The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Ninety

April 2014

Episode Ninety
Listen now - 11 mins 12

A chat with Veronese curator Xavier Salomon, an art historian under fire and a last look at The Sunflowers display.

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

We begin with our new exhibition, ‘Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice’. This is the first-ever show of this great 16th century master to be held in the UK, and it’s already being hailed as a once in a lifetime opportunity to appreciate Veronese’s brilliance. Leah Kharibian met up with curator, Xavier Salomon, just before the exhibition opened in mid-March. Xavier was in the final stages of unpacking pictures as they arrived from across Europe and America, and had just taken delivery of one he’d been particularly looking forward to seeing: Veronese’s ‘Martyrdom of Saint George’.

XAVIER SALOMON: I think, as far as I’m concerned, it is really Veronese’s absolute masterpiece. If you had to look at one painting by Veronese, this is the one that encapsulates and shows the artist at its absolute best. The picture is really divided in two sections. There is an earthly section on the bottom with Saint George kneeling, surrounded by the men, the pagans, who are going to kill him, and above in the sky you have a heavenly vision instead, with the Virgin and Child, the Saints, Peter and Paul, and the three Virtues, Faith, Hope and Charity. But all of this is sort of united together in this composition as if it’s all one big scene in front of us. And the other wonderful thing about the painting is that you have this angel, which is sort of floating between the two areas, connecting heaven and earth and the angel is bringing down a palm, the symbol of martyrdom and a crown to crown St George as a saint, as a hero, down from the sky onto earth. So it’s this wonderful plunging little kid with wings that’s just connecting these two spheres in this huge painting.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And this is an enormous work – it’s four metres high – how are you feeling about it arriving? Has it yet arrived?

XAVIER SALOMON: The painting has arrived – it’s actually here in London. It’s incredibly exciting. It’s an altarpiece that was painted for a church in Verona. It always stayed on the high altar of that church since it was painted. The only exception, the only other time this painting travelled outside of Verona is when Napoleon bought it to Paris in the 1790s, so it’s really exceptional that we’re doing something that only Napoleon has done before. I felt very ambivalent about this, because as a curator I feel that when works can be seen in their original context, it’s very important to leave them there, but this was an exceptional circumstance that I thought made sense for only three months to have the altarpiece in London. It’s something that can be seen surrounded by a selection of another 49 works by Veronese – this has never really happened before – and you can see it next to the 'Family of Darius' from the National Gallery, which was a picture that was painted almost at the same time – and you can see how the compositions work together very well. If these two pictures might have been in Veronese’s studio at the same time, they’ve never been together since, so it’s this very exciting moment. It is a huge altarpiece; it’s one of the largest loans the National Gallery has ever had to bring into the building and I think it’s absolutely worth it because it is actually such a great, great work. Travellers in the 18th, 19th century stopped in Verona especially to see this picture – this is how famous it was at the time – so it’s a great, great honour for the National Gallery and a great pleasure to be able to show it with the other paintings.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Xavier Salomon. ‘Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice’ is sponsored by Credit Suisse and will run through to 15 June. You can buy tickets from the National Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): George Clooney’s latest film - The Monuments Men - has been showing at cinemas this spring. It tells the true story of a Second World War platoon tasked with saving artistic masterpieces from Nazi looting and the effects of war and returning them to their rightful owners. In real life, many of the Monuments Men went on to become high-profile figures in the museum world after the war - including Cecil Gould… who joined the National Gallery as Assistant Keeper in 1946 and left as Deputy Director in 1978. The National Gallery holds a copy of Gould’s war-time diary and Archivist Alan Crookham brought it along when he met up with Cathy FitzGerald. They spoke in Room 54 in front of Paolo Uccello’s 'Saint George and the Dragon' - which was itself rescued from a salt mine - and Cathy began by asking what insights Cecil Gould’s diary gives us into life as a Monuments Man.

ALAN CROOKHAM: It was an incredible task really – this stuff was crammed into cellars and basements and these things were probably very, very good portable assets and so people were holding onto them. So his job was really tracking that down and it’s quite nice in the diary you get a real overview of all of these things.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And what do you think the other soldiers made of this very erudite art-historian in their midst?

ALAN CROOKHAM: I think it was probably alright – I think one of the principles behind the Monuments Men was that they did… they looked for these art-historians but they weren’t completely civvies. You know, Cecil Gould had been in the army, even though he was in Intelligence, but he had been in the army for four or five years by the time he became a Monuments Man, so I think they were aware of that – they didn’t want to just parachute in some kind of art-historian…

CATHY FITZGERALD: Behind the lines…

ALAN CROOKHAM: Yeah, who would just be completely remote from the average soldier’s life and so I think they definitely didn’t want to do that, because they were a separate unit they did have to negotiate with the local commanders and of course they would have had different priorities… I mean you can imagine someone turning up and you’re saying, ‘Oh I really need to go and save that church steeple because it’s an early example of Romanesque architecture’ or whatever it was, and then, you’ve got the commander saying, ‘well, that’s just no good – I need to put a sniper up there,’ or whatever – there could be a military imperative. So obviously you needed people who could negotiate and get on with that and I guess Cecil Gould fitted the bill. He had both that art-historical knowledge and he also had experience in the army.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And you spend your time in the library, working in the archives and it is a kind of detective work – I just wondered whether you would have quite fancied being a Monuments Man? Do you think it would have been fun?

ALAN CROOKHAM: No, I don’t know… Yeah, I probably would have been… yeah I would have been up for it. I think it could have been fun. I think it could also have been just writing reports and that, but I think…

CATHY FITZGERALD:… I don’t think art-historians get to be heroic that often.

ALAN CROOKHAM: No, and archivists certainly don’t. Yeah, it’s…

CATHY FITZGERALD: ... something to aspire to…

ALAN CROOKHAM: … something to aspire to, yes indeed. I think it could be good fun.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Alan Crookham.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Since January visitors to the Gallery have had the extremely rare opportunity to see two of Vincent van Gogh's paintings of sunflowers side by side. The small display - which closes in just a few weeks time on 27 April - compares the National Gallery’s own depiction of sunflowers in a vase, painted by Van Gogh in August 1888, with a later version of the picture, now belonging to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, he made in January the following year. If you were to see these two paintings reproduced in a book, you might think the Amsterdam version was a fairly straightforward copy of the original. But as curator Chris Riopelle explained, it’s a different story when you compare them in the flesh.

CHRIS RIOPELLE: When you look at the paintings side-by-side, one of the things you see quickly is how much more stylized the Amsterdam picture is than the London picture. How much more angular and almost expressive the flowers are, the stems of the flowers are, how much more patterned it is. Look at the way in the London picture there’s a very large, white highlight in the very centre of the picture that makes the vase three-dimensional. Well, then you see in Amsterdam he removes that, so that the vase becomes a kind of flat pattern instead of a three-dimensional object, so clearly he’s working in the direction of greater decorative expressivity.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And on the walls here you’ve got some really interesting x-rays and other sort of technical examinations that were made of the pictures. Did the scientific examination tell us anything about Van Gogh’s use of colour? Well, it’s obvious he likes yellow…

CHRIS RIOPELLE: It’s obvious he likes yellow – yellow as always with… colour as always with Van Gogh held a whole gamut of symbolic meanings, in this case warmth, friendship, the sun, the south – all of those reasons he went down to Arles in Provence. We show in the exhibition a paint sample from the red in the middle of one of the flowers in the Amsterdam picture. At the top of the paint sample, you see a rather muted red colour. At the bottom of the paint sample, you see a very much more brilliant red. What that tells us is that the paint tonality has changed, has altered, has become more subdued in the 140 years since they were painted.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: You mean these were even brighter when they were first painted?

CHRIS RIOPELLE: They must have been quite… the Amsterdam picture in particular, must have been quite vivid with the reds, then a blue that was probably closer to a purple originally. They really would have popped.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And all that scientific stuff to one side, it’s really hard when you come here to do anything other than just sort of beam back at these paintings. They’re so warm, they’re so generous and open-hearted – you must be thrilled to have them.

CHRIS RIOPELLE: Well, it is very exciting to be able to do this comparison. It shows that an exhibition can be a very simple thing – two pictures and already you are there – and what is also very clear is that it has struck a chord with the public… they’re just pouring in for this very rare opportunity to see the two of them side-by-side.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Riopelle. The Sunflowers display runs until 27 April in Room 46 and is free. Please note there may be queues at busy times.

That’s it for this month - if you’re visiting, we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays.

Until next time, goodbye!