We’ve just returned from a short family holiday in London. Three days when we were able to take in some sights, museums and art as well as enjoy some time together. On the second day we split up – kids to the Natural History Museum and parents to look at some art.
Our first port of call was the Courtauld Gallery. I’d been there on my own just a few months ago during a short trip to London which was primarily for business, but I managed to devote half a day to some art and culture, including a visit to the Courtauld where they were showing an exhibition of early paintings by Picasso.
The current exhibition features works by Gauguin collected by Samuel Courtauld, all but two of which are from the Gallery’s own collection. The other two, which were originally owned by Courtauld but were sold on, have been reunited with the ones he kept on loan. Unlike another gallery in London currently showing a small exhibition featuring works by Vermeer and his contemporaries, with the paintings principally drawn from their own collection (no names mentioned, National Gallery!), there was no supplementary charge.
Almost three years ago we went to see the “blockbuster” retrospective exhibition of Gauguin’s work at the Tate Modern. It was an extremely comprehensive survey of his work and included loads of contextual information – letters, journals, sketchbooks and the like. But we found it was just too much to take in. It was a crush and felt like rush to get around and after three hours we were exhausted and unable to absorb any more, and didn’t have the time and energy to take everything in.
The Courtauld exhibition is quite different. There were only five paintings, a selection of prints, a sculpture and some contextual materials. It wasn’t crowded during our visit making it possible to stand, observe and contemplate the works properly without being rushed. It wasn’t a comprehensive survey of his work, but as they covered several periods of his life allowed the viewer to gain a good impression of his style and approach, particularly during his time in Tahiti.
The earliest painting in the exhibition is Martinique Landscape (1887), which is on loan from the Scottish National Gallery. It’s one a series of landscape paintings Gauguin produced in Martinique in 1887 during his first attempt to find a “primitive” tropical paradise before returning to France.
His next attempt to escape from the rat race involved staying in Brittany in the 1880s and 1890s where he produced a large number of paintings. One of them, Haymaking, is in the Courtauld collection.
The final years of his life, from 1891, when he produced some of his best, and best known works, were spent in French Polynesia. He never returned. here are three paintings from this period in the exhibition, two from the Gallery’s permanent collection.
Te Rerioa (the dream) from 1897 was acquired by Courtauld in 1929 on the recommendation of his friend, the artist Roger Fry, who saw the work in the gallery of the dealer Paul Rosenberg in Paris. He wrote an enthusiastic letter, urging Courtauld to buy “the masterpiece of Gauguin”. it features two seated women with a baby in a cradle looked over by a cat. I’m not sure why it was given that particular title. It doesn’t look very dreamlike – resembling an everyday domestic scene. But I’m sure there’s some symbolism there that I’m missing.
Te Rerioa (1897)
My favourite painting in the exhibition, though, is Nevermore, shown at the top of this post, which was purchased by Courtauld in 1927. A young naked woman is lying on a bed, a sinister raven is perched above her, and two malevolent female spirits plot behind her.
The third Polynesian painting on show is Bathers at Tahiti, the first of Gauguin’s works that Courtauld bought but which he later sold. It’s on loan from the Barber institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham. It was my lest favourite as it’s a rougher painting than the other two.
I also liked the series of ten wood cut prints, also from the Gallery’s collection, but not usually on show in the permanent exhibition. These are a couple of them.
All in all a worthwhile little exhibition. Even though I’d seen three of the paintings during my earlier visit it was good to be able to focus on them without being distracted by the works of other artists. It was refreshing to be able to look at them properly, without having to strain over someone’s shoulder. And the small number of works meant that I wasn’t overwhelmed and exhausted.