Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Bruegel to Freud: Master Prints from The Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld Institute of Art houses one of the most significant collections of works on paper in Britain, with approximately 7,000 drawings and watercolours and 20,000 prints ranging from the Renaissance to the 20th century. The second Summer Showcase, Bruegel to Freud: Master Prints from The Courtauld Gallery, 19 June to 21 September 2014, provides visitors with an introduction to the largest but least well-known part of The Courtauld Gallery’s outstanding collection – its holdings of prints.

This selection of some thirty particularly remarkable and intriguing examples spans more than 500 years and encompasses a variety of printmaking techniques.

The display opens with

Andrea Mantegna’s ambitious engraving of The Flagellation of Christ (around 1465-70),

in which the Italian Renaissance artist powerfully reinvents this often depicted Passion scene.

Nicolas Beatrizet, French, Section from Last Judgment (upper right, angels and arma Christi), 1562, Engraving; 23.8 x 51.1 cm (9 3/8 x 20 1/8 inches) (plate) irregular, Museum Membership Fund 70.055 RISD Museum

By contrast, the grand scale of a ten-part engraving after Michelangelo’s celebrated Last Judgment by French printmaker Nicolas Béatrizet exemplifies the ability of a print to reproduce a monumental work of art in spectacular fashion.

Subjects of Christian iconography dominate 15th and 16th century printmaking but from early on were complemented by secular topics, with printmakers catering for a demand amongst collectors for new imagery. A superb example is

Pieter Bruegel’s Rabbit Hunt (1560),

the only print known to be executed by the artist himself and one of a group of master prints bequeathed to the collection by Count Antoine Seilern in 1978. Bruegel chose the etching technique whereby its relative freedom and ease is more closely comparable to drawing, allowing him to render a scene with remarkable naturalism.

Jacques Callot

Della Bella, Stefano (1610-1664): Stage designs for 'Le Nozze degli Dei' Scene V, 1637, etching, The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

The possibilities of printmaking greatly expanded in subsequent centuries. Prints could record historical events such as battles or pageants, as in the exquisite etchings of Jacques Callot and Stefano della Bella.

Canaletto, Piazza di San Giacomo di Rialto © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Piranesi, Giovanni Battista; Pantheon in an imaginary architectural setting (recto)
© The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Canaletto’s views of 18th century Venice play wilful games with the city’s geography and are shown alongside the striking architectural inventions of his contemporary Piranesi.

The 19th century in France saw avant-garde artists embracing printmaking, with Edouard Manet’s homage to Old Masters, Paul Gauguin’s revival of the woodcut and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s brilliant adoption of the newer technique of lithography for his evocative depictions of Parisian entertainment such as his highly dynamic Jockey from Samuel Courtauld’s collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) The Jockey, 1899 Lithograph, ink on paper 51.6 x 36.3 cm The Courtauld Gallery, London

In the 20th century Pablo Picasso’s and Henri Matisse’s tireless experimentation with print techniques helped ensure the vitality of printmaking in the art of their time. The display concludes with prints by Lucian Freud, now widely acknowledged as a modern master of the medium, and by more recent work by Chris Ofili whose prints, both figurative and abstract, continued to reinvent printmaking in the 21st century.