September 7, 2014 – January 18, 2015
Gustave Courbet, who was born on June 10, 1819, in Ornans in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France and died December 31, 1877, in La Tour-de-Peilz on Lake Geneva, counts among the most important forerunners of classic modernism. His self-confident demeanor, the emphasis he placed upon his individuality as an artist, his inclination towards provocation and breaking taboos, not to mention his revolutionary painting technique, were to set standards that have influenced generations of artists. The exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler is the first dedicated to Gustave Courbet in Switzerland for over fifteen years.
The show presents pioneering works from all phases of the artist’s career, including a number of paintings that have rarely been seen in public or which indeed for many decades were not publicly accessible at all. Greeting us at the very beginning are the early, complex self-portraits with which Courbet made his impressive debut on the Paris art scene and which have become icons of the nineteenth century. These are followed by scenes capturing the artist’s native countryside: pictures of secluded streams and springs, rock formations and grottoes that revolutionized landscape painting. With his representations of waves and his views of the sea, Courbet succeeds in conveying the beauty and dynamism of nature each time anew. His winterscapes prove him to be a virtuoso painter of the color white. Paint, the artist’s material, now becomes the actual subject of art: the significance of the motif wanes and the "how" becomes as important as the "what"—a fundamental development paving the way ultimately towards abstraction. At the heart of the exhibition are Courbet’s mysterious female nudes beside
water and his famous picture The Origin of the World: the profound impact of this painted breach of taboo continues to be felt in art right up to the present day.
The exhibition was created by Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler, and is part of the "Courbet Season", a joint venture with the Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva, which is mounting a concurrent show in the Musée Rath that focuses upon Courbet’s years in Switzerland.
The picture was painted on the occasion of Courbet’s first visit to his patron Alfred Bruyas in Montpellier, and shows the two men meeting not in the town, but on a country road. What at first sight looks like a friendly encounter reveals itself, upon closer inspection, as a boldly staged self-portrait of the artist. Look at the size and the position of the men: although Courbet, on the right, is at eye level with his benefactor, who is accompanied by a dog and a manservant, he clearly surpasses Bruyas in height. He is also the only figure not standing in shadow and claims one half of the composition for himself. He furthermore presents himself as a traveler and thus as a worldly and above all independent man, who carries all his possessions on his back. This is no Romantic Bohemian seeking recognition, but an artist brimming with self-confidence.
It initially cost the young Courbet, with his French provincial background, a good deal of effort to gain a foothold as a painter in Paris. It is probably no coincidence that the majority of his self-portraits should fall into this early, insecure phase, when the artist was still searching for his own personal and artistic path. Courbet portrays himself in a wide variety of poses and roles, of which The Man Mad with Fear is probably the most extreme example—it was once exhibited under the title The Suicide. The painting appears to have been left unfinished in the lower section; to contemporaries, it must have looked like a sketch—although Courbet did not label it as such in his exhibition of 1855. If Courbet did indeed consider his self-portrait to be complete, The Man Mad with Fear may be understood as a programmatic statement: before the eyes of the public, the ambitious artist is taking a leap into the dark, here represented by a mix of colors consisting of pure painting, liberated from all tradition. This is both bold and perilous; only the painted imprint of a hand in the lower right-hand corner seems to respond to Courbet’s reach into the unknown.
Gustave Courbet was born on June 10, 1819. Where precisely, we do not know, since the official records make no note of an exact birthplace. The story told in Courbet’s family was that his mother had given birth to him under a tree by the side of the road, having been unable to complete the distance in time from Flagey, where her husband had a farm and considerable landholdings, to Ornans, where her parents lived. A recurrent and striking motif in Courbet’s landscapes is the transition between high-lying plateau (the countryside around Flagey) and valley (Ornans)—a characteristic of the mountainous Jura region in which he grew up. Courbet’s oeuvre is hallmarked by the realistic—as opposed to idealizing—gaze that he turns upon his subjects. Even if his paintings were produced in the studio, they testify to a detailed study of nature in the places they portray.
Among the works that Courbet showed in the Art section of the 1855 Exposition universelle was the relatively largeformat landscape painting The Stream of the Puits-Noir, Valley of the Loue. The picture is unusual in several respects. We look into a deserted, densely wooded valley that is narrowly bordered by rocks. A small patch of blue sky can be seen overhead. Our eye is not drawn towards a focal point as in traditional landscapes, and only gradually do we make out the course of the stream disappearing into the background. The picture’s impression of darkness is by no means due to the ageing of the paint and canvas: anyone familiar with the quiet valleys near Ornans knows just how somber, almost sinister they can be. Dark patches, representing light-swallowing zones of apparently bottomless water, are a striking feature of the painting. The spot it shows is called Puits-Noir, meaning "Black Well", and can be found relatively unchanged even today. The name alludes to the sinkholes that are a distinctive feature of the region’s karst landscape: water seeps down into the countless subterranean cavities in the limestone, only to resurface somewhere else from seemingly unfathomable depths. The smaller picture, which presents the same motif in sharper focus, may have been executed first, before Courbet decided to paint a broader, more panoramic view of the valley.
A young, raven-haired woman with her eyes closed and her lips slightly parted has draped one arm over her female companion, who attempts to support and guide her as she balances uncertainly above the water. Another female companion with magnificent auburn hair is seated on a mossy rock on the right, her back turned to the viewer, gently holding her friend’s other arm. Both these two are naked; only the woman on the bank is dressed in a makeshift gown. The pose of the female nude in the center is confusing: she seems less to slip into the water than to hover in the air. In the run-up to our exhibition, this painting was restored and at the same time analyzed with the latest scientific methods. It thereby emerged that other compositions lie hidden beneath the uppermost layer of paint. The original, subsequently overpainted version showed a solitary female nude stretched out on the ground in a natural setting. In the final picture, Courbet has given her two female companions and has rotated her position through 90 degrees from horizontal to vertical, so that her originally reclining figure is now "standing".
The Lison emerges from the rocks of the French Jura a few kilometers west of the source of the Loue, near the municipality of Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Here the painter presents a frontal view of the waters as they spill out of the slightly elevated grotto, gather in the pool below and appear to flow out over the lower edge of the picture towards the viewer. The mosses, grasses and trees flourishing on the left bank and clinging to outcrops on the steep-sided cliff provide a verdant framework for this portrait-format composition. In his detailed reproduction of the massive limestone walls, the reflective surface of the water and the white foam, Courbet approaches, with impressive painterly means, the power and original essence of this natural spectacle.
In this stormy seascape, waves and clouds testify to the movement and dynamism of uncontrollable elemental forces. A huge breaker towers up like a black wall in front of the viewer, while on either side the billowing waters condense into whitecaps. Courbet applied his paler intermediary colors on top of the dark ground in irregular layers executed rapidly with the palette knife. The churning sea finds its counterpart in the dense and multicolored texture, which to the eyes of the viewer indeed appears as water, clouds and foam. The point of interest is thus no longer the illustrative reproduction of things, but the overwhelming representation of the unpredictable forces of nature.
L'Origine du monde
This painting, almost 150 years old, remains a huge provocation even in the present day. Never before had a woman’s body been captured on canvas in this way—without arms or legs and with her naked sex seen in extreme close-up. This sensual nude lies before us like a fragment. Courbet’s representation, with its thought-provoking title The Origin of the World, has given rise to countless interpretations: does it celebrate the birthplace and origin of humanity, the world, or even painting, or does it capture the male view of women? Do sexuality and obsession play an explicit role, or should the painting be understood as an allegory? It was in this very field of tension, in the conflict between direct and indirect, realistic and allegorical modes of expression, that Courbet painted the picture. It was not destined for the general public—the picture could never have been shown in an exhibition in the nineteenth century—but for the private sphere. Today it is considered an important testimony to our art and cultural history, one that repeatedly challenges viewers to look at, reflect upon and interpret what they are seeing.
While Courbet made black and opaque darkness the subject of many of his works, he was also a master of white. The color white takes on a very special, almost sculptural character in his winter pictures. In the present painting, the material properties of paint become virtually interchangeable with those of snow. It shows two hunters (or are they poachers?) and their dogs crossing a field of blinding white snow. One of them is threatening his dog with a stick, probably to force it to take up the scent of the animal whose tracks can be seen in the snow. But the color white—just like snow—erases all traces and seems as impenetrable as black at the other end of the spectrum. Its brightness makes the already "shady" men appear all the darker and injects an unsettling note into the scene as a whole.
Courbet painted this small masterpiece during his stay with his patron Alfred Bruyas in Montpellier, from where he made excursions into the surrounding countryside and to the coast. His serene, sunlit Mediterranean pictures of 1854 mark the beginning of his interest in representations of the sea and water—an interest that would never leave him. He was drawn again and again to an artistic exploration of the self-generating primeval force of bodies of water, in which he saw an analogy to his own powers of creation. Look at the diminutive figure at the bottom of the picture: his pose embodies rapturous enthusiasm for the might and boundlessness of the ocean. It is possible that Courbet has here portrayed himself—as the pointed beard implies. This waving man thus carries us full circle and brings us back to the provocatively staged self-portraits with which this exhibition begins.
Autumn 2014 is the "Courbet Season": Gustave Courbet, the great Realist painter and a revolutionary of painting, came from the Jura, the mountain range that links Switzerland and France. Courbet was always closely attached to his native region but he died in exile in Switzerland, on Lake Geneva. In the autumn of 2014, the Fondation Beyeler and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva will be staging two exhibitions devoted to Courbet’s oeuvre. The Geneva show will focus on Courbet’s years in exile in Switzerland, to which little attention has been paid until now. The Fondation Beyeler will show Courbet as one of the first avant-garde artists.
"GUSTAVE COURBET. LES ANNÉES SUISSES" at the MUSÉE RATH. 5 September 2014 – 4 January 2015.
Gustave Courbet’s final years, spent in Switzerland from 23 July 1873 to 31 December 1877, have been traditionally neglected by art historians. They have long considered that Courbet, ill and emotionally affected by his exile, was no longer the great painter who upended French and European painting in the 1840s. These judgements, largely promulgated at the time, are still prevalent in the realms of present-day art history. Indeed, Courbet’s Swiss years are generally summarised by a handful of works in the exhibitions dedicated to him, by a few paragraphs in monographs on the artist and by the standard comments on his decline. Nevertheless, Courbet continued to be Courbet: a working artist who painted, exhibited his works, led an active social life and was involved in the artistic and political life of his adopted country. The exhibition at the Musée Rath, bringing together for the first time over seventy paintings either created in Switzerland or carried into exile by the artist, wishes to focus on this part of his life, reconsider its importance in his career and measure the impact of his presence on the shores of Lake Geneva upon the Swiss artistic scene. The exhibition thus bears witness to the fact that Courbet, drawing on his past of revolutionary artist and the pictorial experimentations that he continued to pursue, attempted to initiate – despite his illness and the distress caused by his never-ending court cases – an astonishing renaissance.
Catalogue «Gustave Courbet»
The life and work of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) were defined by his rejection of the academic painting tradition and conservative politics in France. His work marks the beginning of a development that continues to shape our understanding of art today. Courbet’s ability to play with the expectations of the viewer, his accents of color, his use of hidden references to classical iconography, and, above all, the emphasis that he placed on his individuality as an artist have made him a key figure in the period of transition from traditional to modern painting. His famous work, L’origine du monde (The Origin of the World, 1866), is the focus of this opulent volume, and it is framed by no less spectacular self-portraits, depictions of women, landscapes, seascapes, and winter images dating from later in his career. Examining the broad spectrum of Courbet’s oeuvre, the publication includes the most recent research on the artist’s strategy of ambiguity and his revolutionary use of color.
Edited by Fondation Beyeler, Ulf Küster, Texts by Stéphane Guégan, Michel Hilaire, Ulf Küster, Laurence Madeline, Bruno Mottin, James Rubin, graphic design by Marie Lusa.
Tour through the «GUSTAVE COURBET» exhibition with curator Ulf Küster
Marina Abramovic on Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World
GUSTAVE COURBET 1819 - 1877