The Courtauld Gallery is a small wonder to behold under any circumstance. The yellow sunlight invading the rooms, the rawness of materials which make up the spiralling staircases, the abundance of air and space making it their business to surround you as you gaze at some of the most beautiful works of art in history. Between the 14th of June and the 9th of September, the joy of this gallery is elevated to a sublime degree with the guest appearance of a show called Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery.
What the exhibition lacks in size it makes up for in content. In fact, consisting of only three rooms is probably one of its biggest strengths. The pieces are lucidly laid out, with the perfect amount of space between each artwork affording the viewer opportunities for contemplation. There is an absolute ease of motion within all the rooms, and a steady build up to a climax in the final one.
That being said, you will not need to wait long to be enchanted by this exhibition. The first room hosts drawings from the Early, Middle and High Renaissance masters. Heavy-weights such as Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Parmigianino and Leonardo da Vinci stand side by side, revealing to the viewer their most intimate artistic process: their sketches.
Of these, perhaps the most charming is the drawing entitled A Seated Female, attributed to the workshop of Hugo Van Der Goes, produced between 1475 and 1485. The piece is so very delicately rendered with an intense fragility of line. The softly yet tactfully placed white highlights energise the drawing into the third dimension, whilst being careful to retain an aura of quiet elegance. Michelangelo’s Il Sogno (The Dream) from 1532 is a breathtaking token of Renaissance virtuoso. Looking at this small drawing will transport you to the Sistine Chapel’s altar wall. These painstakingly modelled figures appear in torment in a similar manner to his canonical piece The Last Judgement, only they exist on an entirely new level of immediacy. You can see the artist’s strokes, and you can see them from an inch away.
The champion from the second room in this exhibition has to be the 18th century painter, Jean Antione Watteau with his Satyr Pouring Wine from 1717. It is a study for a series of works entitled Four Seasons which are now lost. The fate of these works make the drawing’s presence all the more felt. Watteau uses three differently coloured crayons to render his figure. This technique serves to animate the satyr’s pose: it generates movement and pulse, as it does with Peter Paul Rubens who makes use of it in his work from the previous room.
The third and final room really brings home the splendour of the exhibition. The spirit of drawing, of the artist’s process really comes to life here. It is populated with beauty of line and a general sense of freedom of draughtsmanship. It is as though the works on show could have been sketched five minutes earlier by each of the artists magically passing through.
A pair of drawings, one by Eugène Delacroix, one by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, are depictions of utter refinement. The daintiness of line, one feathered, one assured, both reveal similar romantic sentiments and bring to the forefront the traditional exaltation of the female form. Close by, George Seurat’s Female Nude from 1879-1881 hangs in a hauntingly beautiful manner. The figure emerges from darkness with mournful tenderness. Again, this work is a magnificent glimpse into a side of the artist we rarely get to see. It’s truly a gift to get to do so.
Finally, Edgar Degas’ Woman Adjusting her Hair (1884) offers a degree of sensuality which is upped a notch compared to the rest of the artist’s works. The blackness of line is so very lyrical and full of motion. We can feel that the woman has moved, and how she is about to lift off the edge of her bed to carry on into activities which remain secret to us.
This summer, London will be brimming with things to do and see. There will be bustling activity spilling out of every corner of the city, forcing itself onto its inhabitants with the vigour of a toddler wanting to play. Mantegna to Matisse will not force itself onto the people in the streets. Yet, should the mingling air around the Courtauld Gallery fail to arouse your steps towards this exhibition, please let my advice do so. It may turn into the quiet highlight of the season.
This exhibition celebrates the art of drawing and offers a unique opportunity to enjoy some of the very greatest works from The Courtauld’s famous collection.
The selection ranges from Renaissance masterpieces by artists such as Mantegna, Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, to works by Rembrandt, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Matisse.
Spanning over 500 years, the exhibition includes rarely seen drawings by Dürer, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo as well as masterpieces by Rembrandt, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Matisse.
This exhibition celebrates the art of drawing and offers a unique opportunity to enjoy some of the very greatest works from the Courtauld's collection.
Courtauld GallerySomerset House, Strand
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2R 0RN
Last admission 17:30