Gustave Courbet, “Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine, été (Young Ladies on the Banks of the Seine, Summer),” 1856–1857.
Oil on canvas, 174 x 200 cm.*
The French painter Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) ranks among the most fascinating nineteenth-century artists. He is regarded as the crucial pioneer of political realistic painting and as a revolutionary of the Paris Commune. But Courbet also had an entirely different side: he was one of the great dreamers in history. In his portraits, but also in his landscapes, drawings, and still lifes, he depicts a world of absorption and introversion—in stark contrast to the frenzied industrialization of his age. One hundred works from eleven countries will present this “other” Courbet for the first time in the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt from October 15, 2010 to January 30, 2011. The exhibition reveals how Courbet, from a starting point in German Romanticism, realized the vision of a poetic art of Modernity, later to be further developed by Cézanne and Picasso, as well as in the schools of Symbolism, Surrealism, and Magic Realism. Why so many contemporary artists refer to Courbet may also result from the somnambulistic sensualism, which many of Courbet’s works radiate, and their immersion into remote areas concealed from the outside world.
Gustave Courbet, born into a middle-class family in Ornans near Besançon in the Franche-Comté region in 1819, has always been regarded as an advocate of socially committed art. His painting “The Stonebreakers” from 1849 (probably destroyed in 1945), which shows two day laborers without covering up their wretched everyday hardship, has often been cited as an example in this context. Courbet’s work has also been associated with his engagement in the Paris Commune. It was in 1873 when the artist alone was blamed for the dismantling of the Vendôme Column erected in celebration of the Napoleonic Wars by the Paris Commune in May 1871. Before he was sentenced to pay the expenses for its re-erection, he took refuge in Switzerland, where he died in La Tour-de-Peilz on Lake Geneva in 1877.
Courbet’s contemporaries, such as the writer Jules Champfleury and the philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, considerably contributed to Courbet’s image as an advocate of Realism, which still dominates our understanding of his art. Unflinching veracity, the treatment of socio-political subjects, and the depiction of people in their daily routines are considered essential features of the Realist movement, which harked back to seventeenth-century Spanish and Dutch painting. In Germany, where during the 1850s Courbet was particularly revered in Frankfurt and Munich, he was held in even greater esteem than in France as a pioneering painter of the Realist movement. However, the definition of realism also implies a component that goes beyond the pure portrayal of an object. For, as a rule, the artist who looks at things from a realist perspective and thus renders them in a truthful fashion intends to overcome this “bad” reality by doing so: unlike naturalism, realism contains an idealistic impulse.
In the Schirn’s exhibition, this phenomenon of realism is deliberately eclipsed, whilst the focus is on a “different,” dreamy Courbet. With good cause: because even in those instances where Courbet directly referred to reality, it turns out to be a device of introversion and defamiliarization: Courbet’s portraits frequently reveal a pensive tendency toward self-contemplation; his landscapes show remote rocky and wooded scenery; his seascapes breathe loneliness; his hunting scenes suggest identification with the victim; and his still lifes lead us into an enchanted realm in which the standards of the outer world no longer apply. A substantial number of his figures are lost in dreams as they are depicted sleeping or drowsing, often expressive of some yearning that alludes to hidden desires. Courbet’s figures are rarely shown in action; now and then, the narrative rendered in a picture is interrupted; sometimes one can perceive the explosive release of intense emotion; mostly, however, soft nuances prevail.
The artist’s technique complies with this penchant for nuances. He rarely used glaring, unmixed colors. Courbet avoided unambiguousness. Frequently, a color no longer defines a specific object, but extends beyond it or even “circumvents” it while it spreads across the picture and leaves room to chance. Through his method of applying and removing paint with a palette knife, Courbet literally rendered “proper”—i.e., academic – painting impossible. One also comes across surprising conversions. A solid object (such as a rock) is depicted as something translucent, whereas a non-solid substance (like water) seems to be impermeable. Often, the painter erratically alternated between these two forms of paint application. Such methods severely unsettled nineteenth-century visual habits and have affected art production ever since, so that Courbet’s significance for us lies in this innovative approach rather than in revolutionary gestures.
How fertile the upheaval of traditions provoked by Courbet was for Manet and Cézanne, but also for Picasso or de Chirico, for Beckmann and Duchamp is evidenced by the fact that each of these artists and even numerous present-day painters such as Gerhard Richter or Neo Rauch have laid claim to completely different features of Courbet’ work as important for their production.
DIRECTOR: Max Hollein
CURATOR: Prof. Dr. Klaus Herding
OPENING HOURS: Tue, Fri-Sun, 10 am-7 pm; Wed and Thu, 10 am-10 pm
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Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux Arts de la ville de Paris.
Photo: © Petit Palais/Roger-Viollet.