The Courtauld Gallery has an impressive collection of paintings, and a few sculptures, ranging in date from the early Renaissance to the 20th century. It’s not just it’s range that’s impressive though, it’s star guests also drew me in: The Gallery currently has a pretty big selection of paintings from Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin and Cézanne. To top it all off, the Courtauld Gallery logo is pretty great as well –
Anyway, since I saw so many great paintings, it would be foolish (and probably really boring) for me to discuss everything that interested me – so I’ve decided to list off seven of my favourite paintings and drawings from the Gallery and give them each a bit of explanation, context, and the reasons why I enjoyed them. I have a fairly subjective view of Art, if I like the painting I like the painting, so if there’s a masterwork that I’ve skipped that resides in the Courtauld Gallery don’t be mad. I’m just talking about what resonated with me, which isn’t always what I expect. Here we go.
Two Dancers on a Stage, by Edgar Degas, 1874
This painting of two dancers by Degas, likely staged at the Paris Opera, is … good.
I like it.
Jesus, I’ve just got to this point in the blog and I’m just realising as I’m typing that I don’t know how to talk about art. This is gonna become a problem. How many different ways can I say “This painting looks nice and made me feel emotions” in one blog? I’m gonna have to get the thesaurus. In the meantime, bear with me.
Um. Degas uses empty space? Yes! He uses empty space and lighting really well and that’s why I like this painting. It almost looks like a photograph. It doesn’t appear particularly staged like an older painting would, however – diametrically – it also feels meticulously planned. Each brushstroke seems to serve a purpose. He didn’t paint those two Dancers in the top right corner because he was gonna draw more in the foreground but he ran out of time, he painted them there for a distinct purpose – The blurb says that it was to ‘evoke modern city life’ using ‘unconventional viewpoints’ as if we, the viewer, are ‘looking down on these two ballerinas, as if watching them prom a box beside the stage’. That seems about right. I guess the blurb-writers do know what they’re talking about.
Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear, by Vincent Van Gough, 1948
Everyone has heard of Vincent Van Gough, and anyone who’s ever been interested – even fleetingly – in art has probably seen this painting somewhere. Even if through osmosis, this painting is lodged in everyone’s brain. Maybe it’s front and centre in your internal art gallery, or maybe it’s in the dusty basement of things-you-aren’t-interested-in. But it’s there. Somewhere. It’s for this reason that seeing this painting in the flesh is a weird experience. It’s like deja vu, or seeing a friend you only know from the internet in real life. It’s just like you imagined and nothing at all what you expected.
Van Gough’s paintings are always very relatable to me, I always find myself putting myself in the shoes of the subject. Imagining what that starry night may have looked like in reality. This work was painted after Gough had a falling out with a friend and decided to cut off part of his ear, and he looks surprisingly chill about that. It almost reminds me of looking at someone who’s recovering after a night of heavy drinking. They may know they did bad things last night, but they’re ok with it because now they have a fry-up to look forward to and a day of Netflix. It doesn’t really matter that they cut off their ear last night.
Yellow Irises, by Pablo Picasso, 1901
Picasso was only 20 when he painted Yellow Irises, but the seeds of what he was to become are evident. The angles of his brush-strokes, the sharp edges of the petals and vase, indicate the angular and vibrant direction his art-style would eventually develop into. This painting has a personal resonance with me as well, besides being nice to look at, it was painted by a 20 year old guy who wanted to take over the world with his art. And here I am, a 20 year old guy, writing about him. This painting serves as a real inspiration to me, in a very direct ‘get a fucking move on and go do cool stuff, man’ way, rather than a more abstract inspiration.
Young Woman in a White Blouse, Chaim Soutine, 1923
Soutine lived in Paris, in poverty, when he painted this work. The blurb next to this painting said that Soutine “distorts the subject expressively to reflect the heightened sense of emotional and physiological tension” This is clear, as the face of the model conveys deep anxiety. The white of the blouse suggests innocence, but the twisted and worried features of the face suggest a hard and exhausting life for this woman. It’s this use of ‘heightening’ by Soutine that creates a vivid and striking imprint on the viewer, and, for me at least, a real sense of empathy for what this woman may have gone through in poverty.
Woman at a Window, Edgar Degas, 1871-72
This work was painted by Degas during a siege of Paris by the Prussians. The siege was nasty, and long. Parisians were forced to eat anything they could get their hands on, be it cats, dogs or rats. Dark times indeed. This darkness and desperations seeps through into this painting. The woman by the window, drained of colour and hidden in silhouetted darkness, seems contemplative and quiet – but there is an energy to her. Almost like she could turn and jump at the you as you’re gawking at the painting. The methods Degas used for this painting mimic the shortages Paris was being drained by at the time – He experimented with paint drained of its oil and thinned with turpentine, creating an effect similar to watercolour, and reflecting the desperate lack of resources in the city.
Degas said that he paid the model in a hunk of meat, and she was so hungry that she ate it, raw, right in front of him.
I almost feel like he could have paid her with the meat before he painted this work. Paintings take fucking ages dude. She must’ve been sat there with an empty belly looking down at the city and thinking about all the tasty rat-meat she was missing out on.
Head of Leon Kossoff, by Frank Auberbach, 1931
This charcoal drawing looks like concept art for Ridley Scott’s Alien. And that’s why I really like it. Drawn by Auberbach in 1931, he rubbed so hard on the paper with the charcoal that it wore through a made a large hole in the middle of Kossoff’s head. He had to fill in the gap with another piece. This mistake, if anything, adds to the emotionally raw and dark nature of the work. The sporadic and angular movement of the lines also contributes to this. I love how Auberbach uses shadow in this drawing, hiding most of Kossoff in a blanket of darkness. It makes this piece moody and contemplative. It almost looks like Kossoff is staring into some type of Lovecraftian cosmic abyss, and is simultaneously terrified and bored with his newfound inconsequentiality in the universe.
What a pretentious sentence, sorry. I’ll try not to get carried away like that again.
Head of Seedo, by Leon Kossoff, 1964
This is my favourite painting that I saw at the Courtauld Gallery. This painting of Kossoff’s friend, writer N.M Seedo, has an enormous amount of depth and energy to it. The strokes, and the physical depth of the painting contribute to this. (it’s hard to see from this picture, but the painting is layers upon layers of paint – making the eyes, for example, much deeper into the canvas that the brow or the nose.) There’s a fluidity to this painting, that even though it’s rigid, makes it seem alive and moving. The overwhelming emotion presented, from my perspective, seems to be complete dread – the eyes staring blankly, but darkly, off-frame, the mouth contorted into a snake-like sliver. The chaos that surrounds Seedo also suggests that the subject’s mind or surroundings are full of despair and a deep-rooted uncertainty as well.
Kossoff said that his aim with the over-painting technique used in this painting was the make it ‘more intense’. I would say that he succeeded. Out of all the painting’s I saw, this one gained the most visceral reaction from me. I felt deeply uncomfortable looking at this painting, and deeply upset – and if an emotional reaction isn’t the point of art, then what is?
That all being said, I wouldn’t want this painting in my house it’s 100% haunted, I mean, look at it.