Following a three-year transformation project, one of the UK’s greatest art collections has reopened with restored rooms, new spaces and a ground-breaking exhibition. Amy Hughes visited The Courtauld Gallery to find out more
Founded by collectors and philanthropists in 1932 on the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to engage with art, The Courtauld cares for one of the greatest art collections in the UK. These works are displayed to the public at The Courtauld Gallery in central London.
Having closed in 2018 for the most significant modernisation project in its history, the Gallery reopened in late 2021 with stunning new spaces. The refreshed building, conceived by Sir William Chambers in the 1770s, has been opened up to create an inspiring setting for the masterpieces from the collection, which range from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century. Lovingly reinterpreted and redisplayed across the elegant galleries, the quality and range of the collection is emphasised like never before.
Inside the gallery
A new space has been created on the first floor to present important works from the Medieval and Early Renaissance periods, while the Blavatnik Fine Rooms, which span the second floor, provide the stunning setting for a series of new displays from the Renaissance to the 18th century. Highlights include Botticelli’s The Trinity with Saints, unveiled after a three-year conservation project of its own. Other new exhibition spaces include the new first floor home for paintings and decorative arts from the Medieval and Early Renaissance periods and two new galleries on the top floor.
Atop the spiral staircase, in the spectacularly restored LVMH Great Room – London’s oldest purpose-built exhibition space – is the gallery’s iconic Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces. Here you will find some of the UK’s most significant collection of works by Cézanne, Manet’s A Bar at Folies-Bergère and Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. The latter of which is now the foundation of the major exhibition of Van Gogh’s self-portraiture, housed in one of the two new spaces on the top floor.
The many faces of Van Gogh
Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear is one of the most celebrated works in The Courtauld’s collection and one of 16 portraits hanging in The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits. Featuring around half of all the Dutch painter’s self-portraits, this is the first time that the full span of Van Gogh’s self-portraiture has been explored in an exhibition.
Several of the artworks were last together in the artist’s studio 130 years ago. But now they have been reunited for a truly unmissable exhibition experience. Walking through the two rooms, viewers are encouraged to look past Van Gogh’s struggles with mental health and instead trace the evolution of his self-representation from one of his earliest, Self-Portrait with a Dark Felt Hat, to one of his last creations, Self-Portrait with a Palette.
Alongside the many faces of Van Gogh, two major paintings that played an important role in the artist’s fashioning of his own image also hang. Van Gogh’s Chair, described by the artist himself as a symbolic self-portrait, was painted as a pair to Gaugin’s Chair (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). Compared to Gaugin’s more refined seat, Van Gogh’s plain and humble straw-bottomed chair reveals as much about his character and identity as the self-portraits it currently sits beside. Portrait of Eugène Boch is the other artwork that sits outside the self-portraiture theme; however, it can be regarded as a projection of Van Gogh’s idealised artistic identity.
Perhaps my favourite of all the works featured in the exhibition is a collection of explorative graphite, pen and ink sketches on a ripped piece of paper. There are several depictions, from full self-portraits to close-up sketches of facial features, but it is the missing corner and the guesses as to what it contained that intrigues the most, encouraging you to imagine Van Gogh sitting in Paris sketching and exploring his own features. The artist’s most enduring and personal subject matter is laid bare in this unprecedented and largest collection of his portraits to be brought together in more than 25 years.
The Morgan Stanley Exhibition: Van Gogh. Self-Portraits is open until 8 May 2022, 10am-6pm. Booking is essential.
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