Dusty Frames: Looking at 19th and 20th Century Art in the Courtauld Gallery.

Fig.1 The Courtauld Gallery staircase. (Photograph by author)

Ascending the semi-circular staircase of the Courtauld Gallery, with its freshly coated electric blue bannisters (Fig.1), the visitor undertakes a physically demanding and intellectually exhilarating climb through centuries of artistic production that are carefully arranged across three floors. The Gallery has recently reopened its doors with much pomp after a two-year hiatus for building renovations, welcoming seasoned and new crowds to its sleek, clean-cut spaces. The challenge offered by the steep staircase was also the comedic subject of a caricature from 1811 by the satirical draughtsman Thomas Rowlandson, The Stare Case (Fig.2), the subject of a label in the new Courtauld space: it shows a clumsy group of visitors clambering up to the third floor of the gallery, where the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy used to take place. The visitors seem more interested in ogling the accidental nakedness of a lady who has tumbled down the stairs than the artful nudity of the marble Venus in a nearby niche (who also coyly regards the scene). The image operates a bawdy play, declared by the punning title, between physical and cultural elevation and moral degradation enabled by the power of the human gaze. 

Fig.2: Thomas Rowlandson, The Stare Case, 1811. Etching, 47.6 × 33.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Open Access Image). 

Yet, there is more to this climb than a farcical and chauvinistic critique of unruly gallery visitors. In building the staircase, its architect Sir William Chambers also aspired to give visitors a chance to move “from dark to light….on a symbolic journey to Enlightenment”,[1] turning the objects on display into representatives of the progress of the human intellect throughout the centuries that reaches its apex on the third floor. At multiple points the Gallery takes a historical stance towards this narrative and its symbolism, as significant but archaic markers of its past; yet, in the present-day itinerary across its permanent collection, the principles guiding the gallery’s architecture are abiding. In the refurbished Middle Ages galleries, now moved to the first floor, objects of extraordinary wit and craft – the metalwork objects from the Islamic world are incredible examples – reveal themselves to viewers under intimate, low lighting. The journey from dark to light is made explicit as the visitor ascends to the second floor where the space opens up, revealing the Blavatnik Fine Rooms, heavily decorated spaces where 14th-18th century artworks are arranged around grand fireplaces. Finally, up the steepest flight of stairs, the visitor arrives at the third floor, housing the 19th-20th century permanent collection and the new temporary exhibition spaces, leading to the new LVMH Great Room; this is a large and modern open space partitioned by white low walls and bathed in natural light that comes from a large glass opening in the ceiling, the most substantial change after the building renovations. It is hard not to notice the intentional parallels with the gallery’s past, and the drive to repeat its narratives of progression: welcoming the visitor to the top of the staircase is the large canvas Unmoored by her reflection (2021) by British artist Cecily Brown, commissioned by The Courtauld for the empty niche where contemporary paintings would hang, making another nod to the history of the space. 

Arguably containing some of the works that the Gallery is most proud of, the third floor nonetheless allows one to look beyond the sleek and referential articulation of the gallery. The first landing space adjacent to the Great Room offers a stimulating grouping: one end of the room houses Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La Loge (1874) and Edgar Degas’s statuette Dancer looking at the sole of her right foot (1895-1900) flanked on a contiguous wall by the previously unseen Portrait of a Woman (1872-1875) by Berthe Morisot, a fascinating portrait of the artist’s sister whose previous absence from the Gallery walls is strange. A powerful addition to this group would have been Renoir’s Portrait of Ambrose Vollard (1908), which shows the French art dealer creepily fondling a statuette of a kneeling woman, hanging in the Great Room. This is a compelling curatorial choice which offers ample opportunities for reflections on the gendered representation of women within the wide spectrum of Impressionist production. Nonetheless, left without any commentary to guide the grouping, this exciting corner falls strangely flat. 

Even the attempt to link up the Gallery with the esteemed academics of the Institute by means of Snapshot labels failed to invite any intellectual engagement, since the gallery often selected statements that were descriptive rather than analytical, as has also been remarked by a reviewer of The Burlington Magazine.[2] This suggests a lack of synergy between the Courtauld Gallery and the Institute, although the new rebranding of the enterprise as The Courtauld arguably institutionalises it as a cohesive whole. In the case of La Loge, the viewer is asked to notice the mirroring of black and white patterns of clothing in the female and male figures in the painting, not acknowledging the abundant ambiguities which make the canvas noteworthy; it felt ironic to notice that, accompanying the somewhat tired frameworks used to present these renowned paintings, the frame of La Loge was covered by a layer of dust. 

Stepping into the sleek grandeur of the Great Room, this feeling is exacerbated as the visitor encounters works that have now achieved iconic status. Alongside truly marvellous displays, such as a line of tiny works by Georges Seurat, the widely promoted return of Vincent Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear (1889) similarly offers a dearth of meaningful engagement, offering instead an oversubscribed photo opportunity. For most of the works hanging in this room, the desire seems to let the paintings speak for themselves through their assigned masterpiece status, which allows them to be perceived as fixed, unchanging, when in fact most come from contested histories, either in their context of production, reception or display. Arguably, it is by dint of this controversy that they have become great and captivating objects. One wonders whether the Gallery is cautious not to repel visitors who might harbour hostile thoughts towards any hint of politics, gender or postcolonial issues, and instead maintain its traditional status as “purveyor of lofty aesthetic taste to the public”,[3] by means of a corporate, glittering neutrality. A welcome exception comes in the label for Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore, which hangs in the Great Room directly opposite Gauguin’s 1903 illuminated manuscript Avant et Après, a new acquisition in the Courtauld collection. The label addresses head on the problematic history of the painting’s model, Pahura, one of the several teenagers that Gauguin took as lovers, by attributing this disturbing chapter to “the widespread racist fantasy of Tahitian girls as sexually precocious”. As one of the very few instances of sharp critique, this felt refreshing and needed. 

The rooms adjacent to the Great Room, while smaller in scale, offered the greatest interest: in a new room dedicated to Oskar Kokoschka’s large Prometheus triptych, previously not on display, we also find the less known Market in Tunis (1928-1929), an extraordinary and very little discussed example of Orientalist art within the Courtauld collection. And in the new Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries was the most delightful surprise of all: the Karshan Gift, a recent bequest from Linda Karshan in honour of Howard Karshan, with fabulous works by Georg Baselitz, George Grosz, Willem de Kooning, Henri Michaux and Jean Dubuffet, currently not on display in any London collection. The two rooms offered works that in their muted (but dust-free) frames spoke volumes. Although adjacent to it, these spaces are removed from the somewhat transactional display experience of the Great Room and invite a deeper intellectual engagement between the audience and the works, cultivating an engagement with the power of the gaze which would be interesting to see across the gallery as a whole.


[1] Gallery label “About the staircase”, The Courtauld Gallery. 

[2] “The Courtauld Gallery”The Burlington Magazine 164 (January 2022).

[3] Rachel Campbell-Johnston,”The Courtauld reopening – a splendid overhaul for the great London gallery”, The Times (10 November 2021).


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