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Now and Then
Getting A Handle On Modernism By Parsing Through One Of Its Proto-Practitioners
EN PLEIN SIGHT: Gustave Courbet's "Stream in the Forest."

EN PLEIN SIGHT: Gustave Courbet's "Stream in the Forest."

Courbet and the Modern Landscape

Modern is a very old word. People once used it, the offspring of some May-December etymological tryst between Late Latin and old French, as it was originally conceived--to describe today, their own present time. With the many necessary categorizations of art and architecture, the term's original application all but ceased by the late 1970s. Contemporary took its place as the prevailing modifier.

The resuscitation of "modern" is what is particularly striking, instructive, and also palliative about the Walters Art Museum's Courbet and the Modern Landscape. Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum curators Mary Morton and Charlotte Eyerman have organized a golden opportunity to reflect not just on their flamboyant mid-to-late 19th-century subject, Gustave Courbet, but also on the nascent conditions of Modernism for which he was such a catalyst. Through the additional work of Walters curator Eik Kahng, the relevance of Courbet's work to our present life can be further tested. Her interpretive presentation of this traveling show is designed to help visitors experience Courbet's art as a full-monty sensation. If it feels too experimental, controversial, or imperfect for some traditionalists, Kahng's approach is nonetheless an effort of which the artist would have approved.

Morton's essay cites Courbet's brash, immodest 1852 pronouncement: "When I am no longer controversial, I will no longer be important." With that settled he began to paint for a market of mid- to upper-class patrons. Departing from the then-fashionable figural work of the academies and salons, Courbet offered his clients stages rather than dramas: spectacular landscapes that might serve as surrogates for property they coveted, an unfettered state of being they secretly desired, or tracts of wilderness they held and hunted upon. Painting previously inclined to story, place, and lesson, but Courbet invited displacement, enabling his viewers to step into a virgin forest of their own dark aboriginal soul. "The Fringe of the Forest," basically a black canvas alleviated with darting shafts of light, perfectly exemplifies such psychological displacement. The uncertainties of deepening dusk or an impending storm are elements that test their trespassers with the nicest little squirt of adrenaline.

Kahng attempts to re-engage a polished version of this primal impact through the multisensory dimensions of the Walters' installation. She organizes the Walters galleries into spring, autumn, winter, and summer themes, and invited six Peabody Institute students--Jenny Beck, Amy Beth Kirsten, David Witmer, Matt Diamond, Jerzy Gangi, and Scott Sayre--to compose musical works based on their personal interpretations of Courbet's paintings as seasonal experiences. Lighting tech Paul Deeb of Vox provided temperamental ambiance with discreet, experimental areas of light and shadow. Walters exhibition designer Danielle Ayers Jones tinted the walls of each area in unorthodox hues, aiming for a subconscious, seasonally ambient state.

Courbet's boisterous works are inserted into these thoughtfully subdued, collaboratively staged settings, and it's unlikely that his landscapes have previously enjoyed such a presentation. These monumental--whether ballroom- or sofa-sized--paintings do not resemble the sedate images seen in catalogs and art books. They are dynamic, visceral, palpable, elusive, remote, and insubordinate.

Courbet's paintings awaken a sensory recklessness that doesn't just excite the small hairs on the back of the neck--it emanates from the wonderful, meaningful paint itself. Courbet is not about paint for paint's sake; his vocabulary is a full acknowledgement of paint's intrinsic ability to differentiate the minutiae of acute experience in small ball-peen hammer taps.

It's autumn outside now, and a long consideration of the just-changing leaves points out what Courbet's paintings offered in his spontaneous impasto outbursts of surface and light. His labors make a vital argument that paint uniquely intensifies intellectual sensation. He introduces the suspicion that dimension is most engaging when it is not fully resolved by the object of regard, when its boundaries, its nadir and zenith, are indeterminate, ruthlessly plastic, and individual. As though opening Pandora's box, Courbet escorted this ambiguous, particulate point of view onto an art scene while he was unwittingly admitting a devastating new force through the same door: the birthing of Modernism.

The photograph was partly to blame--ditto the Bauhaus crowd, American homogeneity, the need to sublimate a generation's war horrors, a compulsive urge away from the past and toward a separate new. But since the maturation of Modernism, we have tended to like to flatten things. Dust-free, flat products require less care and upkeep; they pack better, assemble more efficiently, and cost less. Modernism's most celebrated architects built practically for changing uses, while painters and designers of our and our parents' generation were guided by the rational tactics of gridding planes (Mondrian), peeling latex paint off the canvas and hanging it up to dry (Linda Besemer), reformatting ink surfaces from print media onto a large important surface (Roy Lichtenstein, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, etc.), or through graffiti-like acts of obliteration (Franz Kline).

Courbet was not a flattener, not in life and not on canvas--which is, perhaps, a subtle point of departure for the accompanying contemporary musical compositions. As mysterious, sensitive, resonant, and varied as the musical works are, they bear the telltale evidence of a cool, watery, unflustered aesthetic. Courbet deepens his shadows in black, which sets a cue that the music often follows intuitively. When he parts the branches into the primal forest, the compositions rustle softly in pursuit. But the vigorous, infinite largess of Courbet's paintings--such as the ardent, even hasty scuff of red from his keen palette knife--remains essentially unaddressed by the coordinated ambiance. The finely tuned harmonics do not come close to touching on the variegated depth and tenor of his paintings.

That being said, the celebrated successes of his deer paintings remain elusive. It's not the hunting aspect that is troubling, it's that Courbet's interloping deer look so secondary or superimposed--so gratuitous in a number of instances--that the animals come across as tame distractions in their restless, transformed milieu, almost as if they were drawn from a different mind at a different time. The rocks, tree limbs, and water spouts refract light in virulent bursts of physicality, but the deer, as in "Roe Deer at a Stream" and others, feel romanticized and naturalistic--their little white tails the only feature able to respond to Courbet's technique of innuendo over fact.

Courbet was a huge personality in the Paris art scene, and he had a reputation as a seditious activist and an administrative member of the Paris Commune, the socialist government that temporarily governed the city following the 1871 uprising. Paris' Vendôme Column was destroyed during the Prussian siege, and Courbet was singled out to repay the state for its restoration--perhaps because of his defiant high profile and relative financial success. Because of this financial hardship a number of his land and seascapes carrying his signature and dated afterward were made in desperation, and this vulnerable period of his oeuvre would later attract numerous critics, skeptics, and forgeries. Kahng takes advantage of this situation to present a small show, Courbet/Not Courbet, two floors up from the main exhibition, filled with paintings originally attributed to the artist that have since been discounted upon closer scrutiny. The unhappy inconveniences represented by this show--of having invested in a painting with a false attribution and a sizable price tag--might be an embarrassment, but it serves to enrich the Courbet experience, and not just for tricking the auction houses. The somewhat artful forgers and their sophisticated customers had to grasp, even vaguely, Courbet's secret recipe in order to seal the deal.

One of the more illuminating passages to understand Courbet is found in curator Eyerman's essay. She quotes a 1958 Willem de Kooning Art News piece on the inverse effect of new painters on old masters' works. Everyone hears about how subsequent artists are shaped by their predecessors. De Kooning proposes an opposite process by which later artists increase the aesthetic implications of earlier masters, using contemporary works to understand the mastery of predecessors. He finds Courbet's genius for amplification a key to unlocking past artistic knowledge, to convey the visual ideas of previous eras. And he's right. Gustave Courbet was a teacher and tour guide who in his short 58 years ventured beyond romanticism to realism, through realism to Impressionism, and all the way up to what is now historically deemed Modernism, just as audaciously as he carried his clients through the topography of his landscapes.★

 

Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper