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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Most Arrogant Man in France

Gustave Courbet
Yesterday afternoon while roaming through the crowded galleries of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, I came across a painting in the 19th century European paintings and sculptures section that seemed coarse yet real. It depicted a woman in nude standing beside a waterfall, and instead of the usual frontal nudes, this one depicted the woman’s behind.

Titled ‘The Source’, the painting was by a French artist Gustave Courbet.  I hadn’t heard of the artist before. The painting and the artist were in a section that housed some of the best known works and artists of the 19th century. And so while it was impossible to find space to view Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’, or Edgar Degas’s ‘Little Dancer’, nobody seemed interested in ‘The Source’.

The museum’s introduction to the painting explained, “This nude is painted in an unflinching natural style and is devoid of the trappings of academic allegory to which the painting’s tile alludes. Courbet is thought to have intended it as a response to (JeanAuguste Dominique) Ingres’s own La Source (1856, Musee d’Orsay, Paris), which was exhibited at the Galerie Martinet, Paris in 1861. The picture by Ingres depicts an idealized nude holding a jar from which water pours, as allusion to a spring or river source, and symbolizing poetic inspiration.”

Later in the evening, I browsed the internet to know more about Courbet, and discovered an artist who did everything that an artist should do – challenge preconceived notions of what should or shouldn’t constitute art. Courbet (1819-1877) created Realism in the mid-nineteenth century, and influenced early modernists such as Edouard Manet and Claude Monet. He rejected the then prevalent classical and theatrical style by focusing on the physical reality of the objects with all its imperfections. He introduced egalitarianism by making commoners his models, and painting their lives on a scale that had previously been reserved for either royalty or religion.

According to a website (www.gustavecourbet.org) dedicated to his work, “For Courbet Realism dealt not with the perfection of line and form, but entailed spontaneous and rough handling of paint, suggesting direct observation by the artist while portraying the irregularities in nature. He depicted the harshness in life, and in so doing, challenged contemporary academic ideas of art, which brought the criticism that he deliberately adopted a cult of ugliness.”

Courbet shook the French art establishment until then dominated by classicism that had been central to art since Renaissance. He forced the art community to consider an alternative vision that took cognisance of the prevailing sociopolitical and religious trends. He also declined the Legion of Honour that the despotic Napoleon III wanted to bestow upon him.

Active in the radicalization of the working class in France, he abandoned art briefly to serve the government during the Paris Commune of 1871. Courbet was put in charge of all museums and entrusted with the task of saving art from the rampaging mob that had taken over Paris. Subsequently, he was held responsible for carrying out the Commune’s decree of dismantling the Vendome Column erected by Napoleon I, and had to flee to Switzerland after he was ordered to pay for its reconstruction.

Courbet was opposed to the dominance of the state-sponsored art patronage and worked hard to establish a direct market for his work. He understood that an artist’s responsibility was not just to create art, but also sell it. He created new ways to create awareness about his art and himself, becoming one of the first artists to utilize the newly-available mass media of newspapers to create a wider audience for his work. Courbet’s efforts succeeded in getting women of Paris interested in art. (The Most Arrogant Man in France:Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture).

In a review of an exhibition of his works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2008, The New York Times’s Roberta Smith wrote, “Courbet virtually wrote the definition of the modern artist as a bohemian, narcissistic loner and political radical who shunned the academy, tutoring himself at the Louvre and living by the phrase “├ępater le bourgeois,” or “shock the bourgeoisie.” He emerged in Paris in the 1840s, when court patronage was long gone, but the modern art market was still in formation. He was quick to grasp the usefulness of three related, also nascent phenomena: newspapers, popular illustration and especially photography, with its new realism.” (Seductive Rebel Who Kept ItReal).

Forever a rebel, he called himself ‘The most arrogant man in France’; and continued to provoke the art establishment and the society with his paintings. In the late 1860s, he began to focus on eroticism depicting female genitalia and featuring two women in bed. Naturally, these works were banned. In fact, when his works were exhibited in New York, the John Golding in his New York Review of Books observed that the layout of the display was such that it allowed the guards to deny access to parties of schoolchildren.

Just a year before his death, he formed the Federation of Artists (Federation des artistes) for the free and uncensored expansion of art. The group’s members included artists such as Andre Gill, Honore Daumier, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Eugene Pottier, Jules Dalou, and Edouard Manet.

Courbet’s ‘The Source’ is an antithesis of Ingres’s original. Ingres was a preeminent artist in France in mid-nineteenth century. His painting defined him. Kenneth Clark, one of the best art historians of the last century, described Ingres’s 'The Source' as the most beautiful figure in French painting. Courbet’s ‘The Source’ eschews romanticism, and realistically depicts a woman’s anatomy in a manner that was considered rude, vulgar and unnecessarily provocative in the mid-nineteenth century.


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