Courtauld gallery

The ghostly charcoals of Frank Auerbach

‘In some curious way, the practice of art and the awareness of the imminence of death are connected,’ Frank Auerbach said in 2012. ‘Otherwise, we would not find it necessary to do the work art finally does – to pin something down and take it out of time.’ There’s no sense of the imminence of death in Auerbach’s postwar landscapes of London building sites stirring with new life, but there is in his contemporary charcoal portraits, as scarred and sooty as the Blitzed city in which they were made. Auerbach started making large charcoal drawings from life as a student in David Bomberg’s evening classes at Borough Polytechnic, and carried

Astonishing and gripping: Van Gogh’s Self Portraits at the Courtauld reviewed

In September 1889, Vincent van Gogh sent his brother Theo a new self-portrait from the mental hospital at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. ‘You must look at it for some time,’ he instructed, then ‘you’ll see, I hope, that my physiognomy has grown much calmer, although the gaze may be vaguer than before, so it appears to me.’ Vincent was severely ill and was in the hospital to recover from his affliction, the nature of which remains controversial. Yet he carried on creating marvellous pictures, including several of himself. One of the questions raised by Van Gogh. Self-Portraits, the wonderful exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, is simple but fundamental: why? We take it as

Is Gauguin redeemable? No. Would he have wanted to be redeemed? Absolutely not

‘This is not a book,’ is the first line of Paul Gauguin’s final memoir, Avant et Après, written on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands in 1903 a couple of months before his death aged 54 from syphilitic heart disease. In his dedication to the critic André Fontainas he describes the manuscript as ‘born of solitude and savagery — idle tales of a naughty child who sometimes reflects and is always a lover of the beautiful’. Fontainas failed to find a publisher as Gauguin had hoped, and although a facsimile appeared in 1918 it wasn’t until 1923 that the artist’s eldest son Émile had the memoir published in an English

The supreme pictures of the Courtauld finally have a home of equal magnificence

When the Courtauld Gallery’s impressionist pictures were shown at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris in 2019, the Parisian public was so bowled over by the exhibition that some were inclined to claim Samuel Courtauld as an honorary Frenchman. This was not completely unreasonable; after all Courtauld (1876–1947) was a Francophile from an old Huguenot family. But it was even more of a compliment to the magnificent array of French art he had put together. In this city of impressionism, home to the Musée d’Orsay and the Orangerie, half a million visitors came to see it. I went round that show with an eminent art dealer, and as we did

Occupational hazards

A conservator at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum was recently astonished to find a tiny grasshopper stuck in the paint of Van Gogh’s ‘Olive Trees’ (1889). The discovery would not have surprised Van Gogh, who complained to his brother Theo in 1885: ‘I must have picked up a good hundred flies or more off the four canvases that you’ll be getting.’ On the evidence of a new exhibition of drawings on the theme of Artists at Work at the Courtauld Gallery, insects are the least of the plein-air painter’s problems: the 19th-century protagonist of Eduard Gehbe’s ‘The startled painter’ has been sent flying by a passing roebuck. Animals aside, there’s the

Cabbages and kings

The first pastry cook Chaïm Soutine painted came out like a collapsed soufflé. The sitter for ‘The Pastry Cook’ (c.1919) was Rémy Zocchetto, a 17-year-old apprentice at the Garetta Hotel in Céret in southern France. He is deflated, lopsided, slouch-shouldered, in a chef’s jacket several sizes too big for him. His hat is askew, his body a scramble of egg-white paint. Soutine painted at least six cooks in their kitchen livery. In their chef’s whites they look like meringues that have not set (‘Pastry Cook of Cagnes’, 1922), îles flottantes that do not float (‘Cook of Cagnes’, c.1924), and, in the case of the ‘Little Pastry Cook’ (c.1921) from the

Back in the USSR

For much of 1517 Michelangelo Buonarroti was busy quarrying marble in the mountains near Carrara. From time to time, however, he received letters relating how his affairs were going in Rome. These contained updates on — among other matters — how his friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo was getting on with a big altarpiece which he hoped, with Michelangelo’s help, would vanquish their joint rival, Raphael. This picture, ‘The Raising of Lazarus’, has been in the National Gallery for almost 200 years now (it is No. 1 in the inventory of the collection). Next March it will be one of the centrepieces in an ambitious exhibition that inaugurates the

Out of this world | 16 June 2016

It is London in the summer of 1871. Queen Victoria has just opened the Royal Albert Hall in memory of her beloved husband; Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland has just been published, and French refugees from the Franco-Prussian war continue to arrive in the capital. Among them is Claude Monet, who is having a miserable time in the fog and mist. Not far from the Thames views that he had been painting, a fellow artist has just opened her first exhibition of 155 ‘Spirit Drawings’ in a gallery on Old Bond Street, in the heart of London’s art quarter. She was Georgiana Houghton (1814–1884), a 57-year-old London-based middle-class

Florence | 31 March 2016

Once, it seems, Sandro Botticelli played a trick on a neighbour. Next door was a weaver who possessed eight looms. He and his assistants kept these in constant use, creating such a judder-ing racket that the poor painter was unable to concentrate on his pictures. Botticelli implored this fellow to reduce the noise, but to no avail. So eventually the artist carried an enormous rock on to his roof, poised so the slightest vibration would bring it crashing through the noisy weaver’s premises. The man then saw reason. You can easily imagine the problem today as you walk down Botticelli’s street, Via del Porcellana. It’s a long, narrow thoroughfare running

Repeat prescription

Walter Sickert was once shown a room full of paintings by a proud collector, who had purchased them on the understanding that they were authentic Sickerts. The painter took one look around, then announced genially, none of these are mine, ‘But none the worse for that!’ Were Giorgione to return to life, and take a stroll around the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy, he might echo those words. Few of the works on show, in all probability, were actually executed by Giorgione, but they are none the less magnificent for that. This is — wisely — not an exhibition that attempts to reassemble the artistic personality of that enigmatic


When Tom Birkin, hero of J.L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country, wakes from sleeping in the sun, it is to a vision: the vicar’s wife Alice Keach in a wide-brimmed straw hat, a rose tucked into the ribbon. ‘Her neck was uncovered to the bosom and, immediately, I was reminded of Botticelli — not his Venus — the Primavera. It was partly her wonderfully oval face and partly the easy way she stood. I’d seen enough paintings to know beauty when I saw it and, in this out of the way place, here it was before me.’ So universally recognised are Sandro Botticelli’s two most famous paintings, we

Repetitive but compelling: Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery reviewed

One day in 1938 Alberto Giacometti saw a marvellous sight on his bedroom ceiling. It was ‘a thread like a spider’s web, but made of dust’, an object that was both ‘very, very fine’ and in constant motion, like a snake except that ‘no animal’, he thought, had ever made such movements: ‘light and sweeping and always different’. This was, you might say, a revelation of the beauty that lay in extreme thinness and fragility. In Giacometti: Pure Presence at the National Portrait Gallery you see that process of attenuation occurring, in different ways, again and again in his art. In a bronze bust of his younger brother Diego, from

Seeking closure | 13 August 2015

A while ago, David Hockney mused on a proposal to tax the works of art stored in artists’ studios. ‘You’d only have to say they weren’t finished, and you are the only one who could say if they were,’ he suggested. ‘There’d be nothing they could do.’ This is the state of affairs examined in Unfinished, a thought-provoking little exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. Once upon a time, it was as clear whether a painter had completed a picture as it was whether the gardener had thoroughly mowed the lawn. Indisputably, Perino del Vaga downed tools for some reason halfway through his ‘Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist’ (1528–37).

Who will be the next head of the British Museum? Here are the runners and riders

The hunt for the next head of the British Museum is not going to be easy. The director needs to have the confidence of his trustees, to inspire his curators and to convince the government to maintain the grant. In all of those areas MacGregor has been exceptional. The Standard reports that the internal candidate Joanna Mackle, deputy director, is unlikely to put her name forward. So who’s name is in the ring? One of the most prestigious jobs in the museum world, it suffers a handicap when it comes to salary. As such it is extremely unlikely that the most obvious candidate Thomas Campbell, currently director of the Metropolitan Museum (salary over $1m) could be persuaded to

Flying witches, mad old men, cannibals: what was going on in Goya’s head?

It is not impossible to create good art that makes a political point, just highly unusual. Goya’s ‘Third of May’ is the supreme example of how to pull it off. It is a great picture with a universal message — the terrible suffering of the innocent victims of war — and one echoed, with fresh horrors, in the news today. The figure in front of the firing squad, arms flung wide, in Goya’s picture is everyman. One of the reasons for its power, and for that of ‘Disasters of War’, his series of aquatint etchings, is that images of violence and evil sprang spontaneously from his imagination. There are some

Egon Schiele at the Courtauld: a one-note samba of spindly limbs, nipples and pudenda

One day, as a student — or so the story goes — Egon Schiele called on Gustav Klimt, a celebrated older artist, and showed him a portfolio of drawings with the abrupt query, ‘Do I have talent?’ Klimt looked at them, then answered, ‘Much too much!’ One gets an inkling of what Klimt was getting at from the feverishly intense work on show in Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude. From childhood, Schiele drew with manic fluency. His father, a syphilitic stationmaster, was irritated to discover that a sketchbook, a gift to the boy intended to last for months, had been filled in less than a day. In 1906, at the

Art shows you simply mustn’t miss in 2014

One of the great treats of the exhibiting year will undoubtedly be Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (17 April to 7 September) at Tate Modern. The last phase of Matisse’s productive career was devoted to making extraordinarily vivid images from painted paper cut with scissors, as the physical effort of wielding a paintbrush became too much for him. Matisse’s greatest strengths were as draughtsman and colourist, and the cut-outs combine these skills in abundant measure, releasing a new sense of joyous celebration almost unmatched in the history of art. The largest ever exhibition of the cut-outs, the Tate’s show will feature 120 works, many seen together for the first time. Unmissable.

Samuel Courtauld’s great collection

In 1929, Samuel Courtauld owned the most important collection of works by Paul Gauguin in England: five paintings, ten woodcuts and a sculpture. He subsequently sold two of the paintings, but for this show the gallery that bears Courtauld’s name has borrowed them back. One of them is the very beautiful ‘Martinique Landscape’ (1887), now owned by the National Galleries of Scotland, in which colour and pattern lock together in the most subtle and satisfying way. Even the rather startling turquoise with which the gallery’s walls have been painted cannot distract from its powerful presence. The other great painting here is supposedly ‘The Dream’, which Roger Fry declared was ‘the