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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Bruegel in Black & White: A Tree-mendous Discovery

Displays offer not only the possibility to see masterpieces in a different light and a different context but in preparing them, curators and conservators carry out a lot of research on the works. Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited was no exception, but the investigation yielded exceptional results.

Bruegel 3b

The techniques used to examine Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s three surviving paintings in grisaille ranged from xrays to infrared photography (which allows us to see any drawing below the paint) to analysis of the wood panels that Bruegel painted on.

We also used a scientific method called Dendrochronology which enables us to date wood based on the analysis of the patterns left by the tree (or growth) rings. By comparison with other data, it can date when the rings were formed to the exact calendar year and can thus estimate when the tree was cut down. In some areas of the world, it is possible to date wood back a few thousand years. This works particularly well with oak, which Bruegel favoured for his paintings.

Ian Tyers, a dendrochronology specialist, was able to ascertain that The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was painted on a panel made from a 200-year old oak tree from the eastern Baltic region of Europe (present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The tree was cut down after 1550, transformed into a standard size board and shipped to the Netherlands. This date corresponds well to the painting, which is signed and dated 1565. The tree was radially cut (that is to say across the centre of the trunk), as it was already well known at the time that this type of cut minimized warping and distortion.

The support of another grisaille in the exhibition, the stunning Death of the Virgin (National Trust, Upton House), was also analysed. There too, the wooden panel came from an oak tree in the eastern Baltic, cut down after 1553. This particular tree must have been especially majestic as tree-ring analysis indicates that it was already growing in 1228 and had a diameter of more than a metre when it was cut down. More strikingly, at least three panels made from that one tree were used by Bruegel to paint three works of identical size: The Death of the Virgin, Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and The Courtauld’s own Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. Parts of this extraordinary Baltic oak thus live on at The Courtauld this spring. Come and see for yourself!

Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited, until 8 May 2016

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Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy

Our Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection exhibition is currently under way and the Prints and Drawings Study Room is also celebrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. We asked Alexander J. Noelle, Print Room Assistant, to tell us more:

As a doctoral student whose research focuses on the Italian Renaissance, I was thrilled when I heard that the Gallery was planning an exhibition of Botticelli’s exceptional drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, now on view. I thought that the arrival of these masterworks would provide an excellent opportunity to showcase related prints from the Courtauld’s collection of works on paper. In my role as a Print Room Assistant, I began searching through the 26,000 prints to select a small group for a temporary display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. What I found was the first full set of widely distributed illustrations for Dante’s epic poem.

In 1792, British sculptor John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) designed 111 plates depicting the complete narrative of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although other artists had responded to the visually evocative text before Flaxman, he was the first to draw an illustration for every canto (an Italian term for the sections of a long poem) and, through print, disseminate his work to a wide audience. Flaxman was praised for his ability to reduce Dante’s complex language to simple symbolic icons that still managed to capture the spiritual essence of the story.

Flaxman Dante Title

Title Page: Compositions from the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri, by John Flaxman, Sculptor. Tommaso Piroli (ca.1752-1824) after John Flaxman (1755-1826), 1793 (1807 edition), engraving.

The prints certainly look modern when compared to Botticelli’s depictions, yet when they were first published they were celebrated as belonging stylistically to the age of Dante himself. Flaxman was living in Rome when he drew the illustrations, actively studying artworks made by ‘primitive’ Medieval and Renaissance artists, and sometimes copying exact motifs into his illustrations. This influence, combined with the simple outline design, led Flaxman’s contemporaries to associate his drawings with Dante’s own era.

The sixteen prints on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room correspond to specific drawings of the same canti by Botticelli in the Gallery. While it is unlikely that Flaxman saw Botticelli’s own illustrations, the comparisons query whether the viewer today can see the Renaissance influence in Flaxman’s prints.

Installation Shot

 

‘Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy’ is on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room until 15 May. See opening times here.

There is also the opportunity to hear Alexander do a lunchtime talk in the Gallery on this exhibition at 1:15pm on Thursday 10 March. 

A Closer Look: Discovering the story of William Hogarth’s Before and After by Zoe Dostal

During the Print Room Open House ‘Storylines’, from 25-29 January, postgraduate Print Room Assistants are presenting artworks that explore the variety of methods artists use to tell a story. When preparing my own presentation for William Hogarth’s engravings Before and After, I additionally wanted to consider the ‘story’ of the physical object itself. Kate Edmondson, Conservator of Works on Paper for the Courtauld Gallery, guided my exploration of the objects’ histories from the fabrication of the paper to the application of the ink, through the hands of collectors and conservators to storage and display at The Courtauld.

Hogarth Before

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), Before (1736), etching and engraving

Hogarth After

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), After (1736), etching and engraving

Before and After are generally in very good condition, yet small irregularities or imperfections provide clues to the making of the prints. ‘Raking light’ is one of the conservator’s simplest and most useful tools. Simply shining light across the paper at a low angle reveals the texture of the paper and medium, details that are generally imperceptible to the naked eye. Examining Before in raking light reveals a raised vertical line extending from the top edge of the paper towards the center of the image. My first instinct was to assume that this was a tear or accidental fold. But Kate determined that because the ink is neither interrupted nor distorted, as it would be by a tear or fold, this mark is actually a natural crease resulting from the paper making process.

Vertical crease

Detail of vertical crease in normal reflected light

Vertical crease 2

Detail of raised vertical crease in normal raking light

A more noticeable blemish on Before is located just above the dog’s head, on the skirt of the female figure. This small, round, bare patch at first appears to be the result of damage. However, examining the mark under the stereomicroscope, Kate deduced that this imperfection occurred during the printing process. The outline of ink that delineates the bare spot tells the story of how the raised surface of an accretion, or an unknown foreign body, disrupted the application of the inked design and caused the ink to pool. (Imagine rainwater pooling around the bottom of a hill, creating a ring of water around the base.) It was likely that the accretion was sitting on the surface of the paper as it was pressed to the printing plate. Today the accretion is no longer there, leaving the small, un-inked circular patch.

Skirt

Close up detail of missing media lower centre of skirt

Furthermore, raking light reveals that After was previously folded in half across the middle. Kate explained that such a strong fold such as this is difficult to completely remove because paper retains an irrevocable ‘memory’ of such deformations. But one way to try and reduce its visual distraction is to apply a repair on the verso along the fold to “ease” out the noticeable ridge. In this case a Japanese paper (a strong, lightweight, translucent paper) was applied with conservation grade adhesive across the whole of the verso. The Japanese paper lining tells the most recent story of the prints, when they became part of The Courtauld’s collection and were prepared for display. The conservation efforts minimize the visibility of the imperfections of the print for the viewer, but are also completely reversible, allowing for the story of the object to continue evolving in the future.

After in normal

After in normal reflected light

After in raking

After in raking light revealing horizontal fold across the middle

To discover these stories and more of Hogarth’s Before and After, all are welcome to stop by the Print Room Open House on Wednesday 27 January from 1:30-5pm.

Print openings

Don’t Miss the Next Open House Week! (January 25-29, 2016)

The fourth installment of our Prints and Drawings Open House, entitled Storylines, begins on Monday, January 25th!

For one week only, the Courtauld Prints and Drawings Study Room Assistants will be presenting a selection of some of the most striking drawings and prints from the Gallery’s rich collection of works on paper. The aim of this Open House is to highlight the role of prints and drawings as storytellers and explore the different ways in which biblical, literary and mythological tales, as well as lived historical events, are narrated in graphic media from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

Between 1.30pm and 5pm every day this week our doors will be open without any appointment necessary, and each work will be on display for one day only.  Our friendly Print Room Assistants will introduce their selected prints and drawings to the public and will be on hand to discuss them and answer questions. The students and gallery visitors are warmly invited to drop by to see these rarely displayed works, learn more about the devices which artists use to tell stories visually, and engage in a lively discussion which these works will undoubtedly facilitate.

This Monday (January 25th), we will be starting the Open House with Michelangelo’s energetic pen and ink depiction of the central episode in the Passion, which shows Christ brought as a prisoner before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. On Tuesday (January 26th), the Ovidian tale of Atalanta, a virgin huntress who refused to marry any of her suitors unless they could best her in a footrace, will be explored in Guercino’s large-scale Race of Atalanta. This will be followed by a pair of satirical prints, Before and After, by William Hogarth on Wednesday 27th and by Honoré Daumier’s theatrical interpretation of Molière’s comedy The Hypochondriac (Thursday 28th). The week will conclude with Henry Moore’s poignant Shelter Drawing, produced during the Second World War.

 

The following works will be the focus of each day’s session:

 

Monday (25 January): presented by Tatiana Bissolati

Open week blog Bissolati

Michelangelo (1475-1564), Christ before Pilate (c. 1516), pen and ink and red chalk on paper, D.1978.PG.422

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday (26 January): presented by Alexander J. Noelle

Guercino

Guercino (1591 – 1666), Race of Atalanta (c. 1625), pen and ink, black chalk on paper and canvas, D.1953.WF.4593

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday (27 January): presented by Zoe Dostal

Hogarth Before

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), Before (1736), etching and engraving, G.1990.WL.2005

Hogarth After

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), After (1736), etching and engraving, G.1990.WL.2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday (28 January): presented by Camilla Pietrabissa

Honore

Honoré Victorin Daumier (1808-1879), Le Malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) (c. 1850), black chalks, black ink wash, watercolour and touches of bodycolour with pen and point of the brush in brown and black-grey ink on laid paper, D.1934.SC.113

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday (29 January): presented by Bryony Bartlett-Rawlings

Henry

Henry Spencer Moore (1898 – 1986), Shelter Drawing (1942), charcoal and watercolour on paper, D.1982.LB.15