In early December, I watched a programme on one of those channels you find only by chance. Called The Mona Lisa Curse, it was a polemic on today’s art world by the critic Robert Hughes. First broadcast in 2008, in the same week that Damien Hirst’s bull in formaldehyde was bought for £10.3 million, the timing would have been satisfying for the critic, who once described the artist’s shark in for maldehyde as ‘the world’s most overrated marine organism’.
The Mona Lisa title refers to Mr Hughes’s belief that everything that’s wrong with the art world today dates back to 1963, when Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous portrait was exhibited in New York. The Mona Lisa was treated ‘as though it were a film star. People came not to look at it, but to say that they’d seen it’.
But Mr Hughes’s fury was not about culture vultures who go to blockbuster shows. His rant was that, from the 1960s onwards, collectors began buying works of art not because they liked them, but because they expected a financial return. He had a go at hedge-fund managers and oli-garchs and all the usual bad boys, but he made a point that stuck with me: when some Russian oligarch ‘who has the GNP of Georgia in his back pocket and who started buying art three minutes ago’ enters the market, museums and public galleries can’t possibly compete. With his heart on his sleeve, Mr Hughes mourns that this will have a catastrophic effect on culture.
If inertia led me to the late-night repeat, fascination made me stick with it. A few weeks earlier, I’d celebrated my friend Ben Pentreath’s birthday. Stylish, clever, talented and generous, Ben held his party at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House. I’ve only been to its new (well, 20 years now) home in Somerset House a couple of times, but the timing of my return was perfect. The gallery has just completed a glorious refurbishment.
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If you want to look at paintings more than say you’ve seen them, this is your place. For a start, it’s the right size. Although the rooms are majestic, the collection has an intimacy and coherence unmatched by large museums. The paintings, hung broadly in chronological order, have space that allows you to concentrate. The feeling of light and space, combined with the richness of the collection-paintings that range from Renaissance to post-Impressionist masterpieces-makes this feel absolutely right.
Even more remarkable, this gallery in the heart of London is a university art museum. The collection began life as the Courtauld Institute of Art, founded 80 years ago thanks to the vision of three men: Samuel Courtauld, the textile magnate; Viscount Lee of Fareham, diplomat and collector; and lawyer Sir Robert Witt. Their first wish was to establish a place of scholarship, for the study of the history of art. Enlightened and humane, the men also believed that such scholarship required that works of art should be accessible to the students. In order to realise their vision, they made gifts of their own collections.
It’s hard to grasp the connection between money and art. The gallery’s most iconic painting, Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, was bought by Sam Courtauld in 1926 for £22,600. He purchased Vincent van Gogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear in 1928 for £10,000. Four-teen years ago, van Gogh’s Self-portrait without Beard sold in New York for $71 million. But Courtauld didn’t buy art as an investment. He bought pictures he loved-and believed in. His passion-and his expenditure-may have begun as the property of someone who could afford it, but his vision was to make it the common property of humankind.
I can’t honestly say that the Courtauld Gallery is an undiscovered jewel. It’s considered one of the finest small museums in the world. If you’re regretting not getting tickets to the da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, console yourself with a visit to the Courtauld. You won’t be sorry.