Sunday, March 30th, 2008

Gustave Courbet

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave, at 82nd Street
New York City

Gustave Courbet The Valley of the Loue in Stormy Weather 1849 oil on canvas, 21-1/4 x 25-5/8 inches Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg
Gustave Courbet, The Valley of the Loue in Stormy Weather 1849 oil on canvas, 21-1/4 x 25-5/8 inches Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg

Envy the nineteenth–century French citizen. He or she witnessed a procession of art movements headed by remarkable painters: Neo-classicists David and Ingres; Romantics Géricault and Delacroix; Corot, the bridge between classicism and Impressionism. Today’s museum-goers might prefer Manet, whose flattened planes and down-to-earth nudes sounded some of the first notes of modernism. Monet and van Gogh might be the most popular of all.

And then there’s Courbet (1819-1877), who occupies a category all his own. Founder and chief proponent of the school of Realism, his paintings shocked his contemporaries not because of their verity but because of their unsentimental depictions of the ordinary. Philosophically, his libertarian views were actually rather confused and self-serving, and his stated goal – “I have simply wished to assert the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality within a total knowledge of tradition” – could have led to the tritest of results in lesser hands. His formidable talents and focus as a painter, though, show in some of the most riveting canvases of the 19th century. His stunning gifts for recreating his environment in the plastic forces of paint – forces lending themselves poorly to theorizing or wall texts – inspired countless later artists, including Matisse and Picasso, who both owned paintings by the master.

Courbet’s achievement as a painter vastly outweigh his contributions as a philosopher, but it’s the intellectual ramifications of his work that has kept it in the critical limelight over the last several decades. Historians and critics such as Linda Nochlin, Sarah Faunce, and T. J. Clark have variously addressed the political and sexual implications of Courbet’s work, his self-identification with rural society, and his entrepreneurial drive and manipulations of his audience and the press.

The Metropolitan Museum’s extraordinary retrospective marks the second major exhibition of his work in New York in the last two decades, following the Brooklyn Museum’s 1988-89 “Reconsidering Courbet.” According to the exhibition catalogue’s introductory essay, the installation represents an attempt to view the artist in the context of his own time, rather than through a postmodernist lens. The installation in fact seems to strain to engage both popular and scholarly interest, emphasizing sensational aspects of the artist’s work, his entrepreneurialism, and the impact of photography, a medium that has only acquired critical cachet in our time. Scaled back from its previous installation at the Grand Palais in Paris, the installation at the Met omits key works too large and fragile to travel. Nevertheless, this leaves much to savor in the 130 paintings and drawings by one of the 19th century’s artistic giants.

Gustave Courbet The Preparation of the Dead Girl ca. 1850-54 oil on canvas, 77 x 99 inches Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the Drayton Hillyer Fund
Gustave Courbet, The Preparation of the Dead Girl ca. 1850-54 oil on canvas, 77 x 99 inches Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the Drayton Hillyer Fund

Courbet was essentially untutored, and, one suspects, untutorable. Apart from early studies near his hometown of Ornans, his art education consisted mostly of copying the masters in Parisian museums. This study instilled a powerful sense of the classical pacing of a composition, though one not necessarily connected with svelte, three-dimensional modeling or logical plottings of space. By traditional standards of rendering, awkward moments abound in his paintings: the flattening contours in his portraits of Jo Hiffernan, for instance, or the floating overlaps in his commemorative portrait of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.

Above all, a singular sense of color animates and coheres Courbet’s paintings. His hues are not necessarily pretty or bright; he mines their profounder, subtler powers, measuring the weight of one against the other, so that they press upon and give way to each other in extraordinary, tense orchestrations bound by his bold and eccentric drawing. His mountainsides and bouquets, no less so than his human figures and hunted beasts, preside monumentally in his canvases. Put another way, his images are vitally real within the artifice of painting, rather than inventories of descriptive moments.

The works at the Met are arranged largely by the themes that successively preoccupied the artist: self-portraits, monumental figure compositions, nudes, landscapes, hunting scenes, and still lifes. A gallery full of early self-portraits reveals a naïve, meticulous romanticism, which becomes increasingly robust and confident under the influence of the masters. Courbet’s hues capture the folds of fabric and sheen of fur and hair with luxurious restraint in “Self-Portrait with Black Dog” (1842), in which the broad contours of drawing – the sweep of hat containing the up-tilted head, the rising arc of the spaniel’s spine – restrain their pressures. As with most of his figure paintings, the artist’s expression is one of impassive self-absorption. The spaniel’s evokes the native intelligence that would reappear in later portraits of hunting dogs, trout, and stags – and arguably, trees and rocks as well.

In another impressive self-portrait, “The Wounded Man” (1844-54), the arcs of facial features again energize a tilting head. The brow, in fact, peaks improbably above one eye, but Courbet’s constructions are emotive rather than literal, concentrating on the dramatic emergence of the head from the splay of collar.

The theatrically wide-eyed, hair-tearing image of the artist in “The Desperate Man” (1844-45) adorns all of the exhibition’s promotional materials. The catalogue entry describes this very untypical self-portrait as a key work, as if revelatory of an inner state not apparent elsewhere in his paintings. This strikes me as an underestimation of Courbet’s purposes; its masterful modeling suggests a conscious exercise, and a consistency of attack rather than inadvertent self-exposure.

In a gallery of paintings illuminating the impact of his Ornans upbringing, an early landscape shows his peculiar painting powers already fully in place. “The Valley of the Loue in Stormy Weather” (1849) locates with sensuous rigor the broad elements of earth and sky: elusive blue-grays streaking across the top, concentrating in a plunge to the horizon; a band of pale cliffs emerging immediately below, held by the late-afternoon sun – they seem touchably close in their precise distance; hugging the canvas’ lower edge, a leafy foreground that launches the unrolling of space to the cliffs. The horizon lies just over half way up the canvas, but so charged are hues of sky and land that we sense proximity and release rather than bisections of a surface. Here Courbet has made a kind of secular cathedral out of nature’s luminous topography. In the far larger “Young Ladies of the Village” (1851-52) hanging nearby, his hues give regal weight to several figures in an enveloping landscape somewhat similar to that of “Stormy Weather.” (His vibrant characterization of the scene was lost on contemporaries who found the figures indecorous.)

The three most important works of this early period – “Afterdinner at Ornans” (1848-49), and the two colossal canvases “A Burial at Ornans” (1849-50) and “The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing Up a Seven Year Phase of My Artistic Life” (1855) unfortunately stayed in France. But the installation does include a life-size diagram of “The Painter’s Studio,” with Courbet’s actual portrait studies superimposed over the corresponding portions of the image. Several contemporaneous photographs join these paintings, among them an image of one of Courbet’s models, posing somewhat as she does in “The Painter’s Studio”; it hints intriguingly at the artist’s working methods. The purpose of two unrelated photographs of laborers is less clear. The thinking seems to be: Photographs, as unblinking records of life, are relevant to Realism; Laborers signify the artist’s proletarian sympathies; Photographs of laborers are especially evocative of Courbet’s purposes. This post-modernist multi-media collage, plus the more sensational aspects of the exhibition – the wall texts’ endless assertions of how the artist courted controversy, the foregrounding of the over-the-top “The Desperate Man,” the stereoscopic viewer with contemporaneous pornographic photographs stationed among the paintings of nudes – suggest that the museum, unsure on which points to engage its audience, tries every means at hand.

Luckily, the astonishing, unfinished “The Preparation of the Dead Girl” (ca. 1850-54) provides some notion of the impact of “The Painter’s Studio.” Some historians believe this large painting actually represents the preparation of a bride for her wedding, but despite these wildly divergent interpretations, Courbet’s pictorial convictions are unequivocal. Broad swathes of green, ochre and pale blue gray become the walls of a large interior animated by the movements of over a dozen female figures. To one side, the vigorous, horizontal gestures of two women folding sheets form part of a series of concentric enclosures of space, with each interval richly evocative of a new degree of illumination. On the other side, figures lean at various, countering angles into a lighter, open space. At the center, the gestures of two women swirl magisterially about a mirror held by the corpse/bride. Once more, colors are restrained, but lend a gravity to poses that gather with eloquent force.

Gustave Courbet Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine 1856-57 oil on canvas, 68-1/2 x 81-1/8 inches Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris
Gustave Courbet, Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine 1856-57 oil on canvas, 68-1/2 x 81-1/8 inches Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris

A series of society portraits mark Courbet’s rising stature in the 50s, among them the impressive “Madame Auguste Cuoq” (ca, 1852-57) and “Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone)” (1856) from the Met’s own collection. But Courbet’s most striking and provocative foray into contemporary Parisian society is “The Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine” (1856-57), which shows to full advantage the strange combination of sensitive observation and brute manipulation at the heart of his attack. Courbet’s unerring color wondrously captures the half-illumination of a scene under a shadowing tree, with the multiple, shaded greens joining as the grassy plane supporting the two great forms of the figures. The two young women recline one in front of the other, with the massiveness of “ships passing in the night,” as a former teacher of mine memorably put it. The dramatic shifts of scale turn a journey across the canvas – from uncurling forefinger, across folds of garments and rustling leaves to the patch of sky diagonally opposite – into a momentous event.

And a horrible one, too. Viewed less sympathetically, the face extends like a bulbous growth from a linebacker’s neck, while her body, with its twist of garments and relentless horizontal thrust, recalls the rhythms of a steamship’s giant propeller. Courbet obviously intended to provoke his audience with the image of a sultry-eyed, half-undressed woman – and a gentleman’s hat perched on the nearby rowboat – but this notion would be forgettably banal without the shocking power and bizarre mixture of finesse and ungainliness with which he consummates it. Courbet is one of the very few painters to rival Titian’s breadth and weight of gesture, but his machinery for achieving it tends to be considerably less graceful.

“Sleep” (1866) and “The Origin of the World” (1866), which have inspired so many discourses about the male gaze, occupy places of honor in a section devoted to nudes. Their imagery is certainly lascivious, but it’s telling that both were commissioned works that indulged the taste of a collector. Moreover, both reflect Courbet’s usual discipline of color and line. The current critical infatuation with the splay-legged “Origin” – a catalogue essay places this small composition among his “most ambitious and most complex” nudes – says more about current tastes than Courbet’s; the painting intrigues, ultimately, in exactly the same manner as his landscapes: in the palpable intensity with which hills roll and overlap, and present themselves and retire. Similar claims can be made for “Sleep,” which is notable for the authority with which the two intertwined nudes ply a diagonal across the canvas before dividing into delicate divergences of legs. As a painter, Courbet ravishes a nude in the same manner as he would a tree or a trout: for the visual evidence of its expressive physicality.

One unexpected feature of the exhibition is a roomful of contemporaneous landscape photographs by Gustave Le Gray (1820-1884). These show how the practitioner of another, then-new medium found his own ways of capturing the mysterious gleam of light on water and the lowering of dark clouds. His means are completely different from a painter’s, his manipulations limited to selecting and broad adjustments. Though beautiful in their own right, for me these photographs shed no more light on Courbet than would samples of contemporaneous literature or music.

Courbet moved with some freedom between figures, portraits, and landscapes, which means that in the thematically-arranged installation, adjacent canvases may date from the same year or decades apart. This makes for some fascinating comparisons. Among the nudes, the very early Bacchante (ca. 1844-47), with its careful, evenhanded rendering, hangs next to the “Sleeping Blonde” (1849); the second painting, although produced a mere few years later, is far more focused, with forms building massively towards the distant gesture of the turning head. (The wall text records the assessment of its owner, Henri Matisse: “Now he brings me back to Rembrandt.”) The planes of a pond and field wheel beneath the dominant, rising bluffs of “Rocks at Mouthier” (ca. 1855); this muscular image seems almost baroquely complex compared to “The Wave” (1869), with its dense, primal bands of water and sky. Among the many hunting scenes, a man and dog step delicately through a scene of elegantly opposed trees and highlighted antlers in the “German Hunter” (1859); in “After the Hunt” (ca. 1859), locations are so clumsily fixed that a rabbit could be either a loose projectile or another bit of kindling on a heap of stiff animals.

The exhibition exits into the anteroom for the entrance, so one can immediately re-enter the show. Visitors who do may be struck by the immediacy and coherence of certain early works like “The Cellist” (1847) that anticipate works produced two decades later. Or, museum-goers can wander back down the hallway lined with work by academic painters – the Regnaults and the Messioniers – to measure the height and breadth of Courbet’s achievement. It’s tempting today to celebrate Courbet for his celebrity, and savor just the peccadilloes of his personality. But better to find what originally earned him the admiration of Delacroix and Manet and Cézanne. Courbet claimed to record visual experiences purged of all rules and conventions. To a startling extent, this is exactly what he did, and to glorious effect.