Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gustave Courbet’s Exhibition @ MET

A Review: Gustave Courbet, Metropolitan Museum

Considering both the number of the works (about 130 works of Gustave Courbet are displayed) and the originality of the exhibition and its catalogue, this exhibition becomes one of the greatest exhibitions of Courbet’s work in the past 30 years (Brooklyn Museum, 1988, Courbet Reconsidered). Walking through the galleries of this exhibition can be considered the most productive way to learn about Realist movement in painting, which Courbet is known as its founder. The exhibition is on view until May 18th, so you still have time to catch up with it.

My initial interest in seeing this exhibition, as I mentioned here before, was to see about twelve 1850’s photographs of nudes displaying along Courbet’s painting. These photographs are works of Julien Vallou de Villeneuve, from 1939 to 1955 and Auguste Belloc.

These small B&W photographs are exhibited parallel to Courbet’s most controversial work, L'Origine du monde (1866) in a narrow corridor out of sight created by a freestanding wall. This corridor perhaps was the most crowded spot in the 2nd floor of MET. Packed with curious pairs of eyes, overwhelmed to be face to face with the origin of their being on a 46 × 55 cm canvas. People tried to escape this moment of revelation, hiding the shock in their wide-open eyes some with a fake gravity forced to their faces and some with their teeth-showing smiles. I, among their awkward expressions, was surprised by the size of the canvas: It looked large for the wall. L’Origine du monde was commissioned for the personal erotic collection of Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat and former ambassador, living in Paris at the time. The work was later owned by Jacques Lacan, the famous French psychoanalyst.

Next to Courbet’s L’Origine du monde is André Masson’s painting, Erotic Landscape of 1955. A painting Masson made upon Lacan’s request. I think neighboring these two paintings was smart.

Although the introduction to the exhibition refers to Courbet as “The pioneering figure in the history of modernism” it is not easy to picture Courbet’s figurative compositions and landscapes as what we see as modern forms of painting today. Usually people associate the modernism with Impressionism or Picasso’s cubist paintings or even more contemporary pieces of abstract art.

It may take some time to see that Courbet is indeed the pioneer of modernism. I believe modernism started by a great change in the choice of subject matter and in the manner of portraying it, “a style that aims to break with classical and traditional forms.” my dictionary says. When one puts Courbet’s works next to samples of the most popular art movements of his time: Romanticism and Neoclassicism, it becomes inevitable to accept him as a modernist; Realism depicts subjects exactly as eyes can see them and it rejects any dramatic additions. Realists show everyday situations, objects and figures.

Among other work in this exhibition, Bonjour Monsieur Courbet (1854) has the most enchanting blue, my eyes can ever imagine. Unlike most of Courbet’s paintings, where the horizon line is high and most of the composition happens on earth, in this painting the sky and the ground meet in the middle, providing a powerful force for the bright blue of the sky in the composition. Bonjour Monsieur Courbet or Le Rencontre, was one of the works Courbet showed in an independent exhibition in 1855, when he was extremely displeased with Parisian Salon, where often academically proved and mainstream painting were exhibited. In this painting Courbet represents himself (on the right) as he is greeted by two of his patrons. The details are amazing. We can see the buttons on Courbet’s boots and the braiding on the men's coats. Courbet places himself in the middle of the painting, very unusual for that time, his head is tilted, his chin is upward and he holds his stick as if manifesting an important matter. Everyone is looking at him, the dog, the men, and us. The critics harshly criticized this painting for its forwardness and the fact that the artist is the center of the painting.

One might think that the emergence of photography would be a disaster for any realist painter. Maybe but not for Courbet, for he embraced photography; the exhibition data explains that Courbet liked to be photographed and liked to pose with different facial gestures. Courbet saw photography as an aiding device. He used it to study modes of faces and human figures.

Cezanne’s famous landscapes and Still Life paintings easily can trace back to Gustave Courbet’s works such as, still life Fruit in a Basket (1871-72) and Rocks at Mouthier (1855).

As a personal coda I like to write about Stone Breakers, one of Courbet’s most important paintings, and one of my favorite pieces of art. Stone Breakers (1850) was destroyed in 1945 in Dresden in a bombing during the Second World War. It is not just the artistic value of this painting that makes it one of my favorites; to me it brings back my childhood memories and the first lessons in art history that I got from my father. His excited voice describing this boringly earth-like painting is still with me. I remember I made fun of him by saying that “he is old for liking such a dusty and brownish color painting showing two unfortunate men, whose faces we cannot even see.” Years later, when he saw my one-minute film, also my first film, having one long plan of a gravedigger with its back to the camera composed in the frame like Courbet’s Stone Breakers, he teased me back and said, “I see you got old too.” Three years after that when I sat in professor Flam’s class taking two whole classes teaching us Courbet and his Stone Breakers, I called my father. I called him just to let him know that if appreciating Stone Breakers makes one old, he should count me in as a fossil.

If you are in the big apple just take a bite of this exhibition; you still have time.

Bonjour Monsieur Courbet, Gustave Courbet, 1854


Behi said...

Roja joon, your review was just amazing!
I remember when I was little my biggest hobby was painting and drawing, I couldn't get enough of painting most of the time. I just gave it up from the time that I cannot even recall but the memory and its pleasant sense stayed with me till now. Sometimes I want to take an action and start all over again and do something about that just for my own sake but it never happens.

آدم گلابی said...

God! the things i learn about art and more when i read you!
Ciao and many thanks,

maryam majd said...

salam doste khobam!mamnonam az commentet darwebloge khob va giraie dari!kheili khomidvaram moafagho piroz bashi

maryam majd said...

nemidonam chera commente man nesfe nime shode!? nesfesh hast,nesfesh gheyb shode :(

Tameshk said...

Behi Joonam,
I certainly hope you start to paint again. It will make you happy more than you think. It was the case with me playing Santoor: I played for 10 years. and then by coming here I left my Saz, there. Two years ago I bought another Santoor here in the US, and I started again. It is amazing. Just amazing, the old feeling is back.I won't let it go ever again!

Adam Golabi Joonam
If these are even a bit helpful, I am more than happy.

Maryam joonam
Thank you!Your comment is here, don't worry.