Embarrassing to admit but the visit I made to Courtauld Gallery the other week (see earlier post) was my first. Being up in London for an appointment that was dispensed with by the other side of lunchtime, I decided to kill some time by heading over there. To be honest, I’m not quite sure why I had never made it to the Courtauld before: I’d certainly meant to but never quite got around to it – in fact, the last time I even considered it, a friend who had already been there warned me off, saying that it really wasn’t up to much.
Having now seen it for myself, I will have to beg to differ as I got a huge kick out of this pristine “little” gallery set out on three floors – well, maybe not the Medieval section on the ground floor but what awaited me in the light-flooded rooms on the first floor filled me with thrilled surprise as I came across an impressive collection of paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Van Gogh, Renoir… It included a pair of bronze Degas dancers that wouldn’t have been out of place in the recent Degas and the Ballet exhibition at the RA (with a label under one of them declaring that it had been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax , a concept that give me sickness-pangs in sympathy for whoever had been forced to hand it over). This surprise of a gallery was being described by a teacher out for the day with his gaggle of bored-looking students as being in possession of what is regarded by some to be a “finer collection than the National” as I walked past and I found myself grunting in agreement as there were some real gems and I was aware of not having felt quite so much enjoyment looking at Impressionist work since last time I was in Paris. And so many familiar paintings – none of which I’d expected to trip-upon, having admittedly failed to do any homework before my visit: take this virtual tour of rooms 5, 6 & 7 to see what I mean!
The even more unexpected highlight amongst all these, for me, was Monet‘s Antibes painting and not because it was by Monet (who I appreciate at a very deep level) but because of the Riviera subject-matter which appeals to me less than much of his other work and I realised straightaway that I had seen this image a dozen times before, in books and so on, and never really given it a second glance. In the flesh, however, it resoundingly, gob-smackingly did that thing that I keep trying to do myself – it captured the light; every dancing, sparkling, iridescent speck of it, to the point that I was transfixed and even went back a couple of times for another look. And this, in a nutshell, is why it is just so so important to keep going back to galleries to see these paintings as they were meant to be seen and not as digital images or in books. From my own perspective, all I can hope to do is internalise what he achieved with his brushes and so learn from it!
Another painting that utterly fascinated me was Monet’s Vase of Flowers – largely from the perspective (lovely as it is) that it was completed some 40 years after he started it, by which time his style had evolved so considerably that you can see and almost feel how hard he worked at adding flourishes to the more restrained composition of his earlier career in such a way as to reconcile them into a finished work that he could feel satisfied with. Now, as a painter, the question of whether to return to an old canvas – perhaps one started two, three, even four years ago – sometimes crops up when I see potential in something that no longer completely ticks my boxes but, so far, I have always held back, feeling that what has been started so long ago should be left where it is and that there would always be a sort of tension apparent in a piece of work straddling a period of time during which I will have evolved in a thousand different ways. Interesting indeed, therefore to see something picked up after a span of time that could almost encompass the whole of my lifetime and yet successfully pulled together into a coherent work!
Up the stunning spiral staircase to the next floor (for me, the building was as enjoyable as the paintings) where I found the 20th Century collection – the highlight for me being Kees Van Dongen‘s in-your-face Torso with facial shadow picked out in a shade of red that makes for a sharp intake of breath when confronted in reality (again, lost completely in the digital reproduction). However it is the Monet that has left echoes playing in my mind, even all these weeks after my visit and so, from the point of view of having seen that particular piece so close that I was able to scrutinise every brushstroke, my almost-didn’t happen visit to the Courtauld was priceless.