Egon Schiele – “The Radical Nude” at the Courtauld

Our first stop during our recent short break in London was the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House. We wanted to catch their exhibition of drawings of nudes by Egon Schiele before it finished a few days later. It’s been a popular show was busy, but, fortunately, not so busy that we couldn’t see the drawing and spend some time contemplating the pictures and retracing our steps and taking a second or third look at those that were of particular interest.

The Courtauld’s website tells us

This exhibition brings together an outstanding group of the artist’s nudes to chart his ground-breaking approach during his short but urgent career

Schiele’s technical virtuosity, highly original vision and unflinching depictions of the naked figure distinguish these works as being among his most significant contributions to the development of modern art.

Even today the drawings are quite shocking in their explicitness, particularly the earlier ones from 1910 hung in the first of the two rooms  devoted to the exhibition. It’s hard to appreciate just how controversial they must have seen when they were first displayed.

There’s no doubt that the drawings demonstrate just what an accomplished draftsman and artist Schiele was. They are technically brilliant. But I have to say that I felt some unease about their subject matter in the explicit way he portrayed the women, including his sister.

According to the review in the Guardian

Schiele, …… is a feminist who puts women at the centre of art. He is a lover, not a hater.

I’m not so sure about that. I think he certainly liked women but the way he portrayed them he comes across as rather disturbed. His drawings are far from affectionate.

He did draw and paint male nudes too, including some self portraits. And they’re somewhat distorted too, with contorted limbs in unnatural, unrealistic positions and with hands and feet cut off.

This last week we’ve had a lot of debate in the media about Page 3 of that awful rag, The Sun. For many years bare breasted young women – “Glamour Models” – have been displayed solely as objects for the titillation of men. Quite rightly most women find this offensive and there has been a campaign against it in recent years. Schiele’s drawings are different. I don’t think his intention was to titillate but to show women as he saw them. They’re realistic but, at the same time not “real”. And I don’t think you can say they’re not sexualised – but in a rather distorted way. They’re much more explicit than Page 3 and could, indeed, be considered to be pornographic. There’s no question that they’re art. But where do we draw the line? I certainly don’t know. I do know that I enjoyed the exhibition. But I still feel uneasy.

Young Woman in a large hat

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This colourful Expressionist painting, Portrait of a young woman in a large hat (1909), by the German artist Gabriele Münter (1877 to 1962) was on display at the Courtauld Gallery during our visit on Sunday. I hadn’t particularly noticed it during my previous visit a couple of months ago, but this time it caught my eye. I like the bold colours, the woman’s confident pose and expression, and, of course, the hat.

Like most female artists, particularly during previous centuries, she’s much less well known than her male contemporaries. Yet, a little research on the web shows that she played a vital role in the development of German Expressionism and was a founder member of the Neue Kunstlervereinigung Munchen, (Munich New Artists’ Association) and the avant-garde group, Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider).

Collecting Gauguin at the Courtauld

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.

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Nevermore (1897)

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.

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Haymaking (1889)

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.

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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.

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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.

The Courtauld Gallery

After I’d been to see the Becoming Picasso exhibition, I took the opportunity to go round the gallery and look round the  Courtauld’s own collection. I had visited the gallery before, but that was over twenty years ago so it was a real treat to be able to look around.

The trouble with the big galleries in London is that they have so many paintings it is difficult to know where to start and looking round can be exhausting. But the Courtauld has a a relatively small collection – much more manageable and I felt I could stand and look at the pictures without feeling the need to rush on to something else like I often do when I have the rare opportunity to visit Tate Modern, The National Gallery etc..

Their collection includes works from the early Renaissance up to the 20th century, but is best known for it’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. It includes works by good range of artists – Manet, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Morisot, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and Cézanne. They don’t have many pictures by each of them but the ones they do of are of very high quality.

Where do I start? Well some of the ones I particularly liked were  a Modigliani portrait of a woman – very typical of his work,

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a couple of Matisse Fauvists paintings and paintings by other Fauvists, a Patrick Heron abstract, an absolutely beautiful, simple, wooden Single Form by Barbara (similar to one displayed in Leeds City Art Gallery),

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Single form 1937 by Barbara Hepworth

a room full of Degas’, three beautiful Gauguin’s,

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Te Rerioa (The dream) 1897 Gauguin

a Van Gogh self-portrait (minus ear),

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Jane Avril by Lautrec, a Morisot, Manet’s Folies-Bergère

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A Bar at the Folies-Bergère 1888 Édouard Manet

and a room full of outstanding Cezannes.

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The card players Paul Cézanne

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Montagne Sainte-Victoire (c. 1887) Paul Cézanne

And more.

I was breathless by the time I’d finished and went round again, at least once more! I don’t think I’ll be leaving it another 20 years before I pay another visit .

Becoming Picasso at the Courtauld

Last Tuesday I had to go down to London on business, so I took the opportunity to go down a little early and spend a cultural afternoon in London. I was particularly keen to see the exhibition of paintings by Picasso showing at the Courtauld Gallery. It was coming to the end of it’s run and so this was my last chance to see the paintings, all from a single year, 1901:

the year that the ambitious nineteen-year-old launched his career in Paris with an exhibition that would set him on course to become one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901

It was a relatively small exhibition – it was certainly not a blockbuster. Just two rooms but a decent number of pictures. And what pictures!

It’s already been reviewed by John from Notes to the Milkman  and it’s been mentioned by Rosie Scribblah; these are my thoughts for what they’re worth!

I arrived at the Courtauld at about half past one. There wasn’t really a queue – only 2 couples in front of me and the exhibition wasn’t too busy. Not quiet, but no need for a timed ticket and I could see all the paintings without having to stand on tip toes and peek over peoples’ shoulders. I was able to view them leisurely and go back and look again without any problems, so I probably went round twice and back a few more times to the pictures I particularly liked.

The paintings on display were all from his debut exhibition in 1901 with the influential dealer Ambroise Vollard and show how his work changed over that short timescale, leading to his “Blue” period.

The earlier paintings, from the first half of 1901, were displayed in the first room. They showed strong influences by the Impressionists and Post Impressionists such as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. Lots of bright colours roughly dabbed on, particularly noticeable on his painting of “Nana, the dwarf dancer

dwarf dancer

(source: Courtauld website)

The subject matter of these paintings, circus performers, the Moulin Rouge and the Can Can also seemed to show the influence of Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas.

In the second room the style of many of the paintings, produced after his Vollard exhibition, changed quite dramatically. The brushwork in most of them was quite different from those from the earlier part of the year. And the colour in many of them were more sombre and dominated by blue tones – we can see the beginning of his “Blue period”.

Some still showed influences, like this painting of an absinthe drinker, a subject previously painted by Degas

The Absinthe Drinker - Pablo Picasso

Absinthe drinker (source: Wikipaintings)

But Picasso’s painting was different -  less lifelike. There are some similarities with Lautrec’s style but it is less realisitic. The outsize hands and unrealistic right arm being particularly noticeable.  She has a grim expression on her prematurely aged face, and is making a curious  gesture.

There were some well known paintings including Child with Dove and two paintings featuring Harlequin –  Seated Harlequin  and Harlequin and Companion, and two self portraits – Self Portrait (Yo – Picasso) and Self Portrait (Yo).

Two lesser known paintings I liked featured a mother and child. The first show a contented pair, the baby looking chubby and well fed

Woman with child - Pablo Picasso

Mother and Child (source: Wikipaintings)

but the second, featuring the same models, shows a different, more desperate situation. The child is a little older and another baby being carried by the mother.

The mother leading two children - Pablo Picasso

The Mother (source: Wikipaintings)

The differences in style of the two paintings reflect the different situations. The first being neater and more brightly coloured and the second more crudely painted with larger brushstrokes and a rougher finish.

So, not a blockbuster, but a manageable exhibition without a duff painting in sight. I came away feeling stimulated and having learned something about Picasso’s work, rather than exhausted.