I spilled paint on the floor in front of Claude Monet’s 1873 Autumn Effect at Argenteuil the first time I visited the Courtauld Gallery. The young Searle was creating his own fall effect on the museum floor over 100 years after Monet painted this tranquil yet flaming river picture. The Courtauld was situated on the top floor of a building in Bloomsbury’s Woburn Square, part of the University of London, in the early 1970s, and art students were still allowed to duplicate the pieces, though mercifully few were as dirty as I was.
I’m in front of that Monet again, fifty years later, on the top floor of Somerset House’s newly rebuilt and restored Courtauld Gallery, which reopens to the public on November 19 after a two-year shutdown. Returning to artworks over time is a fantastic approach to keep track of your progress.
No one pulls easels and paints into the rooms now that the gallery has new flooring. Compared to two years ago, much alone half a century ago, the facility is considerably more public, with ticketing booths, a café and store, greater access, and more open exhibits.
Despite the brilliance of both its permanent collection and temporary exhibits, the Courtauld has always seemed a little small, underlit, and old-fashioned. The studious dimness of the lighting, the paintings suspended on chains, and the lights affixed to the picture frames will undoubtedly be missed by some.
The ghosts of the old Royal Academy, which occupied these rooms in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, lingered, and the vertiginous spiral staircase, which Thomas Rowlandson caricatured in a raunchy 1811 slapstick scene of crowds climbing and tumbling to see the Academy’s annual Summer Exhibition, was never far away.
“This crass and sexist parody attacked both rowdy guests and the Royal Academy’s high pretensions… “A constant feature of the Academy’s time at Somerset House was this tension between the ideal and the real visitor,” says an illustrated wall-panel. Maybe not anymore.
Who is the perfect visitor to the Courtauld? The key seems to be curiosity. Samuel Courtauld, a textile entrepreneur, collector, and philanthropist who created the gallery and the Courtauld Institute in 1932, thought that art should be accessible to everyone.
We go from a mid-17th-century drawing of heralds in ceremonial garb to a Thomas Gainsborough landscape with sheep and cattle, and from Somerset House seen from a windy Thames in 1788, with the waves bracing through the arch directly on the river (before the Embankment was built), to a highly detailed watercolour study of a chaffinch’s nest in another gallery.
Finally, a gloomy self-portrait by Vorticist Wyndham Lewis looks back across the room, as if he wants to start a fight. We may all get hot as we go through the galleries, from early Renaissance to late, from Gothic ivories to Islamic metalwork to the Bloomsbury Group.
A somewhat insane allegorical 1550 picture of English naval commander John Luttrell, nude and up to his waist in a naval battle with the French, by Flemish painter Hans Eworth, stands above a fireplace in the Northern Renaissance chamber. This somehow doesn’t detract from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s almost contemporaneous Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, whose stilled action is depicted in gradations of grey, or Lucas Cranach the Elder’s 1526 Adam and Eve, one of the best of about 50 versions of the subject Cranach and his workshop churned out. The fall of man was obviously profitable.
The Courtauld is still passionate about preserving its own history, as well as the history of the paintings, sculptures, sketches, and other artifacts in its collection. After all, art history is as much about remembering and collecting histories and tales in their broadest meaning as it is about interpretation.
The importance of personal and cultural memory cannot be overstated. If we’re going to remember that Goya’s subject, Francisco de Saavedra, is an Enlightenment progressive, we also deserve to know that the two young men nearby, Charles and John Sealy, worked for the East India Company, “which relied on forced labor and transported enslaved people from Africa to Asia,” as Tilly Kettle’s portrait of Charles and John Sealy shows.
The Courtauld’s collections are drawn from a variety of places. From the collectors Arthur Lee (once First Lord of the Admiralty), Thomas Gambier Parry (whose fortune was derived from the East India Company as well), and Austrian Count Antoine Seilern, who donated his Bruegels and Rubens, as well as a large triptych by his fellow Austrian Oskar Kokoschka, which the Count commissioned and which adorned a ceiling in the Count’s home. Kokoschka’s laborious painting is shown at the Courtauld with images by Lee Miller depicting the artist at work, acting for the camera.
Kokoschka’s Myth of Prometheus is a tiresome expressionist self-parody in and of itself. With echoes of pieces from the collection, a pouring hue, and a tangle of painterly riffs, faces, and masculine figures wading through the mix, Cecily Brown’s new commissioned work at the top of the stairs seems almost fragile. I can’t take her painting seriously, and I’d gladly trade all that paint for Linda Karshan’s new collection of contributions.
Henri Michaux’s juddering mescaline drawings, three Philip Guston works on paper (ranging from abstract intimations of heads to the Ku Klux Klan), a faint but quivering Cy Twombly (from Twombly’s best, late 1950s period), and the unexpected surprise of a small oil on card work by Joseph Beuys, with its arrangement of little triangles, that inexplicably stopped me dead
It’s all too much, yet not to the point of numbness. The scale of the galleries, the historical sweep and variety of the collection, and the surprises around every corner keep you alert and looking, whether at a large, trowelled-on Cézanne, an angel’s wing as gaudy as a tropical bird, the virtual world of Manet’s Bar at the Folies-hall Bergère’s of mirrors and reflections, or the self-absorbed loiterers and anglers in Seurat’s studies of river and light
The card players in Cézanne’s painting are still focused on their game. One thing leads to another, as Van Gogh’s bandaged ear and Seurat’s performer at the mirror with her powder puff demonstrate. In the spacious, light-filled areas on the Courtauld’s top floor, Samuel Courtauld’s renowned collection of impressionist paintings has never looked so beautiful.
What’s not to like about this place? I’m not sure I can adore Gauguin, but I’m not required to. Even things I don’t like for are welcome in their home, but I’d rather just stroll by and leave them alone. The collection has never felt as prominent or revitalized as it does now.
Rubens’ 1635 nocturnal scene may have thousands of light years between it and the stars, yet they’re right there on the surface, peppering the leaves on the trees and dusting the night. In the foreground of Sandro Botticelli’s 1490s holy trinity, the twigs and branches are becoming transparent and sinking into the soil. Everything is in the present tense and full of time. Magnificent.