Moving Beyond Beauty

In "The Girl With Seagulls," Courbet lavished far better artistic detail on the dead birds than the human face. (The Metropolitan Museum Of Art)
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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008


Of all the jaw-dropping paintings in "Gustave Courbet," the landmark survey of the great French artist now at the Metropolitan Museum, the jaw drops farthest for one that was painted in 1866, for a Turkish diplomat in Paris. It is called "The Origin of the World." Even now, 142 years later, it's too shocking to be reproduced in these pages or on our Web site.

Good manners barely let us describe it.

The painting shows the open crotch of a naked woman, painted in such extreme close-up that her legs, arms and head, as well as most of her torso, are cut off by the edges of the canvas.

As you round a corner at the Met and come up to it for the first time, Courbet's "Origin" still feels extreme. So just imagine what it meant in 1866.

"There is a word for the people capable of this kind of filth," wrote one contemporary Frenchman, " . . . but I shall not pronounce it for the reader." Another described the painting as "a little monstrosity."

Except for their contempt, these writers got this picture right: It was meant to shock, by rewriting every notion of what fine art could be. It took old-fashioned ideas of beauty and aesthetics right out of the equation.

That's true, to a greater or lesser extent, of many of the more than 130 pictures in this Courbet survey. Yet what these works lack in beauty and gentility they more than make up for in excitement. There are few exhibitions that give so few occasions for complacency. Of course, our biggest challenge may be to take pictures that have now become official, "beautiful" masterpieces, and recognize just how far they once pushed beyond what anyone could like or understand. We need, in a sense, to get back to a point where we don't admire them or get them -- and realize that that's when we're getting them most right.

As has often been pointed out, in Courbet's hands even the famous source of the Loue River, in his native region of the Franche-Comt¿ on the eastern edge of France, becomes something dark and brooding, with more than a bit in common with his "Origin" picture. A favorite tourist destination becomes something that, by the standards of his time at least, is both forbidden and forbidding.

Courbet is often described as the genius at the source of all of modern art. That makes perfect sense, especially if you jump right from him to the most radical work of the past 40 years. He's the ancestor of Richard Serra throwing molten lead into the corner of a room, of Bruce Nauman screaming nonsense phrases into a video camera or of the feminist Cosey Fanni Tutti presenting porn shots of herself as art.

Most of the modern artists in between, from Monet to C¿zanne to Picasso and beyond, also claimed Courbet as a crucial predecessor. But where they mostly sought striking, even shocking new ways for a picture to look good, Courbet's art undermines the whole idea that forging such new styles is what a picture does. They came up with brand-new "isms" for art. His art works against the whole idea of ismism. His pictures careen from idea to idea, style to style, sometimes even within the bounds of a single frame. Courbet's art isn't meant to coin a new expressive language so much as offer us a string of tics, exclamations and curses.

"It is impossible to tell you all the insults my painting of this year has won me," Courbet wrote in a letter to his parents two days after his 33rd birthday, in 1852. "But I don't care, for when I am no longer controversial I will no longer be important." That controversy wasn't for the sake of fame and sales; it signaled that Courbet had broken bounds.

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