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Issue 1764
The student newspaper of Imperial College London

Keep the Cat Free

Remembrance of Things Past

Arts Editor Vaidhiswaran Ramesh reminisces the Courtauld Gallery with a virtual visit, as the Gallery announce their reopening after extensive renovations in late 2021.

Somerset House


in Issue 1764

Usually in this section, we bring to you a review of an Art event taking place in the city — of a play, musical, opera, or an exhibition. But in reflection of the milieu, it is only fair that our reviews/content appreciates the way in which we consume art now, either on YouTube or a museum’s online catalogue or for those of us that are benevolent enough — access content from behind a paywall (who are we kidding it is never this; is it?).  

In that spirit, this week we reflect on the art collection of an almost forgotten local (global) treasure — The Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House. Anyone who is even vaguely associated with the art world (or who has gone ice skating in the Somerset House in winter) — can instantly recognise the gallery. Housing the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college under the University of London, the gallery boasts over 530 paintings and is fabled for its collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. 

However, anyone who has been in London recently is unlikely to have stepped into the gallery for a while now, for the gallery itself has been shuttered since September 2018. Not owing to the pandemic - but to a £50M renovation, 'Courtauld Connects' that seeks to upgrade rooms and increase access. So, the collection has been hiding from prying eyes behind closed doors in its opulent abode, save for few loans that has taken some key paintings on a truly global tour. Starting with September 2018, right after the gallery closed for renovations, key paintings from the collection, including works by Renoir and Manet, have been part of impressionist exhibitions at the National Gallery here in London and more recently were touring in Japan as part of The British Council’s “UK in Japan” series. But beyond these highlights, the collection has largely been unavailable for the public.  

But - kudos to the internet - there is a silver lining for the mere mortals who would like to rekindle some nostalgia and view the gallery just as it was in 2018, or for the more traditionalists who would like to see the paintings in their natural curated abodes — the Gallery hosts a spectacular online virtual tour of the complete collection (pre-2018). 

It is a fool's enterprise to seek to 'review' the complete collection of the Gallery, but I can perhaps sample a few insights, from a couple of gallery halls, that might entice the reader to take a virtual visit themselves. Now first things first, the virtual experience is not gimmicky in the way we would normally come to expect from museums. While not VR ready yet, the tour is an analogous counterpart to the Google Street-view experience, only this time with much more clarity and definition, one that befits the requirements of a museum.  

with Valentine's Day coming up and the truly limiting number of online only date ideas — why not give the Courtauld Gallery a virtual visit with your better half. After all there is no better way to impress your other half than with some half broken impressionist French and a sprinkling of artistic ideation.

The obvious highlight of the collection is 'A bar at the Folies Bergere' by Edouard Manet, situated in prime footage in Room 6 of the Gallery. The vibrancy in the painting is almost surreal considering that unlike most other impressionists’ works, this piece was deliberately staged and sketched in the studio. It hangs in the room alongside other impressionists' work; a room of deep and vibrant colour — reminiscent of the early impressionists — save for one other painting that stands out in this otherwise free flowing fabric of dark blues and bright maroons. It is Manet’s 'Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe'. The painting, an earlier sketch of its more famous cousin by the same name — hanging now in the Louvre in Paris, invited controversy when its cousin was first rejected by the Exhibition of the Academia of the Beaux-Arts in Paris. This juxtaposition of the two works in the room, sitting amidst deep reds by Edgar Degas in his 'Two Dancers on a stage' and his 'Woman at a window', is definitely a view to behold.  

We now move away from the Paris Impressionists and go a bit back in time to the era of Peter Paul Rubens in Room 3. The curator's billboard to the room does an excellent job in summarising the agency of the artist -  

"He was particularly inspired by sixteenth century Italian painting… admiration of Michelangelo and Giambologna… Indebted to the Venetian Renaissance painter Titian. Yet Ruben’s paintings are far more than the sum of these parts - He assimilated these and other visual sources into his own highly expressive and dynamic style".  

And this aspect and the breadth of his own influence is drawn out perfectly well within the 16 paintings that hang here. I would not stray much in discussing all of them but am indebted being on British soil to highlight Ruben’s 'Landscape by Moonlight' hanging humbly in the corner. This work highly influenced the British stalwart, John Constable, and in many ways forebode Turner’s treatment of light and reflection with its high blues and sharp sky. 

Little did the curators of The Courtauld Gallery know in 2018 that they would be sitting out one of the most devastating pandemics to have ever ravaged the world. This is a truly a tough time to be in the museum business. Art galleries in the U.S. have begun to sell off their collections to stave off the pandemic. Starting with the Brooklyn Museum in early September 2020, to the venerable New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (or Met) just last week, even renowned institutions are not immune to the effects of the pandemic. So overall — not a bad time to be shut down for renovations eh!  

The Gallery has recently announced its reopening in late 2021 (hopefully on the other side of the pandemic) — but until then; with Valentine's Day coming up and the truly limiting number of online only date ideas — why not give The Courtauld Gallery a virtual visit with your better half. After all there is no better way to impress your other half than with some half broken impressionist French and a sprinkling of artistic ideation.  

Virtual Tour: https://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/about/3d-gallery-virtual-tour

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