that they’ve just been thrown aside and then I come along and start to put them back together again as... you know, like, I have Saint Jerome, who's… you know… it’s a Cosimo Tura arm, a de' Roberti chest, and a Cima base and I kind of combine them… they’re all in different proportions, painted at... by different artists, you know, in different periods and so… And then I combine those with, like, wheels and things I’ve collected from junk… 'cause most rubbish has got a price now, it’s not like 30 years ago when, you know, it was... you know, everything has...

Cathy FitzGerald: It was rubbish…

Michael Landy: Yeah, now we have eBay and people trade things, people know…

Cathy FitzGerald: Now it’s vintage rubbish…

Michael Landy: Yeah, people know the value of things. So now, you know, everything has... I mean things exist for so long they stop being rubbish then they become antiques if they carry on surviving. And so I like the idea of combining kind of… yeah, kind of 1970’s kind of aesthetic with Renaissance art. And obviously a lot of these things are operated by pedals, so people put their foot on the pedal and it activates an electric motor which makes wheels go round, which activates a sculpture. So the sculptures are on timers, so they're not... it’s not a constant thing, because I didn’t want it to be a constant thing. So it's like... so there’s a bit of theatre involved – it's that "when is it going to work, when isn’t it going to work?"

Cathy FitzGerald: So we’ll just be waiting and they will suddenly come to life?

Michael Landy: Yeah, and it will come to life if you keep your foot on the pedal. So the public are the missing ingredient because the public make the sculptures come alive.

Cathy FitzGerald: And what do you hope people will get from it?

Michael Landy: Well, basically I saw an exhibition when I was very young – it was a Jean Tinguely exhibition at Tate… and Jean Tinguely’s a Swiss kinetic artist who made stuff out of junk. So that’s kind of what I’ve been inspired by and I absolutely loved it and I loved the idea that people… first time I ever saw people laugh and be happy in an art gallery. And so I wanted to recreate that now. I don’t want to tell people what to think or… you know it's entirely... that's up... they can daydream. It’s just time isn’t it… making time to be... to allow yourself to daydream.

Cathy FitzGerald: You were on the podcast right at the beginning and... of your sort of residency at the Gallery... and it did really strike me that you were sort of letting yourself have time to daydream… that you didn’t sort of have a prescription as to what you were going to do.

Michael Landy: Yeah, I think that’s... that's partly the residency as well, 'cause people… well, Colin, one of the curators here, he said like, it normally takes the artist about a year before they actually really start to really knuckle down and do something, because I think you’ve got to get over the fact… you know, it’s a national collection, it’s held in great esteem… and that you’ll never be good enough. That's... once you realise you’ll never be good enough…

Cathy FitzGerald: ...that’s quite freeing?

Michael Landy: Yeah, it is quite freeing. I knew that from the beginning, but it was too much of a challenge to just... to decline, so that’s what attracted me to it, that I would never be good enough.

Cathy FitzGerald: And do you feel you’ve lived up to that?

Michael Landy: Yeah, more so. [Laughs] Very much! Well, I’ll let the public decide! [Laughs]

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Michael Landy. And his exhibition – Saints Alive – opens in the Sunley Room on the 23 of May. Admission's free.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now to ‘Barocci: Brilliance and Grace’, our critically-acclaimed exhibition of a forgotten master of 16th-century Italy. 

In our last visit to the show before it closes this month Leah Kharibian met co-curator Carol Plazzotta in front of a huge, 3-metre-high altarpiece from the 1580s. Called the 'Visitation', it shows the arrival of the young Virgin Mary, who's just discovered she's pregnant with the Christ Child, at the house of her much older cousin, Saint Elizabeth, who herself has found herself miraculously pregnant with the infant Saint John the Baptist. It's a momentous event in the history of Christianity – but Barocci treats it with great tenderness and an eye for the details of everyday life.

Carol Plazzotta: It’s the kind of scene that we all know when we go to visit relatives and somebody’s pregnant and it’s really exciting. On the left-hand side, Joseph bends forward. He’s unpacked a bag, probably of bread and a flask, and this shows that they’ve come from their own house on the donkey, who looks at us over his shoulder. One of the most tender and sympathetic donkeys probably in all of the history of art and he’s the only creature in the picture who looks out at us.

In the background is Zacharias, who was Elizabeth’s husband. He’s just heard a noise in the courtyard and he’s rushing out to greet the guests and see what the commotion is outside. On the right-hand side in the foreground is this wonderful woman holding a basket of chickens. She’s got her straw hat slung behind her and she’s just stepping up and looking with tremendous tenderness at the two holy women who are greeting each other. And her gaze with her head slightly cocked to one side reminds us of how we might feel both in beholding such a meeting and actually being part of a reunion like this.

Leah Kharibian: But this picture wasn’t destined for Urbino, which is where he lived and worked, was it? It went to Rome. Can you tell me about that?

Carol Plazzotta: Yes, it was commissioned by the Oratorians for their new church, the Chiesa Nuova in the centre of Rome and with difficulty they managed to extract a contract from Barocci, who was notoriously slow and hard to pin down. But...

Leah Kharibian:  Is there any reason for him being slow and hard to pin down, do you think?

Carol Plazzotta: Well, that was because he spent so long – he laboured so lovingly – on his compositions, so we have 45 drawings for this picture, but there no doubt were many many more.  

Leah Kharibian:  Now, the Oratorians – they were a sort of new religious movement founded by Filippo Neri and they had a very particular take on the Catholic faith. Does this picture... is this picture a good fit for that, do you think?

Carol Plazzotta: Yes, absolutely. They were very much about the ordinary, everyday religious experience and Filippo Neri was a brilliant charismatic leader and he visited the sick and the poor in the city. He often went to hospitals and he was very keen on talking about religion in a very everyday way and bringing it to the masses and so it was a wonderful fit really, because Barocci had very similar inclinations himself.  

Leah Kharibian: And what was the reception of this picture when it arrived in Rome?

Carol Plazzotta: There are many stories about all the queues – there were long, long queues of people, both lay people and also artists who queued up for about three days to look at this work and they were bowled over by it and that’s recorded in the contemporary literature. And the other lovely thing that we know is that Filippo Neri himself was bowled over by it and he often used to sit in front of it in contemplation and was transported by it and was moved to tears.

Leah Kharibian: Well, as this exhibition closes in May, I think it’s time for all of us to come and pay our respects and make a pilgrimage to this picture too – and to see this lovely donkey if nothing else. Thank you so much.  

Carol Plazzotta: Oh, it's a great pleasure.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Carol Plazzotta.

Barocci: Brilliance and Grace is open till the 19 of May. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next… to an early 17th-century picture by Thomas de Keyser – not so well known now, but in his day the most popular portrait painter in Amsterdam.

The work depicts a diplomat at his desk. Not the most promising of subjects… but as art historian Ben Street explained to Cathy FitzGerald, Constantijn Huygens was no ordinary bureaucrat.

Ben Street: We don’t remember him just because he was a diplomat. We remember him because he was every inch the kind of Renaissance man of his time. Here was somebody who was an accomplished composer, writer, horticulturalist, architect… everything… I mean he was a linguist… he was an incredibly talented man.

Cathy FitzGerald: And the painting gives us clues to all these different skills, doesn’t it?

Ben Street: It does. If we look at the desk, on the desk top there are a number of objects that seem to allude to these different pursuits that Huygens was involved in in his life, from the arch-lute, which is the musical instrument that’s face down on the table to the architectural plan that seems to fold over it, to the two globes that are behind it that allude to his interest, not only in travel, but also in astronomy.

Cathy FitzGerald: And the ink-well as well, that’s significant, isn’t it?

Ben Street: That’s right. He was a great letter writer, Huygens and he was a correspondent with some of the great minds of his kind including René Descartes and Francis Bacon and he was a translator too – he translated the poems of John Donne into Dutch in his spare time.   

Cathy FitzGerald: But it doesn’t sound like he had much spare time? 

Ben Street: He didn’t, I don’t think. No I mean he did have... I should say he did have five children so he had time to do some other things, but he was a very busy man. Yeah, I mean when he published one of his poems he published it under the nom de plume of ‘occupatus’ meaning ‘a busy guy’. 

Cathy FitzGerald: And he actually wrote poems about this painting, didn’t he? 

Ben Street: He did – he wrote... he actually wrote three poems in response to it, as though he were interpreting it. It should be said that he wrote these poems after he had just got married to a woman called Susannah who he called ‘my star’. This is what he had to say:

‘Speak painting, of the great energy of my happiness.
My innards are gladdened.
The time is almost here when I will be the winner of my star’s heart’.

Cathy FitzGerald: So we’re looking at a painting of a man with very happy innards because he’s about to get his heart’s desire… is that about right?   

Ben Street: That is exactly right. Yeah, no and he married her that year in Amsterdam. Now he was based in The Hague, which is where he was born and brought up, and she lived in Amsterdam. So when we see him in his riding boots and his long brown coat, which was called a 'kazak', he’s wearing the clothes of somebody who's having to hop back and forth continually between two cities on horseback. So that’s one of the reasons why he’s so busy, I think.  

Cathy FitzGerald: And he's... he was also something of an art connoisseur as well, wasn’t he?  

Ben Street: He was. I mean yet another reason why this man is so extraordinary is that he was in a way the person who discovered Rembrandt. In 1628 as part of his role as the secretary for the Stadtholder, for whom he was also a kind of art advisor, he went to Leiden, which is where the young Rembrandt was working, sharing a studio with another painter called Jan Lievens and he went to see both of their work and he picked up from the early work of Rembrandt that this was someone to watch. And he recommended Rembrandt to his boss – to the Stadtholder – who commissioned Rembrandt to do a sequence of paintings of the passion of Christ. So he recognised that from the beginning and what’s so amazing if you look at those early paintings by Rembrandt, it’s quite hard to see where the promise is. I mean it’s fair enough looking at his later work but to have that kind of eye is quite amazing, I think.  

Cathy FitzGerald: And so what is it that you respond to about Huygens? 

Ben Street: What I love about Huygens is the fact that he was a man of extraordinary energy, which is true of a lot of people of that time. He was somebody who didn’t recognise the distinctions between particular kinds of endeavor. So he wasn’t just a poet, he was also somebody who was interested in, you know, horticulture, architecture, lots and lots of different things. And that’s quite an inspiring thing. And you get the feeling that he packed his life full of incident. A real polymath and a real kind of amateur in the truest sense of the word – somebody who kind of loves things and I think I get that from this portrait – and from his work – too.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Ben Street.

If you’d like to meet Thomas de Keyser’s Renaissance man in person, the Portrait of Constantijn Huygens is on display in Room 16. And from 26 June he’ll be starring in our major new exhibition - Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. More on that next month.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting the National Gallery, we’re open 10 till 6 daily and till 9 on Fridays – and you can also view the entire collection online at

Until next time, goodbye!