Delaunay: Les Coureurs
Robert Delaunay: Les Coureurs (grand version) 1924-5, (detail).

It has often be said that the special character of the Courtauld Institute Gallery and the intimacy that appeals to so many of its visitors derives from its identity as collection of collections. The gifts and bequests of Samuel Courtauld, Lord Lee, Roger Fry, Sir Robert Witt, Mark Gambier-Parry, Count Seilern and Lillian Browse, to mention just a few names from a distinguished list, have each added an extra dimension to the Gallery. This has resulted in pockets of largely unexpected strength, such as Dr Alistair Hunter’s British paintings from the 1960s and 70s, as well as areas of sustained and unmatched quality and depth. The various collections complement each other well and collectively generate a powerful chronological momentum, punctuated by moments of rich contextual interest. It is this combination of a coherent and yet individualised narrative, presented at a superb qualitative level, that gives the Gallery its unique identity and points the way forward, particularly in the development of the 20th century holdings.

Whereas Lord Lee had a deep antipathy towards everything that might be considered modern or avant-garde in the art of his time, and famously almost came to blows with Walter Sickert at the Royal Academy, Samuel Courtauld was enthusiastic about 20th century art, if not quite as well-informed as Roger Fry. Paintings by Bonnard, Vuillard, Modigliani, Utrillo, Marchand and Renoir, drawings by Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Maillol, Dufy and Signac, and sculpture by Dobson constitute an interesting group but one whose significance pales in comparison with Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. Perhaps for that reason the Gallery’s display of 20th century art has struck some visitors as slightly disappointing, a somewhat idiosyncratic and hesitant addendum where one would expect a triumphant new chapter.

The Post-Impressionist paintings collected by Samuel Courtauld so strikingly predict and anticipate developments in early 20th century art that extending the Gallery’s holdings beyond their present dénouement has always been a cherished ambition. A number of temporary exhibitions hinted at what might be achieved and a programme of loans revealed an encouraging level of support. Now, in what has already been a remarkable year for the Courtauld, the Gallery has been able to take a major step forward. October 10 saw the opening of the Courtauld’s new 20th-century displays, made possible by an outstanding group of long-term loans from private collections, including notably the Fridart Foundation. Supported by Nicholas and Jane Ferguson and Nicholas and Judith Goodison, this development has resulted in one of the most significant representations of early 20th-century Modernist art on public display Britain.

Barbara Hepworth: Spring, 1966
Barbara Hepworth: Spring, 1966

One of the highlights of the new dispay is an outstanding group of Fauve paintings. There are three works by Matisse, four by Derain, four by Vlaminck and four by Raoul Dufy, as well as paintings by lesser-known members of the Fauve circle such as Othon Friesz, Kees van Dongen and Albert Marquet. Later French paintings include work by, amongst others, Fernand Léger and Robert Delaunay, whose monumental and dynamic Racers of 1924-5 is one of the centrepieces of the temporary exhibition setting on the second floor. The German section includes important examples by August Macke, Max Pechstein and Heinrich Campendonk. Sixteen paintings and works on paper by Kandinsky provide a remarkable account of the stylistic evolution of this pioneering figure over more than 30 years. They range from an early Art Nouveau design for a brewery to the biomorphic forms of his later years in France and the key 1923 Bauhaus period work In the Black Circle. Kandinsky’s friend and fellow emigré Alexej Jawlensky is represented by six works. In addition to paintings, the displays will include important sculpture by the principal figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including ten bronzes by Degas and work by Rodin, Maillol, Matisse, Archipenko and Laurens, as well as later figures such as Moore and Hepworth.

One of the joys of the new displays has been the ability to reconstitute the remarkable creative relationships that lay at the heart of early 20th century painting. Artists such as Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, whose work was being exhibited in Paris in the opening years of the century, provided a liberating impulse for the new generation. Derain’s monumental La Danse, which returns to the Gallery after its inclusion in the recent Fauve exhibition, invites immediate association with Gauguin’s Tahitian pictures, of which the Courtauld has two important examples. Vlaminck was powerfully influenced by Van Gogh, whom he described as having worshipped more than his own father. Comparison of Vlaminck’s work of 1905-6 with the Courtauld’s celebrated Van Goghs powerfully illustrates how Vlaminck’s thick application of paint and intuitive response to nature was nourished by his experience of the older artist’s work. The influence of Cézanne, of whom the Gallery currently displays ten works, is clearly evident in paintings such as Raoul Dufy’s 1907 The Boats at Martigues, where the angular forms and treatment of space anticipate the arrival of Cubism.

Whereas the more revolutionary early pronouncements of artists such as Vlaminck present the turn of the century as a moment of rupture, these displays illustrate continuity. By projecting into the 20th century, the developments initiated by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, may be regarded as fulfilling Samuel Courtauld’s humanistic vision of art, which was predicated on causal relationships. One imagines that Courtauld would have been delighted by the manner in which the new displays add to the understanding of the pictures which he collected and so richly complement the teaching and research programmes of the Institute that he helped establish.