Stephanie Buck joined the Courtauld Institute of Art in 2006 as its first Martin Halusa Curator of Drawing, a position that combines teaching students with organising exhibitions in its gallery, making use of the institute’s impressive 7000-strong drawings collection.
Highlights so far have included 2012’s Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings From The Courtauld Gallery and Young Durer: Drawing The Figure a year later. The next few months, though, see Buck take advantage of a brand new space. Last month, the Courtauld unveiled the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery, a room that will allow Buck to show more of the collection.
This month, the main gallery itself opens an unprecedented exhibition dedicated to drawings by the Spanish master Francisco Goya, bringing together the uncanny works from a private book of his known as the Witches and Old Women Album. This bizarre collection ranges from the witty to the macabre, with its focus on sinister crones and more playful senior citizens.
You have made drawing central to your work as a curator. What is the attraction?
Stephanie Buck: ‘I love paper! There is a fragility and openness to drawing that allows an intimate study of art and encourages slow consideration, different to how we consume most images these days. The thought processes behind drawings are more apparent, because they begin simply with a line on a page; and the viewer can approach them more easily from their own perspective with less assumptions than more public works.
‘And I love the variety — they can be conceptual and intellectual, part of a process that you can follow, or finished works of art, but even if it’s a pastel rather than a pen drawing, you get that clarity of process compared to a varnished painting. It feels very contemporary, a direct link between conceptualising something and putting it down in physical form.’
How important is the drawings collection to the Courtauld and the art world generally?
‘Apart from the size of the collection, it mirrors the Courtauld’s main holdings, that range from the 15th century to the 20th century and the present day. It includes all the major schools — Italian, Flemish, German, French and, of course, British artists. It is an important resource for students from around world, but it can also help people generally reach a deeper understanding of art, which is an important part of my job.’
Witherford Watson Mann, winners of the 2013 Stirling Prize for Architecture, have designed the new gallery, which used to be a storage room for paintings. How have they reconfigured the space to show drawings?
‘We have raised the roof and lowered the ceiling slightly, brought in sympathetic lighting and heating, but I think the main thing is the balance of the room; it is not too large. Of course, you can show drawings in any size of room, but this gives an intimate feeling, while bringing drawings out of the back rooms where you usually find them. And it mirrors the Print Room on the other side of the building, which is a nice symmetry.’
You have gone deep into the collection for your opening exhibition, Unseen (until 29 March), focusing on pieces not seen in public for two decades. Any surprises?
‘Well, it is extraordinary we have a Rubens [Female Nude] that has not been shown in all that time. That is a beautiful work, but we also have pieces by unknown people such as Valentin Klotz [View of Grave after the siege of 1875], who wasn't even an artist. He was an army engineer, who drew this village after a bombardment — it is from the bequest of Robert Witt, an important source for our collection, who was always seeking new names.’
Meanwhile, in the main gallery you have the upcoming Goya exhibition, from an album scattered shortly after his death. What has been the biggest challenge in bringing all these works together?
‘The exhibition only make sense if you have them all. These are some of the most prestigious things you can ask for and they are all over world. It is only by bringing the album together in sequence through forensic research that we can see how he unfolds his thoughts and how he engages with picture-making, especially by putting them in the context of drawings from other albums.
‘One sheet is still missing, number nine, so perhaps someone will say, “Here it is!” The other challenge is to understand how they are made and what they are. We have worked with the leading scholar of Goya’s drawings, with conservators and had workshops in America discussing this.’
Witches and Old Women sounds like a collection of grotesque images. Presumably there there is a good deal more to it than that...
‘The private albums captured his private thoughts, hopes and dreams.... I think [here] he’s exploring the dark side of human nature and also the limitations of age. He’s quite old himself when he’s doing this, quite deaf, with an amazing career behind him. He's exploring the nightmares he might have encountered himself. Witches had been a topic throughout his career, but he picks them up again late in his life as a metaphor for the unknown.’