Gustave Courbetby Gustave Courbet
Published for an exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, this volume concentrates on Gustav Courbet's position as the first avant-garde painter. With his provocative canvases and his emphasis on the artist as individual, Courbet was a crucial precursor of modernism who broke with the conventions of traditional academic training. Featuring self-portraits, representations… See more details below
Published for an exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, this volume concentrates on Gustav Courbet's position as the first avant-garde painter. With his provocative canvases and his emphasis on the artist as individual, Courbet was a crucial precursor of modernism who broke with the conventions of traditional academic training. Featuring self-portraits, representations of women and pictures of grottos and seascapes, this volume highlights Courbet's innovative implementation of color and his strategic use of ambiguity. Other themes include his break with French academic tradition, the development of Realism in art, his revolutionary impasto painting technique and his playful treatment of traditional motifs and symbols. Courbet's famous painting "L'origine du monde" is at the heart of the book and exhibition. Made in 1866, the painting was for decades the unknown masterpiece of the nineteenth century-a work that few saw at the time but which everyone discussed, and which retains its provocativeness even today. Courbet's landscapes-depicting the springs, caves, steep limestone cliffs and the forests of Jura around Ornans, where he was born-are often combined with representations of the female nude, uniting sexuality and nature in a fascinating equilibrium. Other canvases center on the impenetrable darkness of mountain caves (showing Courbet to have been a master of suggestion), and snowscapes.
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Gustave Courbet '1819-1877' embraced the democratic ideas and values taking root in French Society following the overthrow of the French monarchy in the latter 1700s not only in his art, but in all other areas of his life as well. A moody bohemian-like person who naturally drifted to the margins of society, Courbet nonetheless sought political positions. At one time, he was the mayor of Paris's Sixth Arrondissement. Courbet is often simplistically labeled a painter of Realism. But he disapproved of this label and attention to the style, compositions, and innovations of his paintings disputes this as well. While Courbet's art patently and by intention marks a break with the formal, academicized, and rhetorical paintings popular with France's Ancien Regime, his turn to realism was not an attempt to depict nature with verisimilitude. The individuals of his paintings imply the broader, ideological reach of his paintings. As his contemporary the critic Castagnary put it, Courbet aimed to paint a democratic public 'with all the seriousness, strength, and character normally reserved for gods, heroes, and kings.' While Courbet replaced the later traditional subjects with the former contemporary ones, the dignified, to varying degrees romanticized presentation of such subjects carried over in Courbet's paintings. Courbet for instance never engaged in the caricature of Hogarth in England or even Daumier in his own country of newly-empowered democratic types crudely, vulgarly coming onto the social scene. Furthermore, Courbet 'is less concerned with presenting the truth [of nature as seen or experienced]...than with presenting solidity...[h]e seeks to express the materiality of the world around him.' Like Caravaggio or Rembrandt, Courbet often uses shadowing--i. e., shades of darkness--to bring out various literal and evocative dimensions of his subjects though this does not go nearly so far as Rembrandt in sometimes almost effacing the physicality of the subject. With Courbet, the physical is never lost. Although Courbet is not strictly a naturalist painter, the individuals and features of the natural world in his paintings ordinarily do have a naturalness of pose and ease of presence. Courbet's treatment of persons leaves the poses and coloration of those in the paintings of Manet--another 19th century French painter commonly regarded in the 'movement' of realism--seem mannered. Such are the precise artistic qualities 'instead of stereotyped' which make Courbet stand out as an exceptionally masterful painter as well as a historically important one. Courbet's interest in photography is another subject. Period photographs, some of nude women, are juxtaposed to paintings. Courbet's interest in the relatively new field of photography was more like a curiosity that there were certain coincidental affinities. Courbet was naturally interested in photography because it reproduced parts of the immediate, sensible world--as he did in his own paintings. This major study involving biography, criticism, art history, and a catalog of works is built on the Courbet exhibition at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art through mid-May 2008.