After 3 years, The Courtauld reopened to the public in November 2021. The reopening followed a major transformation to restore its grandeur and create state-of-the-art facilities, which was supported by £9.5 million from The National Lottery Heritage Fund and generous donations from foundations, individuals and other supporters. Masterpieces such as Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear and the most significant collection of works by Cézanne in the UK is now presented in The Courtauld Gallery’s spectacular Great Room, one of the largest spaces in Somerset House.
New and transformed galleries are now devoted to the Medieval and Early Renaissance collection, 20th Century art, and the Bloomsbury Group. New exhibition spaces extend The Courtauld’s celebrated programme of international loan exhibitions alongside smaller temporary projects. Overall, The Courtauld collection has been completely redisplayed and newly interpreted. Designed by Stirling Prize-winning architects Witherford Watson Mann, the Gallery redevelopment revitalises and opens up the magnificent buildings conceived by Sir William Chambers in the 1770s, celebrating their fascinating heritage. The display cases and other fittings were designed by the Nissen Richards Studio.
The Gilbert and Ildiko Drawings Gallery, which was created ex-novo in 2015 out of a former storage space (which historically hosted the Royal Academy’s head housekeeper sometime between 1780-1837), underwent a light-touch refit. This was the occasion for connecting this gallery to the newly created space on the same floor that now hosts the superbly rich Medieval and Early Renaissance collection, with some of its important collection of ivories and Islamic metalwork.
In March 2022, the Drawings Gallery inaugurated the display The Art of Experiment: Parmigianino at The Courtauld, exhibition which brings together a selection from the significant collection of Parmigianino’s works at The Courtauld, which includes 2 paintings, 24 drawings and more than 10 prints which the artist either etched or designed for a printmaker who collaborated with him.
Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (1503-1540) – better known as Parmigianino – was one of the most remarkable artists of the Italian Renaissance. During his short life he drew relentlessly and more than a thousand of his drawings survive. The defining feature of his career was an insatiable urge to experiment. In Italy, he pioneered the medium of etching and the chiaroscuro woodcut technique.
Usually, Renaissance artists would draw on both sides of a sheet of paper, which we identify as recto and verso. Though paper was more common in the 16th century than previously, it was still a precious commodity, and artists would use every single inch of a sheet at their disposal to draw over their designs. This is especially true for Parmigianino whose many surviving drawings witness this practice.
In The Courtauld’s collection several works have drawings on both sides. This exhibition was the occasion for us to display double-sided two of the most interesting sheets. The most monumental of these recto-verso drawings shows two different ideas for the same composition representing the biblical episode of the Conversion of Saul. The artist shows Saul of Taursus fallen from his horse, turning towards Christ who appears from the heavens. On one side, the artist places Saul falling down next to his very large horse, while on the other side of the paper the figure is kneeling by a smaller horse, while in the distance we see an imaginary view of the city of Damascus.
The other recto-verso drawing shows a female nude, which the artist traced from one side to the other of the sheet, bringing minor variations to the figure such as for example raising or lowering one of the arms. This little figure (which measures only 135 x 52 mm) was then revised and enlarged to almost life size when Parmigianino painted it in fresco on the ceiling of the church of Santa Maria della Steccata in Parma.
It was very important for us that the public could see both sides of these two sheets because they contribute to give a fuller account of Parmigianino’s working practice. We therefore engaged with Nissen Richards Studio to design a plinth that would allow us to show them double-sided. We wanted these plinths to be in line with other display cases across the gallery. Kate Edmondson, paper conservator at the Courtauld, established what the right dimension of the frames should be for the top of these plinths, so they could accommodate both works from our collection, as well as future loans from other institutions.
We worked closely with the designers to establish a dual frame method; the outer metal plinth designs encasing the inner removable wooden frames. The outer plinth frames are designed with the flexibility to be fixed in either portrait or landscape orientation, and so to suit various future displays. The inner frames are designed to house the recto-verso drawings with glazing on each side.
Optium Museum Acrylic was the glazing chosen for its optical and preventive conservation qualities and the safety and ease of handling when exchanging artworks for rotation and future exhibition. A set of four frames were made – with the two spare frames enabling alternative artworks to be prepared within the studio in advance and brought ready for immediate exchange in the exhibition area. The use of protective glazing allows visitors to safely engage closely with the artworks and, if they wish, make use of the handheld magnifiers provided in the exhibition space to observe the minute details of the artist’s hand. Tru Vue supported the exhibition with an in-kind donation of the Optium sheets used in the inner frames.
We are looking forward to using these plinths in the future for the display of drawings both in the Gilbert and Ildiko Drawings Gallery, as well as in the other exhibition spaces across the gallery.
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