Sunday, August 29, 2010

Surprises at the Courtauld

 Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin?), Triptych with the Entombment,
the Resurrection and a donor, c. 1420, ? oil and gold leaf on panel.

Once again the Courtauld Institute Art Gallery has produced a surprise, for me anyway. The gallery is in Somerset House on the Strand (it was in Portland Place the last time I was there in the early 1980s, more on that later). The surprise on this occasion was the Gothic and Early Renaissance collection in a room on the ground floor. This era of painting has never appealed to me before but somehow my mind got changed. The paintings, small and tightly painted on panels, are beautiful as objects, exquisitely wrought with delicate textures, and the way they were displayed brought this out. There were several altar pieces and predellas, triptychs on hinged panels, absolutely beautiful and perfectly preserved. This room made the visit well worth while.

The only previous visit about twenty-five years ago was surprising too. I had gone specially to see Cézanne's Card Players, which was just as I'd imagined, but near to it there was a large Van Gogh of a tree in blossom which just knocked me over. It might have been a peach tree, what I remember is that it was a close-up of a tree with pinkish-white blossoms, quite large, maybe 24 x 30 ins or 30 x 40, and it was as if it was alive, shimmering and hovering in the air, a gasp-inducing painting. It had looked so dull in the book and the contrast showed me once and for all how necessary it is to see paintings in real life whenever possible.

I've been wondering if it would still have the same effect and expected to find out on this visit, but sad to say the van Gogh painting I remember is no longer there. After coming home I checked their website and there's no record of it. Did I make a mistake? I don't think so. The Courtauld was the only gallery I went to on that occasion, and the experience was particularly vivid and memorable.

Whatever about that, the gallery still has an interesting Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection which includes Renoir's La Loge and Manet's Bar at the Folies Bergéres, also quite a few Cézannes. They have a small Picasso still life painting, about the least interesting I've ever seen. They've also been adding contemporary prints by the thousand, mostly donated. In addition there's a lot of Rubens and a display of silver. But for me the stars of the show were the pre-Renaissance paintings in Room 1.

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