Bloomsbury Art & Design

Our special display Bloomsbury Art & Design opened last month. It brings together a wide-ranging selection of work by the remarkable Bloomsbury Group. We asked exhibition curator Dr Rosamund Garrett to tell us about curating the display. 

Bloomsbury Art & Design installation.

In November I was appointed the new Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant at The Courtauld Gallery, a unique role that allows me to work across the entire collection. With Dr Barnaby Wright, the Daniel Katz Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, I was charged with curating our current Special Display: Bloomsbury Art & Design.

This display brings together the highlights of the Courtauld’s collection of paintings, design drawings, ceramics and furniture by the artists from the Bloomsbury Group to look at the movement that shaped early twentieth-century modernism in Britain. It was my first project after having been completely immersed in my doctoral research in a rather different field – Renaissance tapestry – so I was eager to take up the challenge.

Given my specialisation in tapestry, I was keen to display the large rug designed by Duncan Grant, with its bold colours and eye-catching geometric design. Rugs are usually displayed on the floor, but with several large pieces of furniture featuring in the display, floor space was at a premium.  To ensure the rug could be shown I asked our Head Conservator, Graeme Barraclough, if we could do things a bit differently.

Tapestries are often displayed on slant boards: a board at a slight angle that allows the tapestry to be viewed vertically whilst its weight is gently supported across the entire surface. I thought that Grant’s rug would look striking displayed vertically on one of the short walls, and would complement the series of abstract rug designs that we intended to display beside it.

We started drawing up the plans for the slant board, but, after a thorough examination by conservation, the rug was found to be too fragile to be displayed in this way. Graeme, however, is never deterred. He and our technician, Matthew Thompson, devised a new method of display that combined a slant board with a roller, allowing us to display a section of the rug vertically whilst the roller holds most of the weight. Exhibitions always rely on the expertise, creativity and skills of many individuals, not to mention their physical presence – lifting the roller with the heavy rug onto our adapted slant board was no mean feat!

We are fortunate at The Courtauld to have such an extensive collection of Bloomsbury objects, many of which were given to us directly by one of the leaders of the Group, the artist and art critic Roger Fry. Why not pop in to Bloomsbury Art & Design to see the rug on our new display method as well as other works by the group of artists whose radical and experimental art introduced bold colours and dynamic abstract designs to the domestic interiors of Edwardian Britain.

Book Now: Bloomsbury Art & Design
Until 21 September 2017

Tis ‘The Seasons’

This week a new display opened at The Courtauld Gallery following an important new acquisition of work by the American artist Jasper Johns (born 1930).

The Seasons

Between 1984 and 1991, Johns focused on the theme of the four seasons and produced a significant body of work, which included paintings, drawings and the nine prints gifted to The Courtauld Gallery. Johns’ The Seasons are complex works, weaving together themes relating to artistic creation, the passage of time and the artist’s own biography. Most prominently, Johns’ own shadow appears in each of the compositions, cast across themulti-layered imagery.

This body of work comes from the generosity of Barbara Bertozzi Castelli, the widow of Leo Castelli, the legendary New York dealer who ‘discovered’ Johns in the 1950s. It was with Castelli that Johns first exhibited The Seasons series in 1987. The works bear a personal dedication —‘For Leo’— in pencil on each sheet. This gift was made possible by The American Foundation for The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to view Johns’ work, rarely shown in the United Kingdom on display in room 14.

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Free for Friends

Taking to the skies in the name of research.

As we open the doors this week to the Courtauld Gallery’s autumn exhibition Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings. Curator Barnaby Wright shares with us the great lengths curators will go to all in the name of research…

Toby and Barney with Glider

From left: Toby Treves and Barnaby Wright with Glider

Being a curator can take you to some unusual places. I thought I had experienced my fair share of these during my career at The Courtauld Gallery but I was made to think again the other week as I strapped myself into the tiny cockpit of a glider and moments later was catapulted a thousand feet into the skies above Luton. ‘Strange’, my instructor exclaimed as the launch cable released with a loud bang, ‘this dial says we are going up and this one says we are going down.’ It is at moments like this that commitment to one’s career is gently tested.

I had been persuaded to spend a day gliding by Toby Treves, the co-curator of our exhibition, Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings.  Taking up gliding had given him new and vivid insights into the remarkable series of paintings Lanyon produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which were based upon his experiences as a glider pilot.  Sitting at the time on a reassuringly earth-bound bench in The Courtauld Gallery, I had agreed to follow suit – after all, our exhibition policy lays great emphasis upon the importance of primary research….

Lanyon’s decision to take up gliding was fuelled by his desire to experience the landscape of his native West Cornwall as completely as possible.  During the 1950s, he produced radical, near-abstract paintings of the tough coastal landscape around the Penwith peninsula.  One day in the summer of 1956 Lanyon was walking across a high cliff top when he looked up,  saw three gliders soaring overhead and realised that this was the experience he needed.  He began gliding seriously in 1959 and went solo for the first time in 1960, clocking up many flying hours over the next few years.  Freed from a land-bound perspective, Lanyon poured his new gliding experiences into his art, producing paintings that offer a thrilling sense of his encounters with the land, sea and air, collapsing the multiple perspectives of his flights into each new composition.  The paintings were also profoundly shaped by Lanyon’s new-found glider pilot’s knowledge of the character of the air – its different movements, textures and forces, as well as the dangers and life-lines that it presents as one navigates through the thermals and up-draughts that are the invisible map essential for the glider to successfully complete a flight.  Lanyon’s gliding paintings stand as a unique achievement of twentieth-century art, reinventing and furthering the tradition of landscape painting in ways that can also be seen to engage deeply with the pressing existentialist concerns of the Post-War world. Sadly this remarkable project was cut short by Lanyon’s unexpected death in August 1964 whilst recovering from injuries sustained in a gliding accident.

I may have had some initial reservations about following Lanyon into the skies, but my day gliding was both enlightening and exhilarating.  It is quite unlike the experience of powered flight, even in a small airplane.  Rather than just enjoying the view of the land below from a stable altitude, in a glider one is fully immersed scanning both land and sky for signs of possible thermals, swooping around to feel them out and then being lifted up, enabling you to soar further afield.  This unique experience of movement in all directions through space is fundamental to Lanyon’s gliding paintings and helps to explain why they are so unlike straightforward aerial views,  so familiar from photographs or from peering out of the window whilst flying over Heathrow.

The Courtauld’s exhibition is the first devoted to Lanyon’s gliding paintings and is an opportunity to see this extraordinary body of work.  It brings together major paintings from public and private collections internationally, some never before exhibited in this country, alongside a small group of his related constructions.

BARNABY WRIGHT (BA 1999, MA 2000, PhD 2005) DANIEL KATZ CURATOR OF 20TH CENTURY ART

Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings is on display at the Courtauld Gallery from 15 October 2015 until 17 January 2016. For more information visit courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2015/Lanyon

 

Watch Barney in action

Peter Lanyon’s Gliding Paintings Land in the Gallery.

Assistant Registrar George Mogg reveals some installation highlights.

George Peter Lanyon

George Mogg, Assistant Registrar of Collections.

One of the most nerve racking aspects of exhibition installation is hanging an artwork in the presence of a courier. Un-wrapping and revealing the painting when it’s been liberated from its traveling crate is often tense.  In my role as Assistant Registrar, I help to co-ordinate the epic journeys that the paintings will make from all over the world, so I am hyper aware of their vulnerability, and always relieved when they arrive here unscathed.

The daunting aspect of unpacking a work with a courier is compensated by the moment afterwards, when you look at the work together.  In the first instance the courier will be quickly scanning the work to check for any obvious issues or changes which may have occurred in transit, whereas I am enjoying looking at the piece for the first time in the flesh.  I will have looked at a reproduction countless times in the last 6 months, preparing for the exhibition, but nothing compares to seeing it in person.  The first painting that we hang in the exhibition is Airscape, a large unglazed work measuring 125 x 186cm, and as we place it onto foam blocks for condition checking, the unprotected canvas trembles.  The inevitable period of waiting around before hanging allows for a pleasurably informal look at the work with the courier.  She points out to me the threads and fluff that are visible on the surface of the painting – trapped in the paint.  We briefly discuss what a tragedy it would be if these bits of detritus were to fall from the surface – as they would lift with them a layer of the paint.  I realise anew how fragile this work is.  She highlights a hair that is in the bottom right corner of the canvas, part of which is lifted from the surface – the two ends pinned in the paint.  It occurs to me that she probably always checks to see if it’s still in place… and I’m relieved to find that it is.

As we offer the work up to the wall, so that the exhibition co-curator Dr Barnaby Wright can take a look at the position, the canvas lies a few inches away from my face.  I can look at the brush strokes and other marks in the paint’s surface in great detail.  This feels very intimate, and suddenly you feel close to the work and the action of painting.  Perhaps it’s the lack of glazing – but these works do feel fresh from the studio.  I have time to explore the canvas as we experiment with the height of the work, raising and lowering it; Barnaby is aiming to evoke feeling of being immersed in the picture plane.  These are large paintings, and we settle on a centre line of 155cm so that when the viewer stands a meter away, the canvas fills their vision without needing to look up.  This perhaps creates a slightly vertiginous sensation of looking down into a landscape.  It’s a key point in the installation – this decision will determine the height of all the works that we hang, so it’s got to be the right call.

After hanging and pinning the painting we thank the courier for bringing over the work. 1 down, 17 to go…

Finito! – Illuminating Objects

The Courtauld’s newest instalment is finally ready and has now been sitting proudly on display for over a week. The Venetian bowl (I have become accustomed to calling it ‘my’ bowl) is small but a lot of time, consideration and work from many people has gone into its display. From Sacha Gerstein’s curatorial eye to Graeme Barraclough’s experience as a conservator, Colin Lindley’s mount-making efforts and many more, the one tiny bowl had a lot of fantastic people working hard behind it, including my own research!

Elly and her bowl

I arrived bright and early on a beautiful sunny day at The Courtauld on the day of the installation. Due to works being carried out on the galleries lifts, the glass case had to be physically carried up the flight of stairs to its new home. However, this was luckily the last hurdle the project had to make before being completed.

Illuminating objects install

After some adjustments to the mount, and the application of new lettering and positioning of text labels, it was time for the bowl to be installed. The chalcedony glass that makes up the bowl has a fascinating quality of glowing bright red when a bright light is shone directly at it. Because of this, we wanted to get the lights in the case at just the right angle to produce some of this for visitors to see.

Another difficulty was how to angle the bowl. The inside of the bowl has a milky pale green colour, nowhere near as beautiful as the swirling patterns on the outside, which is much more interesting to look at, and relevant to the bowl’s history. This faced us with a small problem, because short of displaying the bowl upside down (in which case it would cease to look much like a bowl), one side of the cabinet was going to have a view of the inside of the bowl.

In a last-minute change (quite literally, just minutes before the glass hood was secured into place!) we decided to try turning the bowl round by 90 degrees. It sounds silly, but having the bowl side-on wasn’t something that had occurred to us! This way, both ‘viewing’ sides of the case, where the text panels are, get a brilliant view of the bowl’s exterior.

And with that, we ushered ourselves out of the gallery as the first members of the public arrived for the day.

The whole process of completing the Illuminating Objects internship has been eye-opening to a whole world I had never truly contemplated before. It has been hard work, but also fascinating, and immensely rewarding.

Thank you to everyone at The Courtauld (and beyond) who has given their time and assistance to this project. Special thanks to Sacha Gerstein for her guidance and expertise, and for giving me the opportunity to take part.