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Exploring Portraiture And Identity!

On Wednesday 25 October 2017, The Courtauld welcomed a group of young people, from state schools and colleges across London, to take part in an Insights into Art History workshop focusing on portraits by the artist Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943). The Insights into Art History day tied in with the current exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery, Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys.

Art historian Dr Julian Freeman gave the students an introduction to Chaïm Soutine, a Russian migrant working in Paris during the early twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s Soutine produced striking portraits of people working in restaurants and hotels around the French capital.

In The Courtauld Gallery, we looked at portraits from the permanent collection. A painting that caught our attention was Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. The group commented on the barmaid’s direct and powerful stance, unusual at the time of painting in 1882. By discussing composition and brushwork we explored how Manet’s artistic decisions have the power to alter how we perceive the barmaid. We also discussed Vincent Van Gogh’s expressive use of colour in his Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear of 1889.

Upstairs in the exhibition, we sketched the waiters, cooks and bellboys who feature in Soutine’s vibrant paintings. We were particularly drawn to the subject’s crumpled uniforms, because of the vivid tonalities of the red, blue and white brushstrokes

In a similar way to Manet, Soutine painted his subjects with powerful stances and vulnerable facial expressions. We learnt that Soutine would rework his paintings many times, repainting the same person until he was completely happy with how they were represented. You can find out more about Soutine in our new Artist and Sitter learning resource.

Back in the seminar room, students were able to produce portraits from life, like Soutine did. Ian, a security guard at the Courtauld, very kindly agreed to be the subject of the students’ sketches and paintings. Led by the artist and art historian, Matthew Krishanu, we learnt new experimental drawings and painting techniques which the students used in their own contemporary responses to Soutine’s work.

The first exercise involved making quick charcoal sketches of Ian, who sat on a stool in front of a blue and red backdrop. Matthew showed us how to use the side of the charcoal stick to create background shading. Then, by rubbing out small areas to create light, and layering darker lines to create shadow, the portraits of Ian really came to life.

We then introduced colour into our portrait studies by experimenting with layering oil pastel on coloured paper:

For the remaining few hours of the workshop the students produced a portrait of Ian using acrylic paint on canvas board. A light wash of one colour was used as the grounding for the paintings. After allowing time for drying, layers of acrylic paint in an array of colours were applied to the canvas.

We were also shown how to scratch paint away from the surface, and how to use different brushes for a ‘scumbling’ textured effect.





All of the portraits produced brilliantly captured Ian’s character through composition and brushwork. By exploring Soutine’s portraits and his painterly techniques, the students were able to look closely at the sitter to create their own artworks filled with energy and attention to detail.


Thank you to Matthew, Julian and Ian for such a fantastic workshop!

Our next Insights into Art History workshop Edgar Degas: Capturing Movement takes place on Saturday 18 November 2017.

Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys
19 October 2017 – 21 January 2018

 

Written by Hannah Dixon

Illuminating Objects: Observation, Connoisseurship and a bit of Detective Work

Illuminating Objects intern Natasha Gertler tells us about how her research is going. 

As previously touched upon in my last blog post (and frankly, contrary to my natural instinct to apply analysis to any given problem) identifying decorative stones, such as those in the Courtauld’s ornate frame, is actually more an art than a science.

Whereas geologists can use destructive techniques to analyse and accurately identify rocks and minerals from the field – smashing and slicing them to view under a microscope – this of course is not an option when considering valuable objects from a museum collection. Even most non-invasive analytical techniques are inappropriate as the majority of these aim to establish information about the chemical composition and arrangement of a sample but many materials, both natural and manmade, have essentially the same chemical make-up. For example, both quartz and glass are composed of silica (SiO₂) and so cannot be distinguished by such analysis.

Therefore, identifying decorative stones is normally achieved through a mixture of observation, connoisseurship and comparison to stones of known identity. Awareness of such stones, their appearance, uses and provenance, is hence essential for identification. However, this is rather a niche discipline as it lies somewhere between geology and art history but is never fully taught in either field, but instead gained through experience and exposure. There are only a handful of such experts in the UK.

Dr. Ruth Siddall, Senior Lecturer in Earth Sciences at UCL, along with her student, Nadine Gabriel, kindly came to the Courtauld to lay eyes on the frame and carry out a bit of detective work. Armed with a microscope and a wealth of decorative stone knowledge, Ruth corrected our prior suspicions of the inclusion of man-made imitations in the frame, reassuring us that all the segments of the frame were indeed rocks and minerals sourced from around the 17th century.

Ruth Siddall and Nadine Gabriel observing the frame

Microscopic camera taking images of the frame

Natasha Gertler and Nadine Gabriel looking at the microscopic images of the frame

Ruth’s certainty arose by comparing the stones in the frame to the extensive Corsi collection. Housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, it is composed of 1000 polished stone slabs of uniform shape and size (145 x 73 x 40 mm). By referring to the online catalogue, she identified the presence of various Sicilian jaspers in the frame.

In particular, Ruth identified what we initially thought was an imitation of tiger’s eye to in fact be a distinct variety of Sicilian jasper characterised by its yellow and black banded appearance. Shown below are images of the Sicilian jaspers in the frame (left) alongside the corresponding samples from the Corsi collection (right).

Corsi 764 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 745 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Corsi 776 © Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Ruth Siddall using the Corsi collection online catalogue for comparisonWith such an excellent resource on our doorstep, naturally our next step on the quest for identity was to contact Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and author of The Corsi Collection website.

Read all about my collaboration with Monica Price and trip to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in my next blog post.

P.s. As the major contributor of information to the London Pavement Geology website, Ruth also pointed out to us the decorative stones used just on the doorstep of the Courtauld. These are Grey Oland Limestone and Red Oland Limestone arranged in a checkered pattern. Admittedly, I have never noticed these details, so next time you come and visit us make sure to spot the ancient fossils under your feet!

Illuminating Objects: More Than Meets The Eye

Our Illuminating Objects project for 2017 is now underway. In a series of blog posts postgraduate intern Natasha Gertler will share her discoveries as she chooses and researches the next Illuminating Object.

With an academic background in physics and an unwavering curiosity for crystals since, well, forever, it was only natural for me to choose the intricate frame bearing the double sided Aertsen painting for my ‘Illuminating Objects’ internship. Acquired by Count Seilern in 1969 from Alessandro Orso in Milan, the frame is beautifully inlaid in pietra dura with a multitude of semi-precious stones.

Or so we thought…

Upon initial inspection (which, by the way, was true love at first sight) and discussion with Sacha, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts with whom I am working on this project, and Graeme, Chief Conservator, we had speculations of the material composition of the frame; that the central upper disc showing concentric red and white rings was pink agate, the two purple columns either side of the painting were amethyst and the several rich blue segments, lapis lazuli. But, as with most scientific investigations, things are not often as they seem and we needed to perform analytical experimentation to be sure.

In order to gain some insight into the constituent elements of the stones, we ventured down to the conservation laboratory of the Courtauld to use the X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) facilities, with the expert guidance of Professor Aviva Burnstock and Silvia Amato.

Having used spectroscopy many times in my undergraduate physics experiments (albeit on far less beautiful objects!) I felt quite at home and even a little nostalgic in the Courtauld’s lab. XRF works by shooting X-rays at a sample and then analysing the energies of the X-rays reflected back to the detector, which are characteristic to each individual element.

As expected, areas of red colour showed a dominance of iron (Fe) in their spectrum, and the dark blue areas exhibited the presence of Calcium (Ca) which is typical of lapis lazuli. However, many different stones as well as manmade materials also have several elements in common with each other. For example silicon (Si) is present in both agate and glass. Therefore, XRF cannot be used as a conclusive method of material identification, but rather as a further analytical tool.

Red, round element in the central upper area. Presence of silicon and iron.

Central blue segment below the painting. Presence of calcium.

Purple element, middle horizontal element below columns. Presence of silicon.

For that reason, we turned to visual analysis instead. Dr. Emma Passmore, a senior teaching fellow in Earth Sciences at Imperial College London with experience in object analysis for the British Museum, kindly came to the Courtauld’s depot to help us identify these mystery materials. She agreed with our initial theories and added that the mirroring light blue elements on the lower panel were also agate.

However, she also suggested that some of the segments might not be semi-precious stones at all, but rather synthetic imitations. These included for example the panels that look like tigers eye and the red ovals at the very bottom, as well the orange and purple coloured banners across of the top and bottom of the painting, respectively.

Professional geologists identify stones by smashing and slicing them to make slides which they can then analyse under a microscope to a very high degree of accuracy. However, in the case of historically important and valuable objects such as this unique frame, this of course is not an option and alternative, non-intrusive methods must be used instead.

Will we ever be able to know the materials present in the frame with absolute certainty? Perhaps. And so the quest for identity continues…

 

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from The Courtauld’s decorative arts and sculpture collection.

A Kiss for Valentine’s Day

KISS (1961), Bridget Riley

Just in time for this year’s Valentine’s Day, The Courtauld Gallery will be displaying Bridget Riley’s famous KISS (1961), on loan from a private collection. Auspiciously coming to Room 14 on 14 February, the aptly Valentine’s themed named work will be available for the public to view at their leisure.

Bridget Riley is considered one of the leading abstract artists of her age, finding success from the 1960s onward, and creating works which have always been varied and ground-breaking. Often finding inspiration from daydreams and from setting her own criteria of what she wants from art, her works inspire and encourage artistic engagement.

After a series of emotional events in her romantic life, she began to paint in black and white, helping her to communicate messages as to exactly how she felt. This technique of using black and white brought her artistic success and recognition. One of these works was KISS and can be seen as her first definitive painting in black and white. Riley has detailed how her preceding black painting had failed, and thinking about why it had not worked led her to the realisation that there was no opposition with this completely black painting. By adding a flash of white, in such a way that suggests closeness and makes the black components look like they are almost touching, the title of KISS was born.

Don’t miss seeing this spectacular work at The Courtauld Gallery while it’s here, a perfect Valentine’s treat for those looking for a kiss.

Book tickets

The Courtauld Gallery Redevelopment – We want to hear your views!

The Courtauld Gallery, part of The Courtauld Institute of Art, is currently in the process of developing proposals as part of a £52 million Masterplan which will see the transformation of the building and its public offer.

Improving the in-Gallery experience and our public programming are key aspects of the redevelopment and we are keen to reflect the opinions of both existing visitors and potential new audiences as we develop our exciting proposals. We would be delighted if you could attend one of a series of informal focus groups being held by Jura Consultants at The Courtauld Gallery. All participants will receive £30 and refreshments will be provided.

Focus groups dates and times are as follows:

Previous visitors to The Courtauld Gallery (those who have visited in the past 3 years)

Date Time
 

Wednesday 22 February 2017

 

 

6.00pm – 7.30pm

 

Thursday 23 February 2017 3.30pm – 5.00pm

 

Those who have never visited/ not visited for over 3 years

Date Time
 

Thursday 23 February 2017

 

 

6.00pm -7.30pm

 

Friday 24 February  2017 10.30am – 12.00pm

 

If you are interested in attending please follow the web link next to your preferred focus group session. We have a limited number of places per group which will be allocated on a first come first served basis.

The focus groups will take place at Somerset House. Please report to The Courtauld Institute of Art Reception at The Strand Entrance of Somerset House (opposite The Courtauld Gallery entrance). A member of our team will accompany you to the focus group venue.

If you have any queries or would like any further information please contact Rae Morton at Jura Consultants on 0131 440 6750 or at rae@jura-consultants.co.uk.

We look forward to hearing your views!