Perambulating the Bounds

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

One Off Courbet

The Tennessee State Museum is currently showing paintings from the collection of the German heir of an industrial fortune, Gustave Rau. I’ve got a full review coming out tomorrow in the Scene, but there’s always stuff you can’t cram into a review, especially on a show like this which has mostly single pieces by a whole mess of artists.

I find myself gravitating away from the most famous painters in this show. For instance, there’s an El Greco here, but I think for someone at that level of importance I want to see it with more context. It’s the people who are less familiar where you feel like you learn something from a single work.

There’s this great painting by Gustave Courbet in the show, Bacchante, a luxurious, sensuous nude lying asleep or passed out on a red cloth, bathed in warm, golden brown light. The drinking cup lies knocked over next to her. Courbet is not an obscure artist, but he comes onto the scene before the explosion of the Impressionists. Although his career overlaps theirs, he is not one of the universally recognizable group.

This painting is a good example of what separates Courbet from the Impressionists. In many ways this is an extremely traditional painting, the dark tone range, the allegories of death, and the classical reference. You would not mistake this for the light of Monet or the others (although it shares more with Manet, who has a transitional character).

Paint has a remarkable ability to make the depicted body fleshy, palpable and sexual. The warmth of the body in this painting follows in a line with Titian’s Danae (http://www.artchive.com/artchive/T/titian/titian_danae.jpg.html) and Venus with a Mirror (http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg23/gg23-44.0-lit.html). Or anytime Caravaggio shows some skin.

I’ve been reading Cavell’s The World Viewed, and came across this line: “Courbet’s and Manet’s nudes are as different from their ancestors as a Dandy is from a Magus” (the reference at the end to one of Baudelaire’s subjects in The Painter of Modern Life). Any continuity between Courbet and Titian or Caravaggio would seem to contradict this, although when I first read it, what Cavell wrote made sense. There is something remarkably matter of fact, if improbable and highly wrapped up in male fantasy, about Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe (http://www.nga.gov/feature/manet/tinfo_herbe.htm). While Courbet’s nude is wrapped in classical allusion, distancing her, there’s also a haphazard quality, as if the painting has captured her where lies. Her face is not visible, seen from below the chin, but it seems like a modern face, the natural skin at the surface, not buried in cosmetics or a preternaturally clear complexion, unmasked.

I don’t know if I would see this painting this way within the context of a show of many Courbet works, or if I had a more well-engrained sense of the painter so that other images came to mind right away. I have to remind myself of the things I’ve seen which he painted. I wish I weren’t so ignorant, but the positive side of ignorance in this case is it gives you more room to see the thing fresh, and to build an interpretation focused on the one work in front of you.

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