London has one last very important museum to reopen this year. Closed before and during the pandemic for a two-year renovation, the Courtauld Gallery is relaunching in November, with its star tricks – “Un bar aux Folies-Bergère” by Manet, “Self-portrait with a bandaged ear” by Van Gogh – back to the spotlight on the renovated Great Hall.
The redeveloped Courtauld will be a familiar but different, updated place, and the exciting symbol of change is his acquisition of intimate, innovative and experimental 20th century works on paper from Howard Karshan’s outstanding collection, presented to the gallery by his widow, artist Linda Karshan. Amid the post-pandemic realities of shrinking museum resources and constrained programs, Karshan’s gift is a beacon of hope, and his inaugural presentation is the culmination of temporary exhibits marking the reopening of the Courtauld.
Karshan’s works draw Courtauld’s distinguished collections of historic European drawings – Leonardo, Dürer, Ingres – towards modernity and transatlantic reach: post-war irreverence and informality, existential uncertainty, playfulness, fun. From the United States, the warm, comical sweetness of Wayne Thiebaud’s ink depictions of cake slices and Philip Guston’s horrid hooded Klan men scribbled in an oil stick. From Europe, Giacometti’s “Bouquet of Flowers”, drawn with eraser, intertwines stems and vaporous flowers in a skeletal form, resembling the artist’s refined figurative sculptures. Meanwhile, Gerhard Richter, in layered oil and watercolor abstraction, scratches, splashes, breaks, blurs surfaces to ask why and how painting still exists.
Howard Karshan, a Brooklyn-born film and television rights negotiator who lived in Paris in the early 1960s, was as charming, well-connected, and confident in his taste and persuasion as the posh operators of today’s French hit Netflix. . Call my agent! – “Basically, if you went out looking for something, you could get it,” he said one day. Karshan (1933-2017) made his money from the moving image – his clients were CBS, MGM and Viacom – but his passion was for calmer, more direct and more experimental drawing, with its rich variety of spontaneous brands. . He loves the works produced during the explosive cultural moments of the 1950s and 1960s, on both sides of the Atlantic, often linked to writing.
Take Paris, for example, where Henri Michaux took a mescaline trip: the poet-painter began to notice the rushed sensations of a psychedelic trip from the Himalayas – “higher than the highest peaks” – to ” fringes of a tropical ocean, with the thousand shimmering silver lights of an invisible moon ”, before running out of words and recording everything in fine black ink in the form of streams and swirls, dashes and drops. “Mescaline Drawing” (1957) is one of those vibrant and sparkling mind maps describing what it feels like to be out of your mind. Karshan liked to watch him as he shaved.
In Sperlonga, a seaside town south of Rome, in 1959 Cy Twombly – newly married and having left New York – created a group of pencil drawings in which feverish scribbles alternate with limpid drifting marks; large expanses of white paper suggest a reflective Mediterranean light. The graffiti-scrawled elegance was the visionary and whimsical response of the American expatriate to abstract expressionism transformed into minimalism, touched by the classic epic, but freewheeling, as light as a sea breeze.
Meanwhile, in 1950s New York, Willem de Kooning was developing blocky post-cubist renderings of women with huge limbs and pillow breasts with exaggerated Marilyn Monroe lips and hooked teeth. Drawings such as “Études de femmes” expose the processes of a fleeting and fragmented representation. A decade later, in a morally confused Germany, Georg Baselitz presented the furious and transgressive caricatures of Georg Baselitz’s “Whip Woman”, depicting rearranged body parts and other nightmarish, decaying figures scribbled in ink and in watercolor.
The drawing here is exuberant, life force, linking the physical and the conceptual. Karshan’s initial purchases – a Cycladic idol and a sketch by Giacometti from Stravinsky bought in Paris, a jazzy gouache by Sam Francis of scintillating, cellular and dripping shapes acquired in London – expose the bones of his interests: exploring the boundaries between figuration and abstraction, testing the present against the past.
He had already purchased them on a return trip aboard the transatlantic liner SS France. “I took the train from Waterloo to Southampton, couldn’t find a seat and ended up in the bar car,” he said. “The only other person in the bar car was this very pretty young girl reading a Matisse catalog. So we got married. ”
Linda Karshan is an artist whose main work – drawings based on body span expressed in loose canvases, matrices, grids – decisively influenced her husband’s collection. A book of his drawings quoted the words novelist Don DeLillo gives to one of his characters, a performance artist: “It’s about who we are when we don’t repeat who we are.” It also suggests the freshness and spontaneity of the designs, their powerful connection to early thoughts, which attracted the Karshans.
The couple lived between New York and London and loved the scholarly Courtauld Gallery, which Linda considered a “natural home” after Howard’s death for these highlights of her collection. His favorite artist – whose works hung over his bed and over the dinner table – was Cézanne, and the Courtauld owns the UK’s largest Cézannes group. Cézanne de Karshan’s watercolors complement those of Courtauld: “Mountainous Landscape”, its refined structure, surprisingly achieved by fleeting spots of color; “Still Life, Wash Basin and Jug”, daringly unfinished, a dizzying game of perception – the lower half of the sheet is blank, making the translucent objects appear to rest on the white paper as if it were itself a table.
Chronologically, Karshan’s gift begins where Courtauld’s forces end – to Cézanne. The acquisition “thus opens a new chapter”, specifies the gallery. To play catch-up with the 20th century, all museums need such inspired private gifts – especially as modern canon evolves in fascinating ways, and what looked like the eccentric preferences of idiosyncratic collectors may turn out to be the mainstream. for contemporary eyes.
There are examples in Karshan’s Gift of lovely and meaningful exterior pieces such as “Beat” and “Bush” (1937-1942) by Louis Soutter: processions of silhouettes, dancing, twisting and twisting, performed at a advanced age in a hospice in a Jura village. Soutter dipped his fingers in ink to draw directly on large sheets of paper when arthritis and failing eyesight forced him to give up pencil and brush. He had been an architect – Le Corbusier was his cousin – then first violin at the Orchester du Théâtre de Genève, and his rhythmic push-pull between order and chaos hypnotizes. Soutter was unstable, helpless, half a century ahead of his time, anticipating not only Art Brut but also the twisting and lyrical cartoons of William Kentridge – and hardly known when Karshan first encountered his work.
On such instincts, a large collection is formed. London is fortunate to eagerly await his full and generous revelations.
The Courtauld Gallery reopens in November, courtauld.ac.uk
To follow @ftweekend on Twitter to discover our latest stories first