It's the early 1840s, and a young painter, having arrived in Paris from Ornans, a town in eastern France, just a few years before, takes his first tentative steps as an artist in a manner unconventional for the day. Yes, he has tried his hand at producing the usual copies of masterpieces in the Louvre, as well as paintings of other subjects, but his real fascination is with self-portraiture--as if he could feel his way toward finding a style for himself only by experimenting with ways to see himself, something the paintings show he's far from settled on.
This painter is not yet Gustave Courbet, for he's still in the process of inventing himself, and very much confused about it. It's as if becoming an artist were something like preparing for a costume party. At times, when the painter lets himself indulge in a flyblown Romanticism, the results are downright ridiculous, as with Le Sculpteur (whose swooning, distended anatomy seems half stretched out on an espalier) and Le Guitarrero, both from 1845. Oddly, such early Romantic self-portraits seem to be the preferred cover illustrations for books about the realist master--including the catalog for the first full-scale Courbet retrospective in thirty years, which I saw at the Grand Palais in Paris (October 13-January 28) and which is now at the Met (February 27-May 18); from there it's on to the Musée Fabre, Montpellier (June 14-September 28). The exhibition has been curated by Laurence des Cars and Dominique de Font-Réaulx of the Musée d'Orsay, the Met's Gary Tinterow and Michel Hilaire of the Musée Fabre. If Courbet were no more than the ham actor in the corny ghost story we see in Portrait de l'artist, dit Le Désespéré (Self-Portrait, known as The Desperate Man; 1844-45), then he would never have become the subject of a great exhibition such as this one.
When the young artist could bring himself to forget about all the playacting, things were better, occasionally even very good indeed, as with L'Homme à la ceinture de cuir (The Man With the Leather Belt), in which pictorial style plays a surprisingly subtle game with historical reference. Some commentators have seen it as modeled on Velázquez, others on Rembrandt, others on Titian; this last reference must have been the one Courbet had foremost in mind, for in 1855 he exhibited the work under the title Portrait de l'auteur, étude des Vénitiens. None of these citations seem quite wrong, or for that matter entirely right; it's a picture so fused with tradition that its varied elements can hardly be disentangled. Still--though the painting is so good one hardly wants to complain--it's somehow not an expression of its own time, nor can we believe it tells us anything of the man it depicts except his profound investment in the history of his art and its many techniques.
In 1848 something changes and Courbet becomes Courbet--a fateful year, and not just for art. Later he would claim that he'd participated in the uprising against the government of King Louis Phillippe (which led to the establishment of the Second Republic), though at the time he was writing letters to his parents assiduously assuring them of the opposite. Commenting on one of these letters, T.J. Clark--whose 1973 book on Courbet, Image of the People, remains a cornerstone of the social history of art--spoke of a "paralysis of will," but I wonder how candid Clark's own letters home were when he was mixing it up with the Situationists in the '60s. There are things one's parents should be spared of knowing. Be that as it may, in politics as in painting, Courbet needed time to settle on a role to play. But there's something different about a remarkable self-portrait Courbet painted that year called L'Homme à la pipe. Even the relatively understated historicism of L'Homme à la ceinture de cuir has here been reined in, and the costume drama of the earlier self-portraits is barely a memory--though this is still the work of a man who has immersed himself in the Venetian, Spanish and Dutch masters, taking from them above all their grasp of the essential, their compact force. The artist is depicted as though from below, and his head tilted back a bit so that his deep-set eyes are shrouded in shadow, black holes under heavy lids. These unseen eyes communicate something nevertheless: a sort of disdain. But that's all; otherwise there is something profoundly uncommunicative about this self-portrait.
This refusal to communicate will be the most radical element of Courbet's art, however fitfully it appears. Its first emergence in L'Homme à la pipe is important because this same taciturn sensibility will preside over the great painting Courbet would commence working on the following year, Un Enterrement à Ornans (which unfortunately did not make the trip from the Grand Palais to the Met). Today, it is hard to understand the scandal this painting caused when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1850-51, why it was seen as a shocking political manifesto--this vast, somber frieze of serious, rather ordinary mourners and churchmen packed together in an austere landscape, with the crucifix raised above them and the still-empty grave at their feet while the casket itself is nearly lost in the crowd. What could be more solemn, more reverent, more human? What could be less provocative than a picture of people just standing around waiting, and what could be further from the muckraking melodrama of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, which had been shown in the Salon of 1819, or from the clear confrontation of aggressors and victims in Goya's Third of May, 1808 (1814)--paintings in which it should be clear that something dramatic enough to have political implications is going on?
Un Enterrement is political in a different way from those earlier paintings--it is political in a new way, one that makes it modern, as the works of Géricault or even of Goya are not. Its politics are first of all the politics of style, of both its own blunt pictorial style and the unpolished style of the people it depicts. "Here is democracy in art," declared Courbet's supporters, but for the influential critic and poet Théophile Gautier, who had seen much promise in Courbet's earlier efforts, "The resulting impression is difficult to sort out: You don't know whether to cry or laugh. Did the artist mean to make a caricature or a serious painting?" It wasn't just that Courbet was painting an ordinary event and ordinary people on the grand scale that had once been reserved for saints, kings and heroes; it was that his refusal to idealize them even the least bit made them seem ridiculously ugly to contemporary Parisian eyes. What rankled, perhaps, was that Courbet made it impossible to tell whether he agreed with the taste that found the provincial bourgeoisie ugly--a deadpan presentation not unlike that which, a century later, would leave people wondering whether by painting the American flag Jasper Johns was being patriotic or cynical. When Max Kozloff asks in 1962, "Are we supposed to regard our popular signboard culture with greater fondness or insight now that we have [James] Rosenquist? Or is he exhorting us to revile it?" he sounds like Gautier wondering if he should cry or laugh over these awful-looking people, and echoes Gautier's bewilderment at why, standing before such a canvas, "the spectator floats in uncertainty."
The puzzlement occasioned by Un Enterrement, like that aroused by Pop Art in the 1960s, has long since worn off, leaving universal admiration in its wake; but other paintings of Courbet's early maturity maintain an evergreen strangeness. Prime among these is surely Les Baigneuses (The Bathers; 1853), with its clashing elements of blunt realism and ostentatious stylization. Painted with incredible force and energy, its central nude, seen from behind, is enormous, the folds of her abundant flesh depicted with ardent attention. To some viewers of the day it must have been simply as if Courbet was shoving a massive ass in the public's face; a cartoon by the famous caricaturist and photographer Nadar, published in Le Journal pour rire, shows a bemused viewer asking, "But now that M. Courbet has let us see his moon, what the devil will he be able to show us next year?" Far more enigmatic are the emphatic and highly theatrical gesticulations of the nude and her clothed companion--gestures to all appearances completely alien to the realism that otherwise presides over the painting. And there is something about the placement of the two figures in the landscape, as well, that's disquieting, a sense that they are not quite anchored in the space, that for all their immense physical presence they could easily float away. Few of those who had defended Un Enterrement were willing to follow Courbet here. Even Delacroix, the idol of the most advanced younger painters, recording in his diary his amazement at the painting's "vigor and depth," was nonetheless dumbfounded: "What is abominable is the vulgarity and pointlessness of the idea; and anyway, if only if that idea, such as it is, were clear!" One hundred fifty years later, this nagging sense of incomprehensibility has not left the painting--and it's what makes Les Baigneuses one of the most transfixing and memorable of Courbet's works.