I was still early. I wandered further down Fleet Street to where The Strand (they are really the same road) officially begins. The plinth of the Temple Bar Monument had a sculpture of Queen Victoria inset on one side. She was looking more vague than grumpy, wearing a small gold crown, carrying a golden sceptre and an orb, with various devices in relief on either hand, representing Art and Science. A violin, a harp, a palette and brush, the masks of comedy and tragedy; a sextant, a cog-wheel, the globe, a skull. Her son, the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, is apparently represented on the other side but I didn’t go round to see him. I wanted to scout out the place I was going to and then I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was thus entirely apposite, if fortuitous when, after scoping the green glass frontage of Kings College, I saw a sign that advertised the Courtauld Institute.
The Courtauld! Fabled name. And indissolubly linked with the Warburg Institute, where I was going to go the next day. The Courtaulds were textile millionaires in nineteenth century Britain; their fortune was based upon the manufacture of silks and crepes. They were also, in the early twentieth century, pioneers in the making of artificial silks: rayon or viscose, made from cellulose in dissolved pulp of organic origin. Tree fibres; bamboo. It was Samuel (1876-1947) who, after the war, became interested in art and, using his vast wealth, started buying French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. His extraordinary collection was assembled quite rapidly, most of it accumulated between 1926 and 1930. He had Roger Fry, among others, as an adviser.
After his wife died in 1931 he lost interest; and in 1932, with politician, diplomat and collector Lord Lee of Fareham, and art historian Robert Witt, founded the Courtauld Institute of Art—to which he donated his paintings. It isn’t just a collection however, the Institute also exists for the purposes of the study of art history and of the techniques of conservation. Many distinguished people have studied at the Courtauld, including Australia’s own Bernard Smith, who was there (1948-1951) while the Fourth Man among the Cambridge spies, Anthony Blunt, an expert on Poussin, was Director (1947-1974). The Courtauld is part of the University of London and, since 1989, domiciled in Somerset House on The Strand, purpose built in 1780 for the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Art and the Society of Antiquities. I went up the steps to reception trembling with nervous anticipation. After all, inscribed over the entrance to the Great Hall, in Ancient Greek, is the admonition: Let no stranger to the Muses enter here.
Perhaps I had transgressed. You can’t properly look at paintings when you are in a hurry; on reflection, I should have skipped the Medieval and Renaissance collections on the lower floors—magnificent though they are—ignored the fascinating exhibition of the prints and drawings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (‘Bruegel, Not Bruegel’), and gone straight to the top, where the Cezannes (The Card Players), Degas (Woman at a Window), van Goghs (Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear), Gauguins (Nevermore) and single works by Chaim Soutine (Young Woman in White Blouse) and Amedeo Modigliani (Female Nude), hang. Looking at paintings in the flesh, even, or especially, when you know them in reproduction, is always surprising, sometimes astonishing. I did not expect, for instance, to be moved almost to tears by the big Édouard Manet painting hung centrally on a wall that otherwise showed four Cezanne landscapes; but I was.
It was Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882) and I’m still not sure why it affected me so; but it might have been because of the way she, the barmaid, Suzon, a real person, looks so remote, so desolately out of the painting, without meeting any of our eyes; while in the mirror behind, in which we can see the bar and its many patrons, we also see her from behind, in conversation with a top-hatted gentleman who is almost, not quite, out of the frame. It looks like a proposition is being put, the prelude to an intimate encounter perhaps; and yet, when you look back at Suzon’s face, you know that this is nothing she ever wanted or needed, merely something that she will have to endure—if indeed she goes through with whatever it is they are discussing. So we have mirrored both her action in the world and its internal or psychological complement.
That’s the thematic that moved me; or one of them. But the painting is startling in other respects too. There is the pair of legs, wearing green pointy toed boots, suspended from the top left hand side of the picture: they belong to a trapeze artist but resemble, even though you can see the bar upon which they rest, the feet of a suicide, a hanged woman. A mirror painting, the work is conceptually intricate, almost to the extent of Velazquez’ Las Meninas, which Manet had seen and loved. In a technical sense, despite the solidity, the reality, of so much within the picture—the bowl of oranges on the bar, the array of bottles on the left—over all, the thin washes of paint give the impression (that word!) of it being barely finished, or perhaps I mean just finished. Manet has painted enough to give us the full picture and then he’s left off. The consequence is that A Bar at the Folies-Bergère looks utterly immediate, as if it were still being made. Or rather, as if what it shows with such clarity and force, is still happening.