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Episode 98

The National Gallery Podcast

Grisly ends, miraculous beginnings, and the first ever UK exhibition devoted to Norwegian artist and adventurer Peder Balke.

12 min 14 sec | December 2014

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

This month we start with a new exhibition at the Gallery: it's devoted to the 19th-century artist, Peder Balke, and is one of the first ever to take place outside his home country, Norway. Long forgotten, Balke is today increasingly recognised as an important precursor of modern painters. His subject was Norway itself, and particularly the eerie, isolated terrain of the Arctic Circle. It was to provide Balke with decades of inspiration, as the first room of the National Gallery exhibition neatly demonstrates. Visitors can compare four versions of the same scene, the stormy cape at the northern most tip of Norway, made at intervals throughout the artist's career. Cathy FitzGerald met up with Curator Christopher Riopelle to hear about the voyage that sparked the young painter’s fascination with the rugged landscape. 

CHRISTOPHER RIOPELLE: In 1832 Balke decided to do something quite remarkable for an artist. He decided - he was in love with the Norwegian landscape - but he decided he would go and seek out its most remote, its most desolate, its most distant points by sailing up the west coast of Norway as far as he could go.

And he reached the so-called North Cape, that mighty rock formation at the very top of this long nation and it became for Balke a leitmotif of his career. Over the years he kept returning in memory and with his paint brush to what he had seen there in 1832. Then, very near the end of his painting life in about 1870, he paints the North Cape yet again in what may be the largest single painting of his career; a monumental canvas with the North Cape at the centre of a huge landscape, but now it’s almost a ghost presence, it’s just very subtle shades of white across the middle of the canvas that because we’ve come to recognise the North Cape from so many pictures we say ‘ah, there it is again’, but it doesn’t look like it does in any of the other pictures.

CATHY FITZGERALD: It’s almost as if he’s captured somehow that action of memory; it’s as if the details are being stripped away and you’ve just got the essence that has been left over time.

CHRISTOPHER RIOPELLE: I think that’s very much the point. He did not need to see the North Cape again, after all those years it was so completely embedded in his mind, in his imagination that he could evoke it over again in different ways, each time finding something special about it, something special about this icon of Norwegian-ness if we can call it that.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Is it possible there was something personal there as well that spoke to him more directly?

CHRIS RIOPELLE: It is as I say a great solitary object there in nature and Balke himself was a solitary. He spent much of his youth, certainly, travelling alone, walking across the face of northern Europe, walking to Germany, being entirely independent as a human being. He had, I think, an extraordinary sense of self and that too may be something that is emerging in this constant return to the motif of the North Cape. In imagination – if you will – the storm grows, it becomes wilder and more dangerous with each re-telling, as of course is often the case with adventures.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Christopher Riopelle. And you can find the Peder Balke exhibition in the Sunley Room until spring 2015; admission is free.

And now to our acclaimed exhibition, 'Rembrandt: The late Works'. One picture astounding viewers – despite substantial damage by fire in the 18th century – is Rembrandt’s group portrait of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons – 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Joan Deyman' of 1656. The surviving portion of the painting shows Dr Deyman dissecting the brain of a corpse who lies with his feet sticking directly out at the gallery-goer. It's a gruesome scene – and the fact that anatomical subjects in the 17th century were usually executed criminals can add to the drama for modern viewers. But how accurate is Rembrandt’s depiction? We invited Peter Abrahams, Professor of Clinical Anatomy at Warwick University, to give his verdict.

PETER ABRAHAMS: It is absolutely correct, I have just spent 15 minutes looking at it in every angle possible, without a magnifying glass because I didn’t want to get arrested.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Could you teach from this picture?

PETER ABRAHAMS: Not only could I teach, I could teach the layers of the brain, and what lies within one of those layers, which is a blood vessel, a dural venous sinus that drains from the front to the back of the brain as it is literally being peeled away between the two hemispheres and you can see the foreceps that are lifting it out between the gap in the midline.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So for you as a clinical anatomist, you can look at this and you know exactly what’s going on – Rembrandt’s not fudged anything here.

PETER ABRAHAMS: I don’t think he’s fudged anything – I think he’s sat through a dissection, an anatomy, and he’s drawn from what he saw. I could reproduce that picture within 10 minutes in a dissecting room in London.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now there are a couple of other things that I’m really rather curious about with the picture. The one is that the angle of the corpse’s head on his chest – that seems a little bit exaggerated – and the other are his enormous and extremely three-dimensional grubby feet that seem to be protruding out. What about those?

PETER ABRAHAMS: Well, that’s part of the perspective, in fact I would say exactly the opposite – I think the feet should be bigger, I think artistically he’s not done the feet very well. They’re lovely and grubby – he was a criminal and had just been hung – but they’re actually for proportion, a little too small, but obviously I think he was copying other people who’d done foreshortening paintings – Lamentations of Christ, that sort of thing – and I just think that the movement of the head is actually how we would put the head if we were doing that dissection now.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: It seems that the only thing that’s missing is the smell.

PETER ABRAHAMS: But if it’s in the winter, which is when most dissections, most anatomies were done, the bodies wouldn’t smell until about day three or four.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So it’s a bit of a winter sport is it, anatomy?

PETER ABRAHAMS: I don’t think sport is the right word, but I know what you mean. It’s definitely something up until embalming occured – because remember none of these bodies are embalmed at this time – until embalming occurred, it was definitely something that was good to do in the winter and a nightmare to do in the summer.  

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Rembrandt: The late Works is sponsored by Shell and will run through to 18 January. Tickets are available from the National Gallery or online without a booking fee at

And now... as it's nearly Christmas... to one of the most tender nativity scenes in the Gallery. 'Nativity at Night' by the Netherlandish artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans depicts a familiar image - the infant Christ in the manger, surrounded by worshippers - in an unfamiliar way. The stable seems to be lit by candles, but in fact the light that fills the faces of Mary and a host of tiny, astonished angels comes from a much stranger source: the baby himself. Under the soft-eyed gaze of an ox, Christ levitates in his crib, streaming rays of light. Although odd to us, this idea of an illuminated Christ-child wouldn't have surprised Geertgen's original audience. It comes from the writings of the 14th-century mystic, Saint Bridget of Sweden, as art historian Paula Nuttall, explained to Cathy:

PAULA NUTTALL: Saint Bridget of Sweden was an aristocratic Swedish lady who went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the year 1370. And when she was in Bethlehem, she had a vision in which the Virgin Mary told her how the Nativity had been. And one of the things that Mary said was that having given birth to the Christ Child painlessly and instantaneously, the child emitted such a brilliant radiance that it eclipsed the light from Saint Joseph’s candle.

And Geertgen has beautifully illustrated this because if you look in the shadows at the top right hand side of the painting you will just discern the figure of Saint Joseph and you may be able to see that his right hand is actually shielding the flame of a candle. Now we can’t sadly see the candle anymore because the painting has been cut down, but you can perhaps see that his face is lit by a slightly ruddy glow as if from candlelight and that contrasts dramatically with this silvery, luminous, much more divine, I think, radiance that’s emanating from the child and illuminating the faces of Mary and the angels.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And there are other tiny sources of light as well, aren’t there?

PAULA NUTTALL: Yes, in the background you can see dimly the figures of the shepherds around their campfire and they are reacting quite dramatically with sort of upraised hands to this extraordinary apparition in the sky, which is of course the angel who has come to tell them that Christ has been born in Bethlehem and that they must run to the stable…

CATHY FITZGERALD: It’s the most beautiful of angels, isn’t it, just hovering…

PAULA NUTTALL: Absolutely hovering and so ethereal, and again, the contrast between this almost phosphorescent silvery light with which he’s just stroked in the form of the semi-transparent angel and then the much yellower light of the shepherds’ fire – again makes the same kind of contrast as you have in the foreground between the child and Saint Joseph.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And how would it have been used?

PAULA NUTTALL: It would of course have been made for private prayer within the home, which of course suits its very intimate sort of contemplative nature and one thing that I think is worth noting is that although there are lots of figures clustered around the manger – the virgin, the angels, the ox and the ass – the foreground is left empty and I think that’s perhaps because the person who would have been praying in front of it intended to visualize him or herself as one of the people who’s completing the circle of worshippers around the manger.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And of course they would have been looking at the picture in candlelight, probably, as well.

PAULA NUTTALL: Absolutely, that’s a really good point, they would have been, yes, yes, I’m sure.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Paula Nuttall. Geertgen’s 'Nativity at Night' is on display in Room 63, and if you’re visiting in the next few weeks you might like to know it’s part of the Gallery’s ‘Nativities trail’, which follows the Christmas story through six paintings in the collection. See the website before you visit to download the free trail. We’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays as usual during the holidays, with the exception of the 24-26 December and 1 January, when the Gallery will be closed.

That’s it for this episode. Season’s greetings – and 'til next year, goodbye!