The Big Review: Gauguin and the Impressionists at the Royal Academy of Arts

Gallery view of Gauguin and the Impressionists at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

The 60 paintings had all arrived, ready to be hung—but then the coronavirus closure hit on 17 March. This was just 12 days before the planned opening of Gauguin and the Impressionists: Masterpieces from the Ordrupgaard Collection. Still in their crates, the pictures remained in the storeroom of Londons Royal Academy of Arts (RA).

The light-infused Impressionist works are now finally hanging. For art lovers, it brings joy to see paintings once again after months of lockdown, and it is an even greater pleasure when they are works which will be fresh for most British gallery-goers. But what is it like to view art in the coronavirus era? Masks are obligatory, making for a slightly uncomfortable experience. The upside is that there are few visitors, quite a contrast with the usual huddle around the paintings, especially in popular shows on Impressionism, and offering a welcome opportunity to savour the art close up.

The RA faced a logistical nightmare in sorting out its exhibition programme in the wake of the coronavirus closure. Among the dilemmas was what to present in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, inaugurated two years ago in the Burlington Gardens building. Originally Gauguin and the Impressionists was to have closed there on 14 June, to be replaced by Cézanne: the Rock and Quarry Paintings—a show that had opened at Princeton University Art Museum just a week before the US lockdown. Reluctantly, the RA cancelled Cézanne and opted to extend Gauguin and the Impressionists.

The RA faced a logistical nightmare in sorting out its exhibition programme in the wake of the coronavirus closure

The exhibition comes entirely from one place, the Danish-based Ordrupgaard collection. This made it logistically easier for the RA to get the loans extended, which would have been much more complicated for an exhibition with dozens of lenders.

Global tour

The Ordrupgaard is currently closed for building work and although it was due to reopen late this year, this has been delayed slightly and it is now scheduled for next spring—so the extension was readily agreed. London is the last stop on the Ordrupgaard touring show, which during the past three years of its building project has been presented in Paris, Ottawa, Padua, Martigny, Prague and Hamburg. Loan fees from seven venues will contribute towards the cost of the £16m extension, which has been designed by the Norwegian architects Snøhetta to provide improved display space for the French pictures and temporary exhibitions. The extension is being named Himmelhaven (heavenly garden), reflecting its site in a leafy suburb of Copenhagen.

The show presents just over half the Ordrupgaards French paintings, in general the finer works. The title of the RA exhibition should pull in the punters, but is slightly misleading. There are eight Gauguins, just over a tenth of the show, and only half the remainder are Impressionist works (the rest are mostly earlier, plus a few Post-Impressionist and Modern pictures).

As with many private collections, there is a fascinating story about the people behind it. The Ordrupgaard pictures were assembled in the early 20th century by Wilhelm Hansen (1868-1936), who made a fortune selling life insurance, and his wife Henny (1870-1951). They benefited from the First World War, when art prices were low, and bought voraciously from Parisian dealers. The Hansens also built a villa in Ordrup, an area in the northern outskirts of Copenhagen (“gaard” means country estate). In 1922 Wilhelm suffered a financial loss and had to sell off half of his collection, but his fortunes soon recovered and he then started buying again.

A masked (and socially distanced) visitor at the Royal Academy exhibition, with Monets Waterloo Bridge, Overcast (1903) in the background Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

In the RA exhibition, labels on the paintings mainly give just the artist, title and date, since, unlike a monographic show, most visitors here are unconcerned with a painters development (succinct labels are also good for social distancing). Although the Hansen story is briefly explained in wall texts, more detailed information and a few more early photographs of the interior of their villa would have been welcome, since it is the couples collecting that binds the show together. Normally such information would also be conveyed with an audioguide, but because of Covid-19 these are not available (an audio explanation can be downloaded onto a mobile phone).

The presentation is slightly confusing, at least in terms of chronology. The first room has mainly Impressionists (1860s to 1890s); the second one reverts to earlier 19th-century paintings; and the final room features “Impressionist Women” (with female artists or sitters), ending with a bang: the eight Gauguins.

The centrepiece of the Gauguin display is the striking portrait of Jeanne Goupil (1896), the nine-year-old daughter (looking rather older in the painting) of a French couple in Tahiti. The final two Gauguins feature Tahitian women, with the wall labels giving the now almost obligatory disclaimer: “His depictions of Polynesian women often reflect his fantasies of a supposedly ideal primitive society, which, probRead More – Source