Issue Number: 115
The Courtauld Gallery is showing some of the finest drawings in Western art, writes Simon Wilson
Art lovers must have done one thing good at least in a previous life, to deserve the delights regularly served up to us by the Courtauld Gallery. I have waxed lyrical before about its small but perfectly formed shows, and here is yet another that has me reaching for the superlatives. Indeed the Courtauld has exceeded itself in this selection of 60 outstanding gems from its large collection of drawings. This, I should emphasise, is already of the highest quality overall, so what we have here is the cream of the cream. I should emphasise too that for conservation reasons such things are rarely put on public display – the last comparable show was 20 years ago.
Paul Cézanne, 'Apples, Bottle and Chairback', c.1904-06. © The Courtauld Gallery, London
The selection takes us from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Subject matter ranges from the spiritual to the erotic via the everyday, and artistic approach runs from observation, which can be simple or obsessive, through expressive stylisation, to high allegory. A highlight is Michelangelo’s The Dream (c.1533) which introduces the idea of a drawing as a finished work of art in its own right. It shows a beautiful young man being urged by an angel to turn away from the sins of the flesh, notably lust; whether he is going to is not clear.
Other standouts for me are utterly ravishing watercolours by Cézanne (below) and Turner, a nude of the most refined sensuality by Ingres, – Study for La Grande Odalisque, of 1814 – and a magisterial and mysterious chiaroscuro nude from c.1881 by Seurat. But everything here is superb. Rarely have the words of the old song Let’s All go Down the Strand been more apt, and the properly scholarly catalogue, including much fascinating new research, is a book to treasure.