Moving Beyond Beauty
Gustave Courbet's Work Retains the Power to Shock

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008

NEW YORK

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.

In his mature works, Courbet's figures could have impossibly lumpy anatomies and faces, as though they'd been crudely modeled in clay. He troweled paint onto his landscapes with a palette knife; they can look as though they've had wet clay thrown at them. Like archaic swear words that are now in daily use, Courbet's techniques have lost their ferocity. It's worth imagining it back.

Courbet's subject matter could be equally disturbing. His Turkish patron commissioned a picture of two naked lesbians in bed that, if not as gynecological as the same buyer's "Origin of the World," was still plenty unsettling. The stunningly ham-fisted still life in the boudoir's bottom corner, and the incoherent space the whole scene is built around, may have disturbed the sophisticates of Paris even more than its naughty subject could.

In a huge 1853 painting called "The Bathers," contemporaries couldn't believe that they were being asked to admire nudes with dirty feet. Even Courbet's biggest fan, Alfred Bruyas, said it was his "duty" to buy the picture, "despite the strange forms, the puffy flesh, the folds, the rolls, the hollows and explosions of flesh."

But beyond even this evident, and I think deliberate, ugliness, what incensed Courbet's critics was that there seemed to be no point or meaning or moral in the picture, no take-home message, of any kind, to read into or out of its ugly subject.

Exactly.

Courbet refused the whole traditional idea of "meaning." His pictures deliberately frustrate our desire for interpretation.

Courbet's biggest and most famous painting of all is called "The Painter's Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up a Seven-Year Phase of My Artistic Life," which he showed in the pavilion the buyer of "The Bathers" built just for him near the grounds of the 1855 Paris Exposition. (The "Studio" has stayed in Paris, where it is one of the jewels of the Mus¿e d'Orsay.) The picture includes 30 obscure figures, and art historians have labored to figure out its symbolism. But I'm with most of Courbet's contemporary critics, and even the painter himself, in finding that what's striking about his central masterpiece -- as about so many of this show's images that once seemed equally impenetrable -- is its ultimate refusal to be read at all. "I dare anyone to make sense of it," the painter said, and in his own day no one who tried could. When Courbet declares the painting to be an "allegory," it's only to lead his meaning-hungry viewers by the nose. It's meant as a provocation rather than an invitation.

"I paint a picture, Mr. Collector, you can take it or not take it, but I will not change it, it is for you to comply with my decisions" -- those were the words that that other great artistic radical, Marcel Duchamp, imagined coming from his predecessor's mouth. (Duchamp riffed on Courbet's "Origin of the World" in his own last project.)

Courbet's most impressive pictures are about marshaling contradictions, not resolving them. In his 1865 "Girl With Seagulls, Trouville," three dead birds hanging from a stick are gorgeously, impressively painted in thick whites and blacks and grays. Yet the "beautiful" young blonde who bears that stick is as crudely rendered as Courbet at his worst. (By which I guess I mean the painter at his best.) That's the kind of role reversal you find in Courbet's many hunting scenes: dumb beasts, even dead ones, often get a gentler, more attentive treatment than the "victorious" humans who would normally be the focus of the artist's attention and care.

Even Courbet's very late and supposedly genteel still lifes, painted during and right after the prison term he got in 1871 for supporting the socialist rebellion in Paris, are full of similarly strange disjunctions. A bowl of fruit in one picture is ostensibly lit by the open window behind it and has shadows reaching forward to prove it. But every one of its apples and pears also has a second, contradictory series of shadows and bright highlights caused by the gaslight in Courbet's room. (Washingtonians may remember the painting as a standout in the "Impressionist Still Life" show at the Phillips Collection in 2001.) This picture takes a classic subject and suffuses it with the radical peculiarities of modern life.

One of the standard readings of Courbet has always been that his paintings reflect his radical politics. That his "realist" art -- he said that label had been "thrust upon" him, and didn't have much meaning -- was about giving voice to the modern world just as it really is, in the same way that his socialism was supposed to be about letting ordinary people have a voice in public life. His evenhanded eye was supposed to reflect a taste for evenhandedness in everything. I think that makes Courbet out to be too straightforward, in both his painting and his ideology. Courbet's radicalism was about a generic predisposition to break rules, rather than to break them to some single end. He steered clear of real activism until the close of his career because, as he'd long said, his paintings were his revolution.

"I have burned my boats, I have quarreled with society. . . . I must conquer or die," proclaimed Courbet -- after a fight with an arts administrator.

Courbet's early self-portraits from the 1840s, still executed at that point in a crisp, old-fashioned manner, depict him as a madman capable of anything. In one he's shown tearing at his hair, with bulging eyes. In another he's a wounded, dying genius. In a third he's a brooding, sensual visionary, smoking a pipe that might as well have hashish in it. (He once referred to the picture as his "Christ With a Pipe.") What the young Courbet hasn't realized, yet, is that he didn't have to be the hero of his gestures of rebellion. His way of making art could play that role for him.

Another early self-portrait, "The Man Mad With Fear," almost seems to illustrate that point. The young artist jumps off a cliff into the void -- which consists of nothing more than absolutely meaningless brush strokes.

Gustave Courbet runs through May 18 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York. Call 212-535-7710 or visit http://www.metmuseum.org.

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