Issue Number: 95
True to life
Edmund Fawcett reports how the feminist art historian Linda Nochlin takes on the outsized male ego of a great realist painter, Gustave Courbet
This slim, well-presented book of eleven essays on Gustave Courbet, by the New York art historian, Linda Nochlin, comes at a good moment. Later this year, a major exhibition of his work opens at the Grand Palais in Paris (10 Oct–28 Jan), which no one who loves painting should miss. It is the largest European show of this proto-modern master since the Grand Palais-Royal Academy show 30 years ago.
Nochlin and Courbet make for both a natural pairing and a distinctly odd couple. Nochlin belongs to a generation of scholars who added social and political themes to the narrowly formal concerns they felt dominated art history in the mid-twentieth-century.
She celebrated her 40th year in 1971 with two path-breaking publications: a book-length study of nineteenth-century realism, treating it as one style among others rather than an absence of style, as it had been viewed; and an essay in ARTnews, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, a banner call for feminist criticism.
Nochlin’s fascination with Courbet makes sense given her interest in realism, but is harder, as she allows, to square with her feminism. Though Courbet claimed it never meant much, the label ‘realist’ stuck. He liked subjects in the here and now: friends, mistresses, hunters, dead animals, breaking waves, and the streams and outcrops of his native Franche-Comté.
He presented them with forceful immediacy, pressing paint on with a trowel in what the late painter-critic Lawrence Gowing called ‘a marriage of colour and surface’. Courbet was a new kind of artist who promoted himself and picked his own subjects, though his training was traditional and few of those subjects were wholly original.
Even the freshest-looking of his inventions, The Meeting, where the young artist encounters his banking friend and lifelong backer, Alfred Bruyas, on the road outside Montpellier, echoed popular imagery of the Wandering Jew, an archetypal outsider, as Nochlin illustrates.
Artists before Courbet had painted labouring peasants and country funerals or shown themselves at work, dominating a crowded scene from their easel. Few tug the viewer so urgently towards the painted image to say, ‘Here’s how it is.’
A lot of Courbet’s unusually large male ego ended up on canvas. He painted female nudes with a carnal presence that broke convention and still startle today. His landscapes, animals and still lifes are often sexually charged. Nochlin admits to finding such works a challenge, yet she meets it head on in a piece about Courbet’s The Origin of the World, a small work likely to get undue attention in Paris. It belonged to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is a close-up of a woman’s pudenda. Lusciously painted, it can strike viewers as loving or pornographic, and was probably done from photographs. Nochlin, like the rest of us, is not sure what to say but keeps talking as if to silence bafflement.
Romantically handsome when young, Courbet became bull-like and later bloated in middle age. A moody chatterbox, he could be as innocent as a child and as cunning as a poacher. He despised hierarchy and had utopian ideals, but rarely doubted that talent, sex appeal and upcountry brass put him above the Paris crowd. He took little part in the upheavals of 1848 and – with one ruinous exception – protected monuments during the Commune in Paris of 1871.
A rebel and an insider, he craved official recognition in order to turn it down. Muhammad Ali would not have outbragged him: ‘I’m my own government,’ he declared. Courbet democratized art, not by freeing it, but by making new art-lovers pay to enter one-man shows.
Foes charged him with insincerity. He painted ‘as you black your boots’, a critic jibed. Fellow painters knew better. Delacroix praised, Odilon Redon spied a new Titian, Cézanne kept a reproduction of The Painter’s Studio and Matisse owned Courbet’s The Sleeping Blonde.
Painting was what Courbet most cared about, but peer approval alone did not sustain him. He was blamed for destroying the Vendôme column in Paris during the Commune, jailed and fined. Swiss exile and a stupendous intake of alcohol which drowned his heart killed him at 58, in 1877.
Though finely illustrated, this is neither an introduction nor a biography. Only one essay is previously unpublished. Nochlin has not updated the others but lets them, as she tells us, speak for their time – mostly the 1970s when French literary theory of the 1950s began arriving in English-speaking universities.
Just when you despair of finding a thread, however, Nochlin re-engages her eyes and an aspect of Courbet’s commanding work comes unexpectedly to life.
Courbet, by Linda Nochlin (Thames and Hudson, £16.95)
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