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Episode 92

The National Gallery Podcast

Discover a display of drawings by Frank Auerbach in the Espresso Bar. Plus, anxious art by Pontormo and why Poussin is worth the effort.

12 min 42 sec | June 2014

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

We start this month with one of the collection’s lesser-known treasures: a sequence of six 16th-century panels depicting scenes from the life of Joseph (of Technicolour Dreamcoat fame). It would take an hour or two more than we have to do all six paintings justice here, so instead we asked Gill Hart from the Gallery’s Education department to pick her favourite. She chose the final work in the sequence, 'Joseph with Jacob in Egypt' by the Florentine painter, Pontormo. It shows four separate episodes charting Joseph’s relationship with his father, Jacob - we see Joseph introducing Jacob to the Pharaoh of Egypt; Joseph on a cart, hearing a petition; Joseph with one of his sons climbing a staircase to visit the dying Jacob; and Jacob on his deathbed blessing Joseph’s sons. But as Gill explained to Cathy FitzGerald, she’s less interested in what’s depicted, than the deeply odd dream-like atmosphere Pontormo has managed to conjure in the painting.

GILL HART: There are distortions – weird elongations of figures, very small feet that actually, in some cases, seem to be either hovering above the ground or disappearing into the ground entirely. And really strange hands that almost look like knobbly bunches of carrots - and I’m quite certain that’s not because he didn’t know how to draw or paint hands and feet - and then the shadows have a bit of a life of their own. The shadows going up the staircase behind the figure dressed in red and also the figure of Joseph himself, with his red hat or cap on, almost look as if they’re about to dislodge from the figures and go back down the stairs, and I find that quite strange and disturbing to be honest with you.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Shadows with a mind of their own?

GILL HART: Absolutely – there’s another one down on the wall…

CATHY FITZGERALD: … and that’s not attached to anybody at all.

GILL HART: It doesn’t appear to be – it’s not obvious who that’s supposed to be attached to. Then there are other figures who you think should have shadows and they don’t appear to, and that’s very strange as well.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And there’s a very haunted quality to some of the faces, isn’t there?

GILL HART: You’re right. In the mid-ground of the painting, a lot of very sunken cheeked, hollow-eyed faces, which give a feeling or an impression of a kind of haunted or nervous environment, which actually, when you think about it often accompanies the territory of dreams. Pontormo is, I think, usually thought about and written about – and I think this partly comes from his own diaries – as being quite a neurotic, nervous character himself and so I wonder how much of that we see here too…

CATHY FITZGERALD: And this sort of exploration of what it’s like to be inside a dream might be Pontormo pushing into new terrain, artistically.

GILL HART: I feel that that’s what he could be doing. It is about thinking about dreams as an alternative reality and reality having already seemingly been conquered by some of the other artists of the early 16th century. It does actually feel like quite a natural direction for Pontormo to go in.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And it was also made for a bedchamber, wasn’t it, which is quite a strange thought…

GILL HART: You’re right, yes. This was part of the decorative scheme commissioned by a father for his son and new wife and was destined for their bedchamber. I think rare for a bedchamber, a depiction of Joseph, but having said that the story of Joseph was really popular in Florence at this time, although I’m not sure how I would feel seeing this just before I went to sleep at night, or it being the first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Gill Hart, talking about 'Joseph with Jacob in Egypt' by Pontormo. You can find it and the other paintings in the 'Joseph' sequence in Room C.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now for some coffee and cake. The Gallery’s espresso bar is not just a good place for a break, it’s home to some inspiring art. The walls are lined with drawings by the leading British contemporary artist, Frank Auerbach. Auerbach has been coming to the Gallery to make sketches from pictures in the collection since he was a student in the 1950s, sometimes drawing works hundreds of times over. Some of the sketches he makes have a strong resemblance to the originals, others like a group drawn after Thomas Gainsborough’s 1786 landscape 'The Market Cart' - a rural scene in which a cart laden with produce makes its way through a leafy grove - are much harder to read. Specail Projects Curator Colin Wiggins explained why when he took Leah Kharibian to see them.

COLIN WIGGINS: I mean the word I use for them is 'scribbles', because they are made extremely rapidly. They are not made in what you would call fine art materials – there’s this great thick black felt pen like one of those indelible laundry markers and the speed with which he’s drawing, I think, is very important because he stands in front of the picture holding his drawing pad. And an analogy that I always like to use, it’s like going into a life class and instead of drawing the model, draw the model’s skeleton and tendons that hold the body together.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So it's the infrastructure of the work, is it?

COLIN WIGGINS: Yeah, it's a kind of underlying skeleton of the painting and I think what he's trying to do is look for what holds it together. 

LEAH KHARIBIAN: With this market cart, the painting – the original painting – the cart and the horses and the children and the dogs and everything in the foreground, and the man gathering up wood, are very clear, but here he seems to have been… I don’t know… digging around those trees and digging around everything. You can just about make out the horses, can’t you?

COLIN WIGGINS: Yeah, he’s not interested in recording what you might call the staffage in the pictures. He’s much more interested in something more generic, and one of the things that he’s said about the National Gallery paintings in respect of his own work, is that he would come here to charge himself up before working on his own pictures. His studio is only a bus ride away and he said that without these touchstones, we’d be floundering. So he comes here to remind himself of what quality is in a painting before he feels that he can then get on with his own work.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: You’ve interviewed Auerbach on several occasions including a wonderful bit now in the National Gallery archive, where he talks about how he feels about British art and I was wondering if you could just give us a bit of context before we hear it.

COLIN WIGGINS: Yeah, it is interesting because he himself isn’t British by birth. He was born in 1931 – a German Jew – and his family had the wit and the means to get their boy out of Germany. They sent him to England – they all perished in the Holocaust – and so he was brought up here in a school run by Quakers in the English country-side. And yes, you’re right that the pictures he has the closest relationship to are the British pictures. He loves that room.

FRANK AUERBACH: I do feel a particular closeness to English painting and the enterprise that they’re engaged in. For all I know I’m affected by the light that is in them, which seems entirely different to the light that is in Italian pictures or implied in Italian pictures. And also, I think I have a sort of penchant for the curious fresh wind that seems to blow through the whole of English painting, as though it wasn’t held up by a scaffolding of theory or philosophy or of reasoned disquisition, but the thing was arrived at empirically out of sensation, as though there’s a sort of fresh wind blowing through a room of English painting that is nowhere else in the national Gallery.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And Colin, he’s been here drawing all his life at the National Gallery. Does he still come in?

COLIN WIGGINS: Well, he’s now in his eighties and he says, as well, the bus service isn’t as reliable as it used to be, so his expeditions to draw from the National Gallery are now fewer and further between. But certainly these drawings do represent a life-time’s commitment.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Frank Auerbach’s drawings are on permanent display in the National Gallery espresso bar while you can see Gainsborough’s 'Market Cart' in Room 34.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Nicolas Poussin’s works were eagerly collected in his lifetime by kings, queens and popes. Contemporaries called him the ‘French Raphael’ and many artists we admire today - such as Cézanne - professed their admiration of his work. Yet his reputation for being rather an intellectual taste puts many gallery-goers off. Art historian, Jacqui Ansell explained why she thinks he’s worth a closer look when she took Cathy Fitzgerald to see one of Poussin’s masterpieces, 'The Adoration of the Golden Calf'.

The painting depicts a biblical scene. Moses, the leader of the Israelites, has climbed Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. In his absence, the Israelites have created a false idol in the shape of a calf and are worshipping it with dance.

JACQUI ANSELL: If you first look at the dance, it looks like it is a stately circle, but actually they’re weaving in and out one another and so it’s sort of frenzied, but it’s quite controlled frenzy.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And they’re worshipping – in a frenzy of worship – for the golden calf?

JACQUI ANSELL: Absolutely. So the artist has to show pagan revelry and reverence and he’s done this by using classical statuary as his inspiration and the drapery is falling off their bodies so that he’s able to show off that he can paint different kinds of human figure and as a dress historian I love the interaction between the cloth and the body and the notion of this bronzed flesh.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And then we have the figure of Moses coming back. So he’s coming down from Mount Sinai – he has the tablets with him – and he’s looking down on this scene of revelry.

JACQUI ANSELL: That’s it, well you get a sense that he’s actually already noticed it and if you look in the top left hand corner, Moses is holding aloft this tablet of stone, so this is one of the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments have been written. And then if you follow Moses's gaze down, you see that at his feet is the second tablet, so he’s already broken one tablet in anger, causing a reaction in the boy who’s with him, so you’ve got these arms of the boy opened out in alarm. But I love the figure of Moses. Look at Moses’s body, and if you copy what he’s doing with your body, you’ll find your feet are firmly planted on the floor, so he’s really angry and he’s got his limbs stretched upwards at the utmost, so there’s all this energy that’s going to bring this tablet down with a great deal of force.

And what’s really clever, for me, and what makes Poussin a really good story-teller, is that you don’t notice Moses immediately. And the reason you don’t notice him is that he is shrouded in darkness, so he’s used tone to control the narrative sequence and, I think, the other thing that’s really special about this painting is the way in which it doesn’t stop within this painting – we’ve got this sense that as we look at the painting, we could have been tempted to join in. If you look in the bottom left hand corner, you see this tambourine and it’s just poised there ready for the viewer to pick up. 

CATHY FITZGERALD: Do you think he’s almost giving us a choice? The tambourine is there for us if we want it, but equally we can see the consequence: Moses on the hill.

JACQUI ANSELL: I think he is. And I think he’s also giving us the starting point of a conversation. So, these paintings, they’re relatively small, relatively portable compared to huge frescos, for example, so they could be co-opted into a secular setting  - they’re not necessarily for churches. And so you could stand there, and you could converse and you could pat yourself on the back if you recognised the classical imagery in the painting. So I think they’re highly intellectual paintings that deserve time really, time to discuss, time to let the story unfold.

CATHY FITZGERALD: So he’s a more subtle taste?

JACQUI ANSELL: I think he is. I think he may be very much somebody who grows on you and certainly he has been the inspiration for many an avant-garde artist of today.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell, talking about Poussin’s 'Adoration of the Golden Calf' in Room 19.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting don’t forget we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!