 Laura Cum­ming re­views Cour­tauld Im­pres­sion­ists at the National Gallery

Sa­muel Cour­tauld’s match­less col­lec­tion of im­pres­sion­ist mas­ter­pieces spark off each other in this en­thralling show

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda - Laura Cum­ming

Cour­tauld Im­pres­sion­ists: From Manet to Cézanne

National Gallery, London WC2; to­mor­row un­til 20 Jan The National Gallery is evolv­ing: a mu­seum in vivid tran­si­tion. This au­tumn it will of­fer not one but four spe­cial ex­hi­bi­tions, span­ning more than half a mil­len­nium, from Man­tegna and Bellini in the 1400s to the satir­i­cal night­mares of con­tem­po­rary film-maker Rachel Maclean. The per­ma­nent col­lec­tion is be­ing in­ge­niously re­ar­ranged in di­a­logue with these shows, which in­clude Bri­tain’s first sur­vey of that most enig­matic and pierc­ing of por­traitists, Lorenzo Lotto. The sea­son opens this week with the en­thralling Cour­tauld Im­pres­sion­ists.

The Sun­flow­ers, The Bathers,

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère: all were set be­fore the Bri­tish pub­lic by the tex­tile mag­nate Sa­muel Cour­tauld (1876-1947). It is no un­der­state­ment to say that our ex­pe­ri­ence of art would not be so rich with­out him. Cour­tauld be­gan buy­ing im­pres­sion­ist paint­ings in the early 1920s – Cézanne’s ap­ples, Monet’s wa­terlilies, a late self-por­trait by Van Gogh, alone and win­try with his poor ban­daged ear. The pri­vate col­lec­tion he amassed was mostly given to the in­sti­tute that bears his name, but Cour­tauld also es­tab­lished a fund for the pur­chase of paint­ings by the National and Tate Gal­leries.

This is how we come to have Manet’s death­less por­trait of the bar­maid lean­ing im­pas­sively on the counter, in-turned, dis­tracted, the dis­par­ity be­tween her pub­lic and pri­vate selves echoed in the fa­mously mis­matched re­flec­tions of the mir­ror be­hind her. It is how we have Seu­rat’s mon­u­men­tal vi­sion of Parisians ar­ranged along the Seine like chess pieces in the lu­mi­nous light of As­nières. And with Van Gogh’s Sun­flow­ers, Cour­tauld ef­fec­tively gave the National Gallery its most pop­u­lar mod­ern paint­ing; which is pre­sum­ably why it hangs in the main gal­leries out­side this show, hon­ourably free to the pub­lic.

With the clo­sure of the Cour­tauld Gallery for a grand re­fur­bish­ment, many of its mas­ter­pieces have been shipped along the Strand to the National Gallery. Forty of Cour­tauld’s gifts from both col­lec­tions are brought to­gether in the Wohl Gal­leries on the first floor. They tell a story of art, from Dau­mier’s dark and knot­ted paint­ing of Don Quixote in 1855, to Renoir’s sump­tu­ous straw­berry blonde in chemise and stock­ings from around 1918; the lux­ury end of im­pres­sion­ism. And they tell a tale of Cour­tauld – when and where and what he bought.

Cour­tauld lived in Home House in Port­man Square, a spec­tac­u­lar Robert Adam build­ing that is now a pri­vate club. Pe­riod pho­to­graphs show Gau­guin’s The Haystacks, with its wildly el­e­vated view­point and rad­i­cal pat­tern of trees, hats and cat­tle, hang­ing be­low a stately chan­de­lier in the 18th-cen­tury sa­lon; Toulouse Lautrec’s sharp and nervy por­trait of Jane Avril out­side the Moulin Rouge, in ar­seni­cal green, po­si­tioned above a Ming vase. The house was so vast, Cour­tauld could eas­ily have found wall space for The Bathers, but he clearly un­der­stood its pub­lic ad­dress. In­stead he kept the small oil sketches by Seu­rat which are among the jew­els of the Cour­tauld Gallery.

To see them here, out of their mod­est rooms at Som­er­set House and in the con­text of this large and spa­cious sur­vey, is to ap­pre­ci­ate them more slowly and closely – at low tide, as it were, like his beau­ti­ful image of the port of Grav­e­lines, crys­tal-bright in the early morn­ing. And Seu­rat’s metic­u­lous tech­nique seems even more mys­te­ri­ous op­po­site Renoir’s overblown op­u­lence, or next to a gar­ru­lous and muzzy boule­vard by Pis­sarro.

The paint­ings talk to each other, and so do the pain­ters. Look at Toulouse-Lautrec, smart as a whip, and you see his graphic line in­flected some­what by the tremen­dous ex­am­ple of De­gas. Early Cézanne looks back to Manet, and prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one else looks back to Cézanne. And here he is, not just in the scin­til­lat­ing greens of the Jas de Bouf­fan, or the slow-build­ing images of Proven­cal hills, but in per­son, in that uniquely with­drawn self-por­trait where his bald­ing head ap­pears no more, or less, in­ter­est­ing to him than one of his own weight­ily cer­tain ap­ples.

There are some rev­e­la­tory group­ings here. One room might be a med­i­ta­tion on the in­fi­nite po­ten­tial of yel­low – the colour of hope, as Van Gogh has it in the blaz­ing ex­hil­a­ra­tion of his A Wheat Field, With Cy­presses; or the colour of strange­ness, like the eerie pil­low light­ing the sepul­chral dark­ness of Gau­guin’s Nev­er­more, with its Tahi­tian odal­isque. Yel­low steals through Bon­nard’s The Ta­ble, gild­ing the white din­ner plates, search­ing the in­te­rior of a bas­ket or ig­nit­ing the lemons in their bowl. But the ta­ble is ul­ti­mately a spread­ing lake of white­ness; Bon­nard was fas­ci­nated by the colours of white, the se­cret of which he said he strug­gled to un­der­stand.

The National Gallery has up to 20 times as many vis­i­tors as the smaller Cour­tauld Gallery each year. Ob­vi­ously the present col­lab­o­ra­tion, like the re­fur­bish­ment it­self, aims to change that by show­ing off the sheer glory of the Cour­tauld’s col­lec­tion. But the in­ter­po­la­tion of works from one within the other ef­fec­tively turns this show into one con­cise im­pres­sion­ist gallery of the sort you might come across in Paris or New York.

And what strikes, above all, is the ex­tra­or­di­nary va­ri­ety of pic­ture­mak­ing dur­ing this revo­lu­tion in art. The tip of Seu­rat’s pa­tient brush, dot­ting its way across the sur­face, stay­ing time as it goes; Monet’s soft brush­strokes dis­solv­ing form in light; the puz­zling hide-and­seek vi­sions of Bon­nard. What is pre­sented here is not just the in­ven­tion of a new move­ment for a new era – hardly a fresh ap­proach to im­pres­sion­ism – but a show with a very pure and sim­ple fo­cus: the spec­ta­cle of all these rad­i­cal new ways of mak­ing art.

Early Cézanne looks back to Manet, and prac­ti­cally ev­ery­one else looks back to Cézanne

Clock­wise from left: The Haystacks, 1889 by Paul Gau­guin, with its ‘wildly el­e­vated view­point’; Paul Cézanne’s ‘uniquely with­drawn’ SelfPor­trait, 1880-1; and the ‘blaz­ing ex­hil­a­ra­tion’ of Van Gogh’s A Wheat Field, With Cy­presses, 1889.

© The Sa­muel Cour­tauld Trust, the Cour­tauld Gallery, London; the National Gallery, London

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