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by Michèle C. Cone
"Gustave Courbet," Feb. 27-May 18, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028

Gustave Courbetís ideas on realism have been appropriated by Socialist, Marxist and Feminist theory. His oeuvre has already demonstrated its relevance to generation after generation of artists, from Paul Cézanne (The Fringe of the Forest, 1856) to Renoir (The Beautiful Irish Woman, 1866) and Balthus (Juliette Courbet, 1844), and from Marcel Duchamp to even Jeff Koons and John Currin, in their more salacious paintings.

Courbetís sources in great Dutch, Italian and Spanish art have been frequently noted. Individual works have been scrutinized and even x-rayed. And in the exhibition of his works held in Paris last fall, now on view in New York, the artistís erotic pictures have become a centerpiece of the show. Pointing to a relationship between the artistís nude pictures and the new medium of photography, the Met exhibition breaks ground by including photographic nudes by various 19th century photographers, and also a then-new gadget called the stereoscope for viewing obscene photographs in close-up view.

For myself, walking through the show of the great painter at the Metropolitan Museum was a sociological experience as much as an artistic one. What I saw was something of the social reality of mid-19th-century France and, within that time frame, the paradoxical reality of a member of the new provincial middle-class born out of the French Revolution, trying to succeed in the big city. In literary terms, the paradigmatic figure of this socially ambitious generation is Flaubertís hero in Sentimental Education (1869), Frédéric Moreau, a beautiful young man who is both narcissistic and insecure.

Paris in the mid 1840s offered young men harboring idealistic Republican ideals opportunities not available to them in earlier days, but the society in power in Paris at that time, the July Monarchy and later the Second Empire, tended to look down on them and make them feel socially insecure. The hypothesis I want to explore is that insecurity is not only recognizable in Courbetís narcissistic self-portraits, and the flattering portraits of friends and relatives, but that it appears in some of his major works in the form of the voyeuristic eye. ††

Past the great self-portraits in the first room of the show, the viewer comes across a number of the artistís friends and acquaintances. There are several portraits of Alfred Bruyas, the red-bearded art collector who also appears in The Meeting (1854). There are portraits of Proudhon, the anarchist theorist and Courbet supporter. There is Jules Valles, the journalist at Le Figaro newspaper, another useful contact. When matched against other sources in the catalogue, these portraits reveal Courbetís propensity for flattery. A photograph of Valles by Nadar, and a portrait of Bruyas by Delacroix, tell that story.

Courbetís portrait of his father Regis Courbet is another case in point. The man, something of a boor by reputation, is depicted as a young and handsome gentleman farmer, his head coiffed with a becoming black cap and his face adorned with fashionable sideburns. Any son would be proud of such a father. The problem is he did not exist.

Flattering portraiture is often the bread-and-butter of an artistís oeuvre. For Courbet, living in Paris at a time known for its unusual official motto, "Enrichissez vous!" ("get rich!"), such compromises were part of the general get-rich mood. Clearly, in order to get at the great, immortal Courbet, one has to turn away from these bread-and-butter works and look at the more challenging paintings.†

The presentation at the Met follows the artistís career chronologically. Chronology is useful if one is searching after an enduring theme, thread, thought, mode or mood, or perhaps obsession in the oeuvre. And what I see, starting with the Portrait of Baudelaire and The Preparation for the Dead Girl, is a pictorial strategy that anticipates his famous series of sleeping models (Sleeping Spinner, and the notorious Sleep). Furthermore, the stereoscopic view of Bathers and of other works in which sitters are caught unaware, is consistent with the Sleep paintings. What makes these paintings so strange or, in Freudian language so uncanny, is the artistís voyeurism. These images give the impression that Courbet is always standing in a place where he is not supposed to be, and that he sees things or scenes that he should not be witnessing. †††

Courbetís portrait of Baudelaire from 1848, an early work, is quite different from his other portraits of friends, in that the sitter, not particularly flattered, is at a slight remove from us, surrounded by his immediate environment -- a red sofa at the edge of which the poet is seated, and a table with paraphernalia on top of it, including a quill and a pipe. Leaning firmly against the side of the table is a book that Baudelaire is reading. Within this setting, the poet appears engrossed in the book in front of him, enjoying a moment of peace and solitude, seemingly unaware of being watched. This is early evidence of what one can call Courbetís voyeurism, here just an impingement on privacy.

In the absence of Courbetís Burial at Ornans and The Artistís Studio -- both of these pivotal paintings being too fragile to travel to New York -- the most enigmatic painting on view at the Met is a large, squarish interior scene featuring a young woman in a pose of fainting abandon (the mirror held in front of her face is possibly to test her breath?). She is surrounded by friends. The painting is labeled here The Preparation of the Dead Girl (1850-54). An unfinished work, it has gone through a number of titles including The Preparation of the Bride. The sketchy relief of the figures, the foggy colors and uncertain light contribute to the mystery of the scene, but also explain why, according to the art historian Linda Nochlin, a great connoisseur of Courbet, the artist stopped working on the painting, unable to complete it.

Perhaps the idea came from a story of a bride who died on her wedding day. Perhaps the artist witnessed the goings on that followed a young womanís sudden death, and the morbidity of the image upset him too much to continue. While several intentions may be conflated in the depicted scene, there is no ambiguity on the vantage point. The performance -- if performance there was -- is being watched by someone with a first-row seat. When preparations are going on, be they for a wedding or after a death, the assumption is that privacy ought to prevail. In the Courbet work, this code is being broken by an indiscreet intruder.

If there is a specific moment when one is unaware of being watched, it has to be when one is asleep. Picasso made a number of works with sleeping models. So did Courbet. In the show at the Met, sleep is pictured in an early drawing of Courbetís sister from 1840, and in a self-portrait ambiguously entitled The Wounded Man (1844-54). It is the subject of Sleeping Blonde (1849), The Sleeping Reader (1849), The Sleeping Spinner (1853), The Lady of Frankfurt (1858), whose relaxed pose is reminiscent of that of the dead girl, and, of course, Sleep (1866), the notorious painting of a pair of entwined sleeping female bodies.

Why an artist would choose to depict sleeping models is on the surface easy to understand. A sleeping figure is relatively immobile, hence easier to sketch than a moving one. Writing about Courbetís Sleeping Spinner in the catalogue of the show, Sylvain Amic offers another motive. "Courbetís depiction of women asleep has a hint of explicit voyeurism, and while the Spinner is far from being a purely erotic painting, there is undeniably an element of sensuality at work." He goes on to cite the critic Théophile Gautier describing the fold of flesh between the neck and the shoulder of the sleeping woman as suggesting female genitalia. What I propose is that the voyeurism here is more than "a hint." It is an essential aspect of Courbetís vision, and comes out of a feeling of insecurity vis-à-vis the desired object. To understand this feeling, reference to Flaubertís hero in Sentimental Education may be helpful.

Frédéric Moreau, the protagonist of the novel, who in its first pages falls in love with a wealthy married woman, is condemned to catching sight of the subject of his desire without her knowing his feelings until close to the end of the novel. The young man first observes the womanís graceful ways at a distance while they are both on board a steamboat. Months later, he catches sight of her emerging from her husbandís Paris art gallery and disappearing into the crowd. The reader is supposed to think that she is unaware of his passion, even after he has penetrated the intimacy of her household and is sitting next to her at a dinner party, even as he observes with delicious attention the most intimate details of her face.

The motif in the Flaubert novel of being unaware of inspiring desire is rendered by Courbet through the metonymy of closed eyes. Such a pose suggests an absence of reciprocity and symbolizes the voyeurís lonely destiny, a real or metaphorical viewing gadget always at his side for spying on the love object. This voyeuristic vision may also help explain why the middle ground of Courbetís space is often blurred. The way Flaubert depicts Frederic Moreauís successive ways of seeing his love object, his distant sight of her on a Paris street, and his close-up observation of her face during dinner, such radical changes of perception from far to near in the novel have their counterpart in Courbetís pictorial space.

That space catapults into a single image the secrets of a desiring consciousness. It presses to the foreground (in sometimes obscene detail) these views of an unsuspecting subject observed at a distance, fully dressed in The Sleeping Spinner, naked and making love in Sleep. The same formal strategy of distance viewing and close-up rendering is at work in the series of Courbetís bathers in a landscape, either in the process of dressing or undressing near water -- The Bathers of 1853, The Young Ladies at the Bank of The Seine (1856-58), or actually splashing in water, in The Woman in the Waves (1869) and The Source (1868).

It is generally agreed that Courbet considered his 1853 Bathers to be a breakthrough work. "On more than one occasion, Courbet would stress the importance of The Bathers in his oeuvre," one reads in the exhibition catalogue. Was it because the painting showed two women in a secluded place, a theme "that would take on an increasingly erotic character [and] become one of this favorite themes?" A recent thesis by Maura Reilly, Le Vice à la Mode: Courbet and the Vogue of Lesbianism in Second Empire France, confirms this view.

Taking into account the towel wrapped around the woman emerging from water, another interpretation suggests itself as well, related to rivers and lakes as a place to wash, cleanse oneís body as well as splash for fun in 19th-century country life. In a period when modesty was taken seriously, whenever two women went bathing in an open space, each in turn would go naked in the water, so that the other could keep an eye out for possible intruders. Given such a pedestrian interpretation of the Bathersí subject matter, its importance to Courbet remains enigmatic. Perhaps it had something to do with the gesturing of the two women. For what the womenís hands are signaling are lines of force in the paintingís composition. †††

Over the years, Courbet devised several strategies to call attention to a paintingís two-dimensional abstraction. Incredibly daring in this respect is the early, unfinished and rarely seen Man Mad with Fear (1844-45), characterized by an unusually broad swatch of bright blue for the sky, and abstract expressionist brushwork below the image of the titular man mad with fear. In Bathers and in Man Mad with Fear, Courbet may well be anticipating the anti-illusionistic tradition that leads to abstraction, his "realism" hence calling attention not only to contemporary life but also to the flat surface of a painting.

In the final galleries of the show, we discover a different Courbet, one who was pursued by creditors as well as the French government, which had seized his works in repayment of a fine imposed for his role in the destruction of the Colonne Vendome. For Courbet, it was a time of beautiful if repetitive landscape and grotto paintings, and of paintings of hunts with dead animals. Among the last works are magnificent dead or dying fish images done in Switzerland, where he lived in exile at the edge of a lake.

For someone who liked to stand where he was not supposed to stand to see what he was not supposed to see, life offered a strange twist. While in Switzerland at the end of his life, Courbet was spied upon by a police inspector, caught swimming in the nude at night with a companion. The report is found on page 40 of a 1982 exhibition catalogue, Courbet et la Suisse.

MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).