Looking Back, Thinking Ahead

An Interview with Dr Barnaby Wright, Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art at The Courtauld Gallery

‘There Not There’ came about in response to a brief that links the exhibition to the forthcoming major renovation project of The Courtauld, called Courtauld Connects. The themes of the exhibition – disappearance, absence and transformation – relate closely to the processes that are about to take place at our very own Courtauld. From September, The Gallery will be closed for two years while these building works take place. To get an insider’s view on Courtauld Connects and what it means for curators and public alike, we asked Dr Barnaby Wright, Daniel Katz Curator of 20th Century Art at The Courtauld Gallery, to share with us his personal involvement with the project.


What is going to happen to the artworks in The Courtauld Gallery during Courtauld Connects? Will the artworks disappear entirely from view or will the public still be able to see them on display elsewhere?

When I tell people that The Courtauld Gallery is closing for a major refurbishment, their first question is: ‘For how long will my favourite pictures disappear?’ It is certainly true that the pictures will disappear from our galleries in Somerset House but we have been working hard to have them reappear in interesting new places during the period of closure. For example, we have embarked upon a whole series of partnerships with museums across the UK to show works in places they have never been before. We will also lend works internationally. The hope is that by doing so we can reveal parts of the collection to audiences who have never seen it before.

Dr Barnaby Wright during the installation of ‘There Not There’. George Shaw, ‘The End of Time’, 2008-9 Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © George Shaw


How did you decide where individual artworks would go during Courtauld Connects? Does the closure offer an opportunity to shine a light on lesser-known works, perhaps currently in storage?

Our most famous paintings are in high demand. The idea of taking them away from the public eye and into storage for a long period is out of the question. Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, for example, is part of the cultural landscape. Such works have been a priority to keep on display and there is no shortage of places that would love to show them.

We also hope to take the opportunity to use our partnerships to highlight works that are less well-known, for example our huge and impressive Prometheus Triptych by Oskar Kokoschka. This work has not been on display for many years but a request for it to join a major exhibition in Zurich has happily turned into a loan for the whole closure period. In other cases, we will use the closure to conserve certain works such as our Botticelli altarpiece, so that they can be seen in a completely new light when the gallery reopens.

People talk about the closure of an institution as ‘going dark’. We’ve gone to great efforts to keep the lights on as much as possible. And talking of lights, one of the outcomes of the refurbishment project is to relight the whole gallery so that everything will be revealed afresh.


What does moving artworks involve in practical terms? How long ago did you start preparing for the move?

We’ve been working on this project already for several years. Decanting the whole collection takes enormous preparation. Everybody is closely involved, particularly our registrars, conservators, and art handlers. Each artwork has to be carefully condition checked, packed and accounted for at every step of the way to its temporary new home, be that another museum or an off-site storage facility. We need to know where an object is at all times: it is easy to lose track, as maybe forty or fifty works are being carried and wheeled away during any given session. I had a heart-stopping moment recently when I thought a work had disappeared on my watch, only to discover a short time later that it had been packed together with another work in a single crate!


Since our exhibition contains many works that deal with the emotional consequences of loss and change, we would like to explore the move from a more personal angle. Beyond the practical implications of the project, how has Courtauld Connects affected you thus far on a more emotional level?

It is always rather moving to see how carefully the works are handled – treated like newborns and carefully swaddled in wrappings. It reminds you how precious and vulnerable works of art are – an enduring and timeless image like Van Gogh’s Self Portrait with a Bandaged really only survives as pigment clinging onto a thin canvas. It reminds us that our first duty as custodians of a great collection is to care and protect. And when those works are removed from their grand settings within a gallery and are put on a table or easel, or even taken out of their frames, their vulnerability and physicality is truly revealed. It changes your relationship with them somewhat. You see them differently.


As you prepared for the move, did you rediscover any works in the Courtauld Collection?

I was particularly pleased to be reunited with an old friend during this process, Kokoschka’s Prometheus Triptych, that I mentioned earlier. I hadn’t seen this monumental work for about ten years since mounting an exhibition devoted to it. It was great to be reminded of what a knock-out painting it is. This immediately made me feel guilty because it has been off display for so long – its enormous size makes it very difficult to show in our spaces. I felt doubly guilty because I recently reread Kokoschka’s letters – in them, he writes that he fears nobody will understand the painting and it will end up ‘in an attic’! I hope that now that it has been rediscovered, we will find ways of preventing it from disappearing again!

Interview by Camille Feidt and Helen Record


Further Reading:

Please find more information on the Courtauld Connects Project, the History of the Courtauld and our exhibition in the Learning Resource, available at the reception desk in the gallery or online

Exhibition Oskar Kokoschka: The Prometheus Triptych (29 June to 17 September 2007)


Title Image: Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Triptych – Apocalypse, 1950 (January to July), The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London/DACS 2003


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