A surprise awaits those who visit Somerset House in London’s Strand. Not only does it offer a spectacular court-yard and grand view over the Thames, but inside there is now a superb overview of the vanguard art of the last two centuries.
The latest transformation is in the Courtauld Institute Gallery. Its original collection was put together by textile tycoon Samuel Courtauld, in the 1920s. He bought two of the greatest Impressionist paintings of all time, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère and Renoir’s The Theatre Box, which are much beloved and familiar to many.
The “old” collection can now be seen in a new context – the development of art from the French mid-19th century landscape art right through to British Modernists such as Barbara Hepworth. The foundation collection has been augmented by around a hundred 20th century art works from gifts, trusts and foundations.
This makes it possible to trace the continuity of the artistic innovations which gave rise to the Modern Movement.
Famous names like Monet, Cézanne and Picasso are joined by their talented but lesser-known contempor-aries so that we get an overview of how the Impressionists broke through barriers and were followed by others who were even more brilliant and shocking in the way they used colour and form to depict.
The sequence of spaces on the top floor of the Gallery gives the visitor a sense of historical coherence. In the first room, Corot’s Woodcutters, for example, is hung next to a portrait by Berthe Morisot, his most outstanding pupil.
Cézanne’s greener than green landscapes hang opposite Manet’s sparkling image of a young woman serving a customer at the bar, with its intriguing reflections of the girl, her customer and a mass of Parisian pleasure-seekers in the background.
The way in which Degas used sculpture to deepen his understanding of the human body in movement and how this cross-fertilised his pastels and paintings can be studied in a sequence of ten bronzes by the artist.
The biggest surprise is the group of works by German artists of the “Bridge” and “Blue Rider” groups, whose explosion of colour followed hot on the heels of their French counterparts, the Fauves (Wild Ones), led by Matisse.
A splendid sequence of sixteen Kandinskys, ranging from picturesque alpine villages to total abstraction, including In the Black Circle, will give Londoners a real feeling of the similarities and the differences between French and German art in the early 20th century, not to be seen elsewhere.
20th century - New Displays at the Courtauld Somerset House Strand Open
This article first appeared in Socialist Future Winter 2002