Monday, 28 October 2013

Finally 'getting' the modern

Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Manet
At the end of a production period, when you’ve safely tucked up the publication in bed, a little relaxation is always in order.

And what could be better than the opportunity to gaze at some top-notch art for an hour or so?

That was the situation by mid-afternoon on Friday and, with dinner at Joe Allen and theatre to follow, I had a nice little gap in my calendar.

And given that I’d later be heading to the Aldwych/Strand, the best possible solution presented itself in a first ever visit to the Courtauld Gallery.

Based in the part of Somerset House that was originally designed for the Royal Academy, which itself was founded 1768, it houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London that was founded in 1932.

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil, Monet
It has a small, but renownedly fine collection and, for some reason or other, I’d never visited.

First up was the medieval room, which was devoid of any other human life when I entered, and fabulously quiet.

But just as a started gazing in wonder into a cabinet of remarkable carvings, the door was shoved open and in burst a group of Russian tourists, cameras and phones ready to snap anything and everything – and woe betide anyone who was in their way.

Bang went my chance of seeing anything properly, as I was shoved out of the way from two sides (there was at least one brief apology), by phone-toting visitors determined simply to snap, snap and snap again. They were not, I hasten to add, youngsters.

Adam and Eve, Cranach the Elder
I retired quickly to the first of the upstairs galleries, only to find them catch up with me almost instantly.

Again, the same pattern.

Having spent a few minutes looking at Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Flight into Egypt (1563), which I realised that I remembered from school, I approached Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve (1526), only for a group to surround it with no interest in anything other than having a picture taken beside it, making funny signs with hands near Adam’s groin.

Quickly on then, through the rooms with the Gainsbroughs and the Rubens, into the smaller, square Cézanne Room, where I plonked myself firmly on the square bench in the middle and stayed put to wait them out.

Art’s for everyone, and all that – and I’d love more people to see stuff like this and enjoy it, but what the hell is the point of visiting a gallery or museum and behaving like this?

Montagne Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne
What do you get from it – and it had better be pretty damned special if you’re going to make such a negative impact on other visitors.

While doing that ‘waiting out’, I set myself to concentrate on the painter’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire from around 1887, sketching a very rough outline of it with a pen on the lined page of a notebook in an effort to better understand the composition. Which actually does work.

The gallery’s Cézanne collection alone is worth the (£6) admission, and covers a wide period in his productive life, up to a very late landscape, Route Tournante, from 1904, which looks unfinished as well as quite abstract, and also includes the wonderful Man with a Pipe from 1896.

Nevermore, Gauguin
Looking at these, I found it much easier to start to understand the difference between Impressionism and post-Impressionism: it starts to make sense.

There was no shortage of treats in just three rooms, including some Renoir and Degas, with Monet’s beautiful Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873), plus Manet’s vivid explosion of colour, Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) and the iconic A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1881-82) being stand outs, along with a sculpture by Rodin, van Gogh’s disturbing Self Portrait with a Bandaged Ear (1889) and the lovely Peach Trees in Blossom from the same year.

Self-portrait with a Bandaged Ear, van Gogh
But for me, one of the most important ‘new’ experiences was seeing two of Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings in the ‘flesh’. The colour palate really reminded me of Survage’s Collioure pictures, and they also have a sense of mystery about them that adds to the fascination.

I don’t know why – now – but I’d long assumed that they were quite exploitative, but when you see them, you also see the dignity of the women in them. I was wrong on that score, most defininately.

There’s also a realism combined with a decorative element that makes a particularly interesting contrast with The Haystacks, which the artist painted in Brittany in 1889, which has a palate that seems closer to van Gogh than what we perhaps most obviously think of Gauguin.

Upstairs, though, came an unexpected treat.

As I walked into a room of 20th century art and turned back to look what was hung on the left of the door, it was to see André Derain’s Fishermen at Collioure, painted in 1905, in that summer that, in effect, saw the beginning of Fauvism.

The Red Beach, Matisse
And on the other side of the same door, The Red Beach by Matisse, also from 1905, and quite recognisably of Port D’Avall.

After all the hunting for work in London by Matisse, finally here was not just ‘any old work’, but something that I could comprehend and appreciate on a specific and quite personal level.

I was thrilled almost to the point of tears – and telling innocent bystanders: Ive sat on that beach, I ave.

Other exhibits that made an impact also include some Kandinsky, some Kirchner and a room of Walter Sickert (a revelation) and Modigliani’s rather wonderful Female Nude Sitting from 1916.

Slowly I seem to ‘get’ modern art. Or actually, not so much slowly, but all in a relatively short burst, after having spent decades – including my time studying art formally at school – not doing so.

It’s really rather enjoyable.

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