Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-82, oil on canvas, 96 x 130 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Source

Édouard Manet’s depiction of the Folies-Bergère music hall in Paris is an iconic piece of French Realist painting. As with in a number of the masterpieces looked at this month, the mirror behind the barmaid plays a central role in the analysis of the composition. Scholars are yet to agree on whether the gentlemen reflected on the far right stands in the place of the viewer, or just to the left, seeing as the barmaid’s mirror image seems strangely out of place.


Eltham Palace Part 2: An Art Deco lover’s paradise, Eltham Palace in Greenwich, England has it all: amazing living room furniture, carpet, and oval glass light ceiling; gorgeous wood-inlayed walls with hidden doors; custom built-in tables and book shelves; a gold mosaic bathroom wall; Japanese print screens, even a leather wall map of the world…Once the residence of the Courtauld family, now an open house museum for all to enjoy.

Francisco Goya, Regozijo (Mirth), c.1919-23, Album D. 4, red chalk and scraping, 23.7 x 14.8 cm, The Hispanic Society of America, New York.

‘Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album’ at the Courtauld Gallery, London

★ ★ ★ ★

For the first time since its pages were separated, Francisco Goya’s ‘The Witches and Old Women’ album of drawings is displayed in its entirety. All twenty-two known folios are included in the Courtauld’s new show, making this a very special treat for Goya fans. The album is the smallest and most orderly of the Spanish Romanticist’s oeuvre, and also reveals some of his early experiments with the lithographic printing process. But these drawings are not preparatory studies for larger pieces, nor are they simply idle sketches; they are individual works framed by the album as a whole. Together, they reveal a dark yet humorous look at old age, madness and the unconscious.

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Eltham Palace

Stephen Courtauld and his wife Virginia Courtauld bought the ruined site of Eltham Palace (occasional residence and court of Henry VIII) and restored the Great Hall while also annexing an elaborate home, which has one of the best example of an Art Deco interior in the UK. The dramatic Entrance Hall was created by the Swedish designer Rolf Engstroumlmer. Light floods in from a spectacular glazed concrete dome, highlighting blackbean veneer and figurative marquetry.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, c.1892-95, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm, The Courtauld Gallery, London. Source

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1894-95, oil on canvas, 47.5 x 57 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Source

Here are four of the five paintings by Paul Cézanne that depict scenes of men playing cards. The fifth piece now belongs to the State of Qatar, and became the second highest-selling painting of all time after it was acquired in 2011 for around $270 million. At the time, this amount would have topped the list of most expensive artworks, but the record was broken this year with the sale of Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry Me?) for $300 million - read more about this here. The Card Players series is often recognised as marking the start of Cézanne’s final period. The artist was originally inspired by rowdy card-playing compositions from the 17th century, though his versions are far more subdued and melancholic. Elements of French Realism have certainly played a role in the overall atmospheres of these pieces.

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1890-92, oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.9 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Source

Paul Cézanne, The Card Players, 1890-92, oil on canvas, 134.6 x 180.3 cm, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Source

Georgiana Houghton’s Spirit Drawings: Victorian Women and Spiritualism

Next up on my travel blogs about my recent UK holiday: I got the opportunity to see the current exhibit at the Courtauld Gallery in London, ‘Georgiana Houghton: Spirit Drawings’!

The artist herself is not well known, nor was she especially famous in her time, except within circles if the Spiritualist Movement. Victorian religious life was a vibrant whirlwind not unlike one of Houghton’s works: High Church and Broad Church members fought in Parliament and pulpits for control of the Church of England as it leaned either Roman Catholic or fiercely Protestant, by turns; other sects, to say nothing of non-Christian religions (who were always around but often quietly practising rather than advertising themselves) and atheists, made up greater parts of the population every year. By the time of Georgiana Houghton’s adulthood (she lived 1814-1884), a major rise in alternatives to mainstream religious activities – table-rapping (a form of speaking to ghosts through seances), talking through mediums, crystal-gazing, Mesmerism, and a whole array of other practices constituted not just non-Christian but also firmly Christian worship and life. In other words, many Victorians felt like anything that brought you closer to experiencing first-hand the awesome power of God, even if it looked like superstition or magic, was not only acceptable but positive, since it helped you believe all the more strongly in powers beyond your control. [More at VW]

Houghton, then (pictured above [Courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies, London]), took up a unique form of painting, a little like later abstract impressionism and very like Modernist automatic drawing: essentially, Houghton felt she was “guided by various spirited, including family members, several Renaissance artists, such as Titian and Correggio…, and higher angelic beings” (exhibit booklet). With these spirits helping her to channel the power and glory of God, Houghton created works like this one:

MENTAL, RIGHT? Combining layer upon layer of precise and meticulous watercolor that really pushes the limits of that, er, material, these works only get richer and more dazzling the longer you look at them – especially in person. When I was asked to review them for my blog, I expected a more conventional Victorian artist, creating a narrative with a moral punchline, or else a multi-media expression of one female artist from the mundane and restrictive world in which she lived. Instead, Houghton’s drawings reminded me of no other so much as Miro’s. I’m not a Miro scholar, but what little I recall revolves around the idea that, in a Miro painting, like this one (1921) – 

– that, amidst the initial chaos of symbols and characters, an experienced Miro viewer will recognize certain figures that carry consistent meanings: one sort of squiggle (the eye or the black ameba) is nearly always the sun; a triangle or cone signifies workers; etc. 

Consider then the back of one of Houghton’s works:

Here, as she so helpfully clarifies, the swoop with the bud at the top – a bit like a seahorse (to my eye anyway!) – stands for ‘His [God’s] Attributes of Power’, while the upside-down bass clef means ‘the God descending in meekness and Truth’, and so on. The little diagram beneath her diary entry for the work she did to create this work in particular goes even further to lay out exactly what Biblical persons, books, and values she has represented with certain strokes. (This verso describes, in fact, ‘The Eye of the Lord’ [1864], the painting above, below her portrait.)

The overall impression of these works for me was of a character of tremendous patience, balancing an enormous energy and creative idiosyncrasy with a disciplined devotion to her faith. These works clearly took INSANE amounts of labor to create, keeping the loops in tight packs and symbols, layering the colors so none was lost amidst the others, even adding thick-globbed dots along the outside reminiscent of aboriginal art of Australia – a country that had its fair share of spiritualism in the 19th century, and who contributed several of the key pieces of this exhibition.

Dizzying, hypnotizing, and intriguing, these works left me deeply conscious that Victorians are not just only one homogeneous bunch: they lived and felt and imagined each in their own weird way. Learning more about Houghton and her place in the Spiritualist Movement; her efforts to put on a show of more than 150(!) of these intense works in 1871, called by one newspaper, “the most astonishing exhibition in London at the present moment” (exhibit booklet); and her influences on later spiritually-inclined Brits like – my perennial favorite – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – all deserve remembering.

See the exhibit if you can: it’s very affordable, and a ticket gets you into the beautiful and lovely Courtauld, where a number of gorgeous Cezannes, Manets, Degases, Cranachs, Rubens, and numerous others are held in only one part of Somerset House. And maybe Georgiana’s ‘spirit drawings’ will make you want to try your hand at some wacky, powerful art yourself – or at least read more on spiritualism in the Victorian era.