An Exciting New Collaboration in Coventry!


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In March the exhibition Degas’ Dancers: A Courtauld Masterpiece opened at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. It included one of The Courtauld’s most famous pieces of work Degas’ Two Dancers on a Stage, 1874, as well as two sculptures and a drawing.

To celebrate these works on tour in Coventry the learning departments from both the Herbert and The Courtauld have worked together to put on a range of events for the public. For example, The Herbert organised a number of late openings to engage new audiences and The Courtauld’s Oak Foundation Young People’s Programme Coordinator (Thurs-Fri) Helen Higgins delivered a number of talks as part of this. We also took the time to observe and learn from each other’s specialisms, which you can read below.

Meghan Goodeve, Oak Foundation Young People’s Programme Coordinator (Mon-Weds) from The Courtauld, reflects on primary school workshops ran by The Herbert:

“One of the first things that struck me when meeting the learning team from the Herbert was how comprehensive their primary school programme was. I was keen to observe one of these and see how they used their amazing learning space. I was lucky enough to see a workshop on the theme of sculpture (including our Degas!) for 28 students from local Gosford Park Primary School. The session was engaging and lively, using props such as a chisel and hammer (under close supervision!!) to demonstrate key ways of making sculpture, in this case carving. The Herbert were also brilliant at grounding the learning in literacy, using sheets with key words to help expand the students’ vocabulary. One of my favourite bits of the workshop was when a student was asked to play the role of the workshop teacher and lead the class through their own visual analysis of a work – culminating their learning from earlier in the session. Finally, we hit their learning space to take part in some hands-on clay sculpture. I know the table I was on really enjoyed this and left clutching their work proudly!”

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Brian Scholes, Learning Officer for Schools from the Herbert, reflects on a post-16 outreach workshop for Coventry City College delivered by The Courtauld:

“The outreach workshop was delivered to a group of 20 art students from different disciplines including painting, photography and graphic design. Meghan Goodeve and Naomi Lebens from The Courtauld led the session, beginning with a presentation in the Herbert’s learning space which gave a brief history of the Courtauld. This was extremely illuminating as it also gave the students a chance to learn about the nature and the status of modern art at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries.

Meghan then introduced the students to the role of curators in museums. This included an exploration of the different viewpoints of art historians and how this can influence the interpretation of an artwork (The Courtauld’s masterpiece A Bar at the Folies Bergere  was used as an illustration for critique). A discussion then took place around how differing interpretations of artworks can influence the creation of an exhibition. Bearing these points in mind the students were then introduced the Herbert’s exhibition Degas’ Dancers in the gallery. The students engaged in an interesting discussion about the content and display.

After lunch the students were given a task, working in small groups, in the learning space. This was led by Meghan and Naomi. Each group was given a series of postcards of paintings from The Courtauld collection. The groups had to pick a theme, then choose appropriate works of art (using the postcards) in order to design an (imaginary) exhibition, including the physical layout of the show. This led to much discussion as ideas flowed and eventually each group came up with a design for an exhibition using the learning from the day.

The whole experience was invaluable to the students, not least because they were all about to embark on the display of their end-of-year shows.”

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Van Gogh’s Ear. The True Story

By Dr Karen Serres , Schroder Foundation Curator of Paintings

As curators, we spend so much time with the collection we care for that it is both rare and exciting when new facts emerge about one of our paintings. This was the case of a few years ago when an independent art historian living near Arles, Bernadette Murphy, came to discuss Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with a Bandaged Ear. She was undertaking research about van Gogh’s time in Arles, including his network of friends and the specific timeline of events following his notorious dispute with Gauguin that led to the mutilation of his ear. She had fascinating things to say about the Self-Portrait, painted just a few days after van Gogh left the hospital. She talked about the novelty of the dressing used to heal his wounded ear, about van Gogh’s adoption of the heavy coat traditionally worn by shepherds in the region and about the room in which van Gogh stood, the ground floor studio of his little house in Arles. To paint this self-portrait, Van Gogh may have used the very mirror he looked into to cut off his ear a few weeks earlier.

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Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1889) Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889 © The Courtauld Gallery, London

Bernadette’s research is now encompassed in a book, out today, called Van Gogh’s Ear. The True Story. It considers Van Gogh’s stay in the south of France in forensic details and unpicks a lot of the myths created and repeated around Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, including the nature of his wound. Until now, most accounts have trusted the painter Paul Signac who asserted that Van Gogh cut off a portion of the lobe of his left ear. Bernadette tracked down early sources, such as newspaper accounts and first-hand testimony, to prove that in fact the painter cut off his entire ear. She also argues that he survived such a wound thanks to the intervention of Felix Rey (whose portrait by Van Gogh is in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow), a young doctor who had recently come to Arles and was trained in new treatment techniques.

The book is a testament to Bernadette’s resolve during a seven-year quest and to the fact that the most unexpected avenues of research can yield the greatest rewards. It also shows that there is still light to be shed on even the most scrutinized of episodes.

Bernadette’s findings are also included in an illuminating exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam that examines all the manifestations and theories surrounding van Gogh’s mental illness, On the Verge of Insanity. It opens a much-needed dialogue between art historians and medical professionals to understand the nature and extent of van Gogh’s illness, but also to counter the idea that he was simply a slave to his demons. Van Gogh was a willful and deliberate artist that shaped his world on the canvas and created works of art that resonate more than ever with viewers.