tThe first time I visited the Courtauld Gallery, I managed to spill paint on the floor for Claude Monet’s 1873 Autumn Effect in Argenteuil. Nearly 100 years after Monet painted this calm but fanning river scene, young Searle was practicing his own fall effect on the gallery floor. In the early 1970s, the Courtauld was housed on the top floor of a building in Bloomsbury’s Woburn Square, part of the University of London, and art students were still granted dispensation to copy the works, though thankfully few were as cluttered as I.
Fifty years later, on the top floor of the recently converted and refurbished Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, which reopens to the public on November 19 after a two-year closure, I’m back in front of that Monet. Returning to works of art for a long period of time is a good way to reconnect with yourself.
The gallery now has new floors and no one is dragging easels and paint into the rooms now. The space is much more public, with ticket counters, cafe and shop, better access and more open displays than it was two years, let alone half a century ago.
Until now, the Courtauld had always felt a bit cramped, underexposed and old-fashioned – despite the quality of both its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. Some will no doubt miss the studious twilight of the lights, the paintings hung on chains, the lights attached to the picture frames.
The ghosts of the old Royal Academy, which was housed in the same rooms in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries, still somehow inhabited these spaces, and the dizzying spiral staircase, which Thomas Rowlandson caricatured in an 1811 bawdy slapstick scene of crowds climbing and tumbling, to see the Academy’s annual summer exhibition, never felt far away .
“This crude and sexist satire was aimed at both the unruly visitors and the lofty pretensions of the Royal Academy … this tension between the ideal and the real visitor was a constant feature of the Academy’s time at Somerset House,” reads one illustrated wall panel. Not so maybe now. Who is the ideal visitor to the Courtauld? Curiosity seems to be the key. Textile magnate, collector and philanthropist Samuel Courtauld, who founded both the gallery and the Courtauld Institute in 1932, believed that art should be accessible.
One gallery takes us past British drawings and watercolors, and we go from a 17th-century drawing of heralds in ceremonial garb to a Thomas Gainsborough landscape with sheep and cattle, and of Somerset House seen from a windswept Thames in 1788, the waves passing through the arch directly on the river (before the Dike was built), after a very detailed watercolor study of a finch’s nest.
Finally, a glowing self-portrait of the Vorticist Wyndham Lewis stares across the room, as if trying to break things. As we go through the galleries – from the early renaissance to the late, from Gothic ivory to Islamic metalwork to the Bloomsbury Group, we can all get a little overheated.
In the room dedicated to the Northern Renaissance, a mildly insane allegorical portrait from 1550 of the English naval officer John Luttrell, naked and waist-deep in a naval battle with the French, by the Flemish painter Hans Eworth, hangs over a fireplace. Somehow this doesn’t detract from Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s near-simultaneous Christ and the Woman taken in adultery, whose hushed action takes place 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 that Cranach and his workshop were developing. The fall of man was clearly a nice earner.
The Courtauld still wants to keep its own past, but also the history of the paintings, sculptures, drawings and other objects alive. Art history is, after all, just as much about not forgetting, and the accumulation of histories and stories in the broadest sense, as it is about interpretation. Personal and cultural memory are central. If we come to recall that Goya’s subject, in his 1798 portrait of Francisco de Saavedra, is a progressive man of the Enlightenment, we also deserve to learn that the two young men nearby, in Tilly Kettle’s portrait of Charles and John Sealy, worked for the East India Company, “which relied on forced labor and transported enslaved people from Africa to Asia”.
The Courtauld’s collections come from multiple sources. From the collector Arthur Lee (once the first lord of the Admiralty), Thomas Gambier Parry (whose own fortune also came from the East India Company), and from the Austrian Count Antoine Seilern, who donated his Bruegels and his Rubens and many more, including the huge triptych by his compatriot Oskar Kokoschka, commissioned by Seilern, which adorned a ceiling in the count’s house. In the Courtauld, Kokoschka’s exhausting painting hangs opposite photos of Lee Miller of the artist at work, appearing in front of the camera.
Kokoschka’s Myth of Prometheus is itself a tiresome expressionist self-parody. It makes Cecily Brown’s new commissioned work at the top of the stairwell look almost delicate, with its echoes of works from the collection, a dripping palette, and a medley of painterly riffs, faces, and male figures running through the mix. I can’t take her painting very seriously, and I’d like to trade all that paint for Linda Karshan’s new batch of donations. Henri Michaux’s trembling mescaline drawings, three works by Philip Guston on paper (taking us from abstract designations of heads to the Ku Klux Klan), a faint but quivering Cy Twombly, like a whispered secret (from Twombly’s finest, late 1950s ), and the sudden surprise of a small oil on card work by Joseph Beuys, with its arrangement of small triangles, which inexplicably made me stop.
It’s all too much, but not so much that one remains numb. The size of the galleries, the historic range and variety of the collection, the surprises at every turn will keep you on your toes and watching, be it a large troweled Cézanne, an angel wing so showy as a tropical bird, the hall of mirrors and reflections in the virtual world of Manet’s Bar in the Folies-Bergère, or the egocentric loiterers and fishermen in Seurat’s studies of river and light and corrupted time.
Cézanne’s card players are still focused on their game. Van Gogh with his bandaged ear and Seurat’s performer in front of her mirror with her powder puff – one thing leads to another and then another. Samuel Courtauld’s large collection of Impressionist paintings has never looked better in the open, bright spaces of the Courtauld’s top floor. What’s not to love here? I can’t love Gauguin, but it wasn’t asked. Even those things I don’t care much about are welcome with them, although I’m happier to walk by and leave them to their own devices. The collection has never felt so visible, so refreshed.
The stars in Rubens’s Nocturnal Landscape of 1635 may be thousands of light-years away, but they’re right there on the surface, sprinkled with the foliage on the trees, a volatile substance in the night. The twigs and branches in the foreground of Sandro Botticelli’s 1490 Holy Trinity become translucent and sink into the earth. Everything is in the present and everything is filled with time. Magnificently.