6 September 2013

Collecting Gauguin at the Courtauld Gallery

I have never been much of a fan of Gaugin, probably due as much to a lack of exposure as anything else, so a quick dip for free seemed like a good idea.

The suggestion came via the Art Fund app which alerted me to the imminent closure of the exhibition and it was my membership of the Art Fund that enabled me to get in to the exhibition free. Most of the people queueing for tickets with me were Art Fund members too. It's a good idea.

The exhibition was at the Courtauld Gallery and on display were the five major paintings, ten prints, and one marble sculpture originally assembled by the pioneering collector Samuel Courtauld himself.

The Courtauld Gallery sits, almost hidden, at the North entrance to Somerset House. There are other galleries there that I had been too before but this was my first visit to the Courtauld. It was not my first visit to Fernandez & Wells where I went for a lunch including organic eggs on sourdough bread. It was lovely.

The Cauguin exhibition was on the top (third) floor which was reached via an attractive circular staircase. Climbing up gave glimpses in to other rooms in the gallery which I will have to visit when schedules allow.

It was a small exhibition, as I wanted, and it occupied just one busy room of the gallery.

The first picture to stand-out was of a harvest in North France. Not the subject matter I associated with Gauguin but the simple style and bold colours were. I also liked the primitive elements of the style with the people in the middle distance drawn large than the rules of perspective dictate.

There is also a trick in the picture with the green leaves and the man's hat making an ox's face.

Bathers at Tahiti was exactly what I expected from Gauguin.

The setting is in the South Seas, the colours are bright and evocative, and it has naked women in it. A surprise was the structure of the branches and waves on the left side of the picture which reminded me of the contemporary work in comics and books by P Craig Russell.

The prints were another surprise and this is where the exhibition was particularly helpful in explaining how the prints were made (a form of woodcut) and how they were composed.

For example, the motif on the left-side of this picture has been imported from New Zealand.

Woodcuts are normally used to make multi-colour images with solid shapes whereas the approach used by Gauguin produced black and white images with fine details. He achieved this by using tools such as razor blades to scour the solid areas.

My final surprise from Gauguin came in the large paintings which while appearing simple at a first glance were found to be packed with detail on closer inspection. This detail included other figures, views through windows and decorations and paintings with the room.

The combination of the approachable simplicity, bold colours and busy content meant that these were pictures that I could look at for some time. So I did.

I expected to take about half an hour on this exhibition and I suspect that is more or less what it took. This works out at a couple for minutes for each painting and print, which is not bad for an artist that I had not appreciated before.

Collecting Gauguin was a fine introduction to both the artist and to the Courtauld Gallery. I hope to meet them both again.

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