London’s Courtauld Gallery reopens, and it’s magnificent

Review at a glance

When the Courtauld Gallery closed in 2018 for renovation, I feared it might lose the atmosphere that made it one of the most unique London museums. I needn’t have worried – it’s looking better than ever, with a perfectly judged renovation by Witherford Watson Mann architects and a new series of displays which bring fresh light to its magnificent collection.

The Courtauld, which is attached to one of the great art history institutes, is one of those remarkable institutions built from a belief that enjoying and understanding art improves society. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection of the textile magnate Samuel Courtauld, and importantly his wife Elizabeth, is at its core, but it was later joined by others that added works by Cranach, Botticelli, Rubens and others.

For all its charms, the old Courtauld Gallery didn’t show art in the best way – much of it hung on chains, with lights fixed to pictures. Marvellous Medieval and early Renaissance works were tucked into a side gallery with compromising functional elements amid the glorious gold-ground paintings – apparently many visitors would miss that gallery entirely. The Cézannes, Van Goghs and Manets that most visitors came to see were shown in pokey spaces upstairs. The entrance always felt cluttered, the floors creaked. If you were a person with disabilities, it was a nightmare.

All of that has now been addressed. A formerly fragmented warren of spaces is now coherent, with beautiful architectural detailing and a unifying use of wood through the building. Spaces have been repurposed and opened up, new rooms created, doorways elegantly adjusted, the doors themselves less invasive. The wall colours are just right. It’s all about making the art look better; it is now hung and lit beautifully.

The Medieval paintings are in an intimate gallery, with works like Robert Campin’s Seilern Triptych – a touching and emotional gold-ground altarpieces, with Christ being entombed before crying angels and a distraught Virgin – in conversation with both European ivory pieces and remarkable Islamic works, including the exquisite 14th-century Courtauld bag, one of the great gems of Islamic metalwork.

The Renaissance paintings are spaciously displayed and sensitively lit; a stunning sightline leads you through to Cranach’s Adam and Eve, its apples so rosy, so bodily, so seductive. Botticelli’s Trinity altarpiece has been restored to luminous effect. It is such a strange picture. Made for a convent which welcomed repentant women who worked as prostitutes, Mary Magdalen is its key figure beyond the crucified Christ, and she’s clothed entirely in her own hair, with a bow around her waist now visible following the restoration. Close to her in the painting, at an entirely different scale, are Tobias and the angel, with Tobias holding the healing fish in the biblical story, and the pair clutching each other’s hands.

Two knockout rooms focus on Rubens, including wonderfully lively oil sketches, as well as the great portrait of the artist Jan Brueghel the Elder and his family and Landscape by Moonlight, a painting of seminal importance to British art: owned by Joshua Reynolds and adored by John Constable. A new commission, a huge painting by Cecily Brown, hangs over the Courtauld’s spiral staircase, occupying a space that had long been vacant. Typically vigorously expressive, it hints at the influence of the great works around it – nods, perhaps, to Manet, Degas and Cézanne.

It’s an interesting counterpoint to Oskar Kokoshka’s triptych from 1950 which has its own gallery in the new displays. These have never grabbed me and seem somewhat overwrought and compositionally incoherent, but the display, with photos of Kokoshka making the work by Lee Miller, adds context to the commission, made for one of the Courtauld’s great donors, Count Antoine Seilern. Meanwhile, a new donation by Linda Karshan of modern drawings, including superb pieces by Philip Guston and Cy Twombly, among others, is shown in a pair of new rooms.

The Montagne Sainte-Victoire with a large pine by Paul Cezanne

/ The Courtauld

Then, there’s the Great Room, which had been sub-divided but is now opened up and home to those Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces. It’s brilliantly paced, with two free-standing walls breaking up the space without compromising its grandeur and light. The Courtauld’s two Gauguin Tahiti pictures greet you immediately, while seven Cézannes line up along a neighbouring wall. You walk in a little further and there she is: Manet’s woman standing at the bar of the Folies Bergéres. With the opening up of the space, you can see this endlessly intriguing masterpiece from across the full length of the room. As you get closer Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear appears from behind one of the walls, glowing in the natural light. It’s one jaw-dropping moment after another.

When the Royal Academy occupied this building in the 18th century, the Great Room was the most famous gallery in London. It deserves to be again: it is breathtaking. You have to go.

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