London today

imageA drizzly afternoon in London that was mine to play with, so I paid my first visit to the Courtauld Gallery. It’s the right size for an art collection – i.e. not dauntingly big – but even so I didn’t have the time to cover all floors. Not while there was also a café in need of my attention. Things that I did like were plein air paintings by Monet and Boudin. At first I preferred the Boudin and its pleasing sense of the stillness and freshness of the seaside, but the different brush strokes of the Monet also conveyed the wind off the sea in the way the leaves appear to move and the water glisten. The far shore is actually a thick line of oil paint. I guess the two paintings capture the difference between the North Sea with its fluffy clouds and its tides, and the brighter, warmer Mediterranean.

There was also a landscape by Seurat, which wasn’t afraid to show 19th-century industry. It didn’t stop me in my tracks, but I was interested to see how adding pink dots to a tree trunk actually worked well.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir,  the Outskirts of Pont-Aven, ca 1888, oil on canvas.

And I know Renoir is a bit of a cliché, but the sherbetty colours of his landscape were delicious. There was one other landscape that I liked despite myself – one by Frank Auerbach of 1960s London. This time the thick paint seemed to work. It was also a scene that I know, and it was a reminder of how utterly filthy London once was. I didn’t like any of the other Auerbachs (or indeed the one in the Harris in Preston): there was one of the demolition of a cinema that looked as if someone had spilt borscht on the canvas.

The Mornington Crescent painting looked particularly striking close to one by David Bomberg of a southern Spanish village: grisaille vs. fireworks.

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Zahara, David Bomberg, 1954, oil on board

I found time for the German expressionists, of whom I preferred Kandinsky for his rich colours. It was even more interesting to go from that room into a temporary exhibition of watercolours by Georgiana Houghton. She was a Victorian spiritualist who claimed that her brush was guided by spirits and angels. Yes, well. No doubt there are aspects of my Weltanschauung that would have later generations sniggering . . . but meanwhile, Houghton’s paintings are very colourful and beguiling. Expressionism avant la lettre.

I realise now that Houghton was only the second female artist I saw in the gallery. I don’t particularly care about the ratio, but at some point I do wonder where the portraits of pouting naked men or domesticated husbands are. Looking at Manet’s Folies-Bergère, though, it doesn’t need a female artist to depict a working woman’s life in 19th-century Paris: the predatory customer seen in the mirror, the manacle-bangle on her wrist, the hanging feet on the left . . . no wonder she looks downcast. Or am I misreading it? . . . And I am aware that a working man’s life wasn’t a bowl of cherries either. I’ve read my Zola.

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Edouard Manet, a Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-2, oil on canvas

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Paul Cézanne, the Lake at Annecy, 1896, oil on canvas

I was also taken by a couple of Cézanne landscapes. How do you represent a famous lakeside view without looking like dozens of others? I’m iffy about Cézanne, but sometimes the colours and shapes work brilliantly and encourage me, once outside the gallery, to reconsider the scenes around me. I still don’t care for Pierre Bonnard, but I liked Matisse’s playful patterns. There was a still life by Matthew Smith – also represented in the Harris – which did nothing to change my mind that his paintings are unimpressive.

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