The Courtauld is one of my favourite London Galleries. You have to pay to enter but it is totally worth it. It nestles in the arch that leads into Somerset House (incidentally the coffee at the Watch House in the courtyard is amazing). I was in London the other week so had booked myself to go along and see the Van Gogh self portrait exhibition.
The Courtauld has been closed while it undergoes a revamp, so this was also an opportunity to see the renovated space.
They were both well worth it. The renovation has been very well done. The basement vaults have been opened up to form a free locker space and a large and well stocked shop. I remember the walls being red but they are now a creamy grey, which makes the pictures easier to see. The pictures themselves are also better arranged.
I ascended to the top floor first to view the Van Gogh self portrait show. It is I am afraid to say already finished so you have missed it.
It was quite a small show, over a couple of rooms but the quality is very good. You may have seen my thoughts on the Bacon show. My reaction to this one was very different. Whereas with Bacon I couldn’t wait to get out, with this show I didn’t want to leave and circulated around the rooms several times.
You can see the development of his style and as more colour and more radical use of colour, with a particularly mad one where he looks like and angry acid trip of a hedgehog. It uses the swirling vortex style of painting that would be made famous by Stary night.
He doesn’t look like a happy man. People often don’t in self portraits as the act of painting yourself means you often adopt a concentrated and earnest facial expression. This is because you are being concentrated and earnest. Rarely do you see self portraits where people look actively happy. Maybe its because we know what happened to Van Gogh but he does seem particularly mournfull. One painting with its deep blue background and his, hard determined stare seemed especially powerful to me.
The curator of the Courtauld was in the gallery showing some people round and explained that in many of the paintings, the paint had faded, particularly the red paints which was less stable, leaving a much plainer painting. I tagged along behind, shamelessly earwigging. It was very interesting. Once you know this , you then look at some of the paintings, like this self portrait with what now appear to be quite a bland background with just odd splotches of red, and wonder what it would have looked like in its first condition.
My favourite painting though was Van Gogh’s stool. Stretches the self portrait things but it is an excellent painting. The vibrant colours, the odd perspective and the empty and loneliness of the scene are quite evocative.
The exhibition takes you through various stages of Van Gogh life, before during and after his stay in mental hospital. While the subject and events depicted are quite painful, they are not made horrible. There is a humanity and, because of the colour scheme a strange joy which makes them engaging. Sadly you can see none of this as the exhibition is now over. Sorry about that I meant to write this up much sooner.
However there is an Munch exhibition which looks good and if you haven’t seen it yet the rest of the refurbished Courtauld is well worth a look. I have written about the Courtauld itself before. Refurbs of museums can often be for the worse but not this time. It looks, feels and is much better.
There seems to be more space. The paintings seem to be less cluttered and have room to breathe. The red wall scheme has gone to be replaced by a pale creamy grey in which, frankly, the art sits much better. The Courtauld itself is blessed with some fairly spectacular ceiling frescos and these are still in place, and presumably have been restored.
The basement has been opened up into the arches to provide free locker space and a very nice, cosy shop with really quite expensive stuff in it. Good stuff but expensive.
I won’t write here again about the classics of the Courtauld. They have a large impressionists collection which is well worth seeing if you haven’t already. Instead I shall concentrate on the new work that was on display.
Oskar Kokoscha was new to me and there was a room dedicated to his art. I suspect that this might be a room where the subject changes from time to time. I really liked his stuff though. There was an enormous triptych up on the wall depicted mythical scenes. I liked the brightness of it and the fluid and indistinct nature of the painting which are set off by these sort of scratchy lines that move throughout the painting.
His style works particularly well for coastal landscapes and there was a nice jagged rocky bay, with two angry seagulls in the foreground that I liked.
The main change is to the medieval room, with its grumpy icons. This used to sit on the ground floor and felt slightly like and after-thought. It has been moved up a floor, and been given a bigger space in which it is better presented. The Islamic silver here is quite something, but my favourite is a grumpy saint, sitting in his gold background.
Go, have a look for yourself. And well done to the Courtauld and all those involved in its refurbishment.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.