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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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The Many Questions of Gustave Courbet

Monday, January 05, 2015

Gustave Courbet is not an artist who was especially familiar to me, until I visited a major new exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. After this comprehensive show, that samples pioneering works from across his career, I feel I know Courbet from many angles. What most impresses, across eight carefully choreographed rooms, is the range of his performance in paint: we start with early, sometimes quite conventional, portraits; move through brooding studies of the rock walls and caverns of the Loue river, near Courbet's home town of Ornans; end with studies of sea and weather that remind of Turner. Just as Picasso had his many periods, so too Courbet seems restlessly to have worked in multiple styles, focusing on different subjects.

Towards the end of the exhibition is Courbet's most famous work, L'Origine du monde. The close-up image of a woman's breasts and sex - the portrait has no arms, legs, or head - has the capacity to provoke, even now. One can only imagine the reaction 150 years ago, when the Egyptian diplomat Kahlil Bey, who commissioned the work, drew back the green curtains that concealed it. Whilst still striking, though, in some ways L'Origine du monde is one of the less engaging pictures in the exhibition. The interest of the painting is less about the work itself, than the way its title invites the viewer to interrogate it. Are we to see this as a woman placed at the disposal of the implied male viewer, all sex organs with no face to complicate the fantasy? Or are we being told that it is woman who has real power, inviting man's lust in order to fulfil her necessary and more important purpose of originating human life itself? Woman as lover; woman as mother. With this binary, it's not surprising that L'Origine du monde was once owned by Jacques Lacan. Whilst interesting in the sexual theories it prefigures, and the nineteenth century taboo that it defiantly broke, though, I don't think the painting is a particularly exciting one aesthetically, especially not when compared to some of the other works here.

What I find more interesting, both in its possible narrative and in its more complex and dynamic vision of female sexuality, is Courbet's beautiful Les Trois Baigneuses. In the centre of this image, a young girl seems set to slide, naked, into the dark pool below, but she is hesitant, balancing precariously on a tiptoe on a mossy rock. A dark-skinned, gypsy-like girl to her right appears to be at once providing a supportive arm, and also attempting to push her down. Somehow a bit mystical, her red skirt mirrors the fiery red hair of the woman to the girl's left - both colours seems to suggest sexual experience or energy. The second woman in the foreground of the picture, one leg already half-immersed in the murky green water, places her hand on the girl's arm. Like the posture of the gypsy-like woman, the gesture is ambiguous, possibly reassuring but perhaps also forceful. She faces away from the viewer, so we have to imagine her expression. Is she, too, urging her to step in, or is she expressing sympathy for her nervousness? Her fuller (pregnant?) womanly figure makes me read this as a painting about the loss of virginity, and the simultaneous anxiety and celebration of the move from childhood to adult womanhood. I do not fully buy into the possible Freudian readings of Courbet's numerous paintings of dark pools, black caves, dense woods through which figures, sometimes deer, sometimes a lone nude bather, try to penetrate. Les Trois Baigneuses succeeds for me by making this narrative more explicit, whilst also being a beautifully balanced work - notice the mirrored red and ginger of skirt and hair, the way the arch of the trees frames the woman, the eyelines of the three women, with the gypsy looking down into the mysterious pool, the girl anxiously out of the picture, and the ginger woman gazing up at the girl but away from the viewer. The subject of three bathers is, of course, a staple of Western painting, epitomised by Cezanne's later studies. This seemed to me to be a particularly evocative take on the theme.

Whilst Les Trois Baigneuses intrigues me, however, my favourite picture is the monumental Le Coup de vent, foret de Fontainebleau. I would say that this is unusual for Courbet's landscapes, because of its bright and wide colour palette. Ordinarily, he seems to confine his landscapes to a narrow range of dusky greys and browns. Then again, given this Courbet exhibition shows everything from a woman's genitalia to Turner-esque seascapes, I'm not at all sure what constitutes the "usual" for this artist. In this context, all we can say is that Le Coup de vent uses colour in a magnificently atmospheric way. There is that great whorl of a tree on the right, almost windmilling with the ferocious wind sweeping in from the left. Everything in the foreground is blurred, the paint laid on thick with the knife. It is like looking at a photograph taken with a very shallow depth of field, with the sharper focus only in the middle and far distance. Here, right in the centre of the picture, and seemingly missed (as yet) by the storm but instead captured in a pool of sunlight, is a villa. The painting was commissioned as part of the decoration for this villa, and it could be read as a celebrating an oasis amid a wild French landscape. On the other hand, the villa itself seems lost amid the trees, and lonely given there are no other signs of life visible between it and the range of mountains distantly but clearly in the background. This could, therefore, also be a reminder, in Romantic mode, of the power of the environment and the insignificance of human life within it.

As with most of Courbet's paintings, it is the ambiguity that I admire, the request that the viewer project and imagine what we are supposed to learn. What comes across in this exhibition is the sheer range of ways in which, in his choice of form and subjects, Courbet was able to ask such questions.

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Posted by Alistair at 2:45 pm

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