‘Artists at Work’ is an exhibition that is currently taking place at the Courtauld gallery and comprises a series of drawings from the Katrin Bellinger Collection. Although the show is impeccably hung with all drawings placed at eye level in a magnificently lit and air coned room which has exquisitely been painted in a chic hue of greyish green, the show itself feels pointless and snobbish. The curatorial concept is what I would call ‘Google-ish’ by which I mean that exhibits images that have been found as illustrations for a concept with is, more or less, ‘artists representing themselves at work’. Maybe that is the reason why the catalogue’s essay (‘Deanna Petherbridge’s ‘Playful Images of Allegory and Actuality’) comes accross as a pompous exercise of art historical connoisseurial muscularity.
Clockwise the drawings shown are: ‘Landscape with an artist sketching’ by the Master of the Mountain Landscapes (1606), ‘Ar artist seated by a tree’ by Lambert Doomer (early 1660s), Jan de Bisschop’s ‘Two artists drawing an antique bust’ (1660), Hubert Robert’s ‘An artist drawing beside a statue of Jupiter’ (1762), Georg Edouard Gehbe’s ‘A painter in a forest surprised by a deer’, Carlo Laburrzi’s ‘The Colosseum seen from the Palatine Hill’ (1760s), Ermenegildo Antonio Donadini’s ‘The artists’ (1877), Horst Janssen’s ‘The atelier of the sculptor Remo Rossi in Locarno’ (1972), Anonymous -French School?’s ‘An Artist’s studio with a covered easel’ (1896), George Grosz’s ‘Good Times’ (1940), Egon Schiele’s ‘Officew at the Mühling prisoner-of-war camp’ (1916), Adolph von Menzel’s ‘Studies of a man painting’ (1888) and James Ensor’s ‘View of the artist’s studio’ (1882). As it could be appreciated the criteria is almost cronological and jumps from the Early Modern period to German Expresionism without further reason or explanation. Uncannily for an institution of that caliber, the curators have decided to leave those images that represent the traces of the artist at work. I am referring to Durer’s hand as the hand represented but also as the hand that draws or Courbet’s body as the artist represented by proxy inside the image at the moment of creating the image. For this show, the only way of representing the artist at work is the Rückenfiguren which is the artist represented inside the image showing his back to the viewer. That is, to say the least, reductive.
Curators Deanna Petherbridge and Anita Vila Sganzerla did not consider the relationship between the bodies of the artists and the viewer as the topic but instead they decided that a Google search of sorts of images that represent artists working was enough. The catalogue is composed by the images and a text written by Petherbridge which is an exhausting an unnecesary academic survey on the iconography of Saint Luke as the first artist to be represented at work. Petherbridge seems so passionate about this topic that goes on and on but she does so without addressing the exhibition at all. A second part of the essay is dedicated to ‘Apelles’ dedication to drawing’ and the different ways he was represented through art history as the other quintessential artist at work. At this point, the viewer/reader perceives an obsession with the tradition of the iconographic representation as an excuse to display erudition as ‘show off’ connoisseurship. That is not the way art is discussed in academic circles but the way it is discussed between art dealers and their clients. The question is why the Courtauld Gallery is staging a show that speaks the banal language of the Old Masters art market and the answer is that this drawings have been lent by Mrs Bellinger who is an art dealer. Is the Courtauld being used as an advertising platform for private dealings?
Katrin Bellinger used to be a partner at London art dealers Colnaghi for 13 years until the company was merged with Spanish gallery Coll & Cortez in 2015. She is a player in the buying and selling of the kind of art shown at this exhibition and the lack of historicised context makes it a rather embarrassing example of how institutions are unashamedly being functional to the interests of the private market.