Today, when we consider live music in gallery spaces we’re perhaps more likely to think of feverishly boho Dalston or downtown New York mash-ups, if not The Velvet Underground jamming at Andy Warhol’s silver Factory (or that city’s minimalist composers getting their early exposure in loft galleries after being rebuffed by the conservatoire). But, of course, there are all kinds of art and all kinds of music; the wonder is how infrequently the potential synergy between the two creative spheres is truly explored in a gallery context. Which is one reason why the Courtauld Gallery’s monthly series of musically enhanced evening Lates offers such a refreshingly rarefied yet uplifting marriage of the visual and the sonic, as Angèle David-Guillou discovers.
The Courtauld Gallery may well be London’s most famous hidden gem; one of those under-explored places that everyone who has visited once will visit again and again. This small but perfectly formed museum, set within the impressive 18th century Somerset House building, is rightly publicised as “one of the nest small art museums in the world”, having the delightful specificity of presenting outstanding works of art in an intimate, even personal, setting. It also hosts some of the best late openings in London– confidential yet bounteous, instructive and compelling at the same time and, perhaps even more distinctively, musical.
Founded in 1932 as part of the Courtauld Institute of Art (specialising in the study of the history of art and conservation), the Courtauld Gallery is the result of a series of gifts and bequests by 19th and 20th century collectors, not least English industrialist Samuel Courtauld. The latter is largely responsible for the collection’s iconic Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which he collected in the 1920s. us, in the first- floor rooms Manet’s Bar Aux Folies-Bergère holds salon with Renoir’s La Loge and Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, to cite but a remarkable few. Elsewhere, the museum houses treasures from the early Renaissance up until the second half of the 20th century (paintings, prints but also drawings, sculptures, decorative art, etc.) including an altar piece by Bernardo Daddi, Cranach’s beautiful Adam and Eve.
This plurality is reflected in the temporary exhibitions organised three times a year, usually highlighting one particular masterwork from the collection and putting it in the context of other borrowed art. It is to celebrate these seasonal events, that the Courtauld Lates take place an average of one evening a month. For the modest entrance fee of £6, the viewer is invited to commune with the pictorial collection, an experience enhanced not by the usual alcoholic mediations, but through live music, interlaced with creative workshops and talks. Here, more than anything else, it is the harmony of the spheres that lifts the spirits and places the audience in closer contact with the oeuvres on display. Superb musicians provide the extraordinary soundtrack to the nights, and award visitors with a rare holistic experience of visual art – historical and cultural, but also sensory and sensual.
‘I did not expect to go to a late opening in a museum and be touched by a sense of art history in such a way’
At the Young Dürer Late evening, staged back in January, The Bagatino Trio performed 15th and 16th century compositions by Ludwig Sen , Paul Ho aimer, Georg aw and Jacob Obrecht. The audience listened reverentially as the warm sound of baroque recorders (each cut from the same tree, we were told) filled the rooms and let the mind wander a few centuries back. The contrapuntal melodies, as beautiful as they were, were not being produced simply for entertainment’s sake or to say ‘And now some tunes from Dürer’s time’; there was a palpable discourse behind the material chosen, in particular, the resonance of Italian style on Germanic music, which echoed the influence of artists such as Antonio Pollaiuolo and Andrea Mantegna on Dürer’s early drawings. Later, during the intervals, a drawing workshop and fascinating talks gave insights into the artist’s techniques and creative context. Finally, to conclude the evening, the Courtauld’s own Community Choir, under the direction of Joseph Timmons, sang music by Heinrich Isaac and JS Bach and enticed the audience to join in for the epiphany songs We Three Kings from Orient Are and Wassail, leaving professionals and dilettantes alike with the satisfying feeling of completion.
By a turn of synchronicity, as I was leaving the building, I stopped by a series of new drawings by Richard Serra, commissioned by the Courtauld. I could not help but imagine if instead of the baroque trio we had heard that night, Philip Glass or Steve Reich had performed their early work in this very room, amidst Serra’s work, just like they did some 40 years ago in the loft galleries and art museums of New York City.
Two months later, the gallery unveiled the next in their series of Late events, tying in with the exhibition Court and Craft, which considered the luxury craft tradition of Northern Iraq before and after the Mongol invasion, with a small, metal lady’s bag delicately inlaid with gold and silver as a centrepiece. This time, Francesco Iannuzzelli at the oud, accompanied by Lucile Belliveau on the double bass, performed music from the classical and traditional Iraqi and Persian repertoire dating from the 13th century onward. The sophistication of the compositions, as well as their minimalism, perfectly illustrated the subtlety and complexity of the courtly art and Mosul metalwork on show. A very detailed programme explained the origin of the classical repertoire of Iraq and in particular the notable impact of Sa al-Din al-Urmawi’s theory of music and compositions. In an adjacent room, an Iraqi artist introduced and then demonstrated the methods and materials of Persian calligraphy. I was particularly fascinated by the ritual of the slicing of the tools: a simple piece of reed was transformed in front of our eyes into the most advanced and multifaceted art implement.
To see artists perform and create among pieces of art conveys in the most directly perceptible way that there is a creator and a performer behind the art, not just a ‘feeling individual’ with a personal life story (which is what most museum catalogues too often concentrate on), but a working craftsman. The choir, with its communal singing, partakes, I think, in a similar experience – a highly unusual one. Interestingly, the fact that, unlike for Glass and Reich, the performances take place away from the exhibition it is supposed to complement, allows the visitors a totally unspoiled appreciation of each art form. The interdisciplinarity is never synonymous with cacophony; each artistic point of view can be enjoyed in its full form.
I did not expect to go to a late opening in a museum and be touched by a sense of art history in such a way. I was already won over by Persian craftsmanship but was much more reticent about Dürer’s drawings. However, the musical element opened a hidden door and allowed me to access his work differently. After the performance I felt an urge to go back and look at his drawings once again, with a renewed outlook. I wonder why galleries so rarely organise this kind of event. Perhaps it is better this way, as not everyone would be able to pass on so much pleasure with the dedication and authority of the Courtauld Institute and its staff . I really do highly recommend these Lates. Not only will you be able to admire beautiful art, but you will have a wonderful evening, both enriching and entertaining.