Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Gustave Courbet

“Since I must always be an exception to the general rule in everything and everywhere, I am going to pursue my destiny.” Gustave Courbet, November 30, 1837.

Realizing that this imminent grève, (strike), by all metro and rail workers scheduled to hit France late Tuesday night might cause some transportation conflicts (understatement of the year), I decided to take a late afternoon trip to Grand Palais http://www.rmn.fr/gngp-gb/to visit the much discussed Gustave Courbet exhibition.

It was a bit chilly and nearing dusk when I made my way over. After a gruff encounter with the guard who decided to interrogate me like I just robbed a candy store rather than mistakenly walking up the stairs to enter the museum (having missed the queue which was tucked back behind a temporary trailer), I waited in a ten-minute line and headed, finally, indoors.

The exhibition is nicely installed with a suite of several rooms on the ground and second floors of the museum. Self-portraits, portraits, countryside and landscapes dominate the exhibition. Courbet was a realist painter who occasionally painted provocatively and often, he did not. He is beloved for his grand ego, radical polictics, and his bold nod to history painting such as “In the Artists Studio,” or “The Burial at Ornans,” a painting that was in fact rejected from the Salon of 1855. Courbet, notably offended by this dismissal, decided to rent a space nearby the salon, hang the gigantic painting and charge admission. The text says that this gesture liberated artists from tradition…I’d like to see this as a first gesture towards the development of the alternative art space.

Not surprisingly the most trafficked room seem to be the ‘Nude Room,’ a likely reason for Courbet’s lasting fame. (Just a hunch that is was not the series of waves crashing on the shore works in the previous room). Lushly painted, voluptuous nudes in quite suggestive poses are accompanied by a suite of 1850s-60s photographs of similar scenes. The highlight of course, is “The Origin of the World,” and it was funny to watch the general response to people looking at it. Most didn’t move in for a closer inspection of paint application as they may have done say with the earlier landscape paintings. Instead I was jostled by several gentlemen as they maneuvered their way in to view the peek-a-boo boxes on the wall, behind which held small pornographic photographs taken in the late 1800s. Maybe that was a more comfortable viewing method for people.

In any event, after that the rest of the show seemed less exciting. Maybe Courbet was less excited too. Large scenes of hunting chases set in a winter landscape with animals that looked a little cartoony, in my opinion, and a bit disappointing. In his last years he spent time in prison for his support of the Paris Commune and an order he made to destroy the Vendome column for its representation of the former Napoleon regime. Courbet’s last works, many done from prison, were appropriately nature-morte with large apples, pears and the like in degrees of decomposition. In general though, Courbet took risks that clearly helped pave the way for Cezanne, Manet and the Impressionist painters who followed closely on his heels and he died a hero and as a symbol of French pride and history.

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