Friday, February 29, 2008

Gustave Courbet at The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

ART: New York

Gustave Courbet
February 27, 2008–May 18, 2008
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY

by Melissa Passman

Inescapably plastered across the cover of the exhibition catalogue, posters, and signs leading me to the exhibition, Gustave Courbet’s visibly tortured and fraught visage stares out, confronting me at all angles, capturing the public’s attention. With a well-documented affinity for self-promotion, it is no surprise that Courbet represents himself as the public face of the exhibition. Having already seen the previous incarnation of this exhibition in Paris’ Grand Palais, I entered the Met’s galleries with great curiosity to discover what alterations had been made to the intricate arrangement of the paintings, and with greater anticipation, what pieces had been allowed to travel across the Atlantic. It was a pleasant surprise then to find that greeting me once again was a room of Courbet’s provocatively indulgent self-portraits, one of the greatest rewards of this retrospective, the first in over 30 years. The curator’s inclination to declare Courbet’s modernity is immediate – these self-portraits beg to be compared to Cindy Sherman’s gallery of personalities.

Following this dramatic entrance, the thematically divided rooms cover a broad range of subjects, from his equally sensational nudes to thriving landscapes, Courbet’s meandering oeuvre leaves no category untried.

Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life” aptly characterizes Courbet’s agenda, namely to substitute the grand themes of history painting for the more immediate realities of France. Walking from room to room, the intensity of paint viscerally confronts the viewer with a force that had not been present before this moment. Most compellingly, the numerous connections to the burgeoning history of photography, an active presence in France since its invention in 1839, draws the lineage for multimedia influence and the enormous effect that this new form of capturing reality had on the once-dominant form of preserving historical moments.

Despite all of these compelling intersections of forms, unsurprisingly the crowds swelled as I entered the room containing art history’s best known work of pornography, "L’Origine du Monde." A blunt portrayal of gender, this small painting signifies both the potential of life and inevitable death in terse terms. Owned by Jacques Lacan prior to entering the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, this commissioned work is ensconced on a small wall facing the photographs that served as his sources, along with a peep show apparatus set up to replicate the furtive actions of the audience for them.

It is perhaps these paintings, most prominently “Sleep” which features two women, one still in stockings, more than even the self-portraits that present the strongest argument for Courbet’s grip on contemporary painting most notably, with John Currin’s most recent work. The ongoing fascination with paint, flesh, and above all, fresh engagements with the physical immediacy of paint as a tool for representation, confirm Courbet’s status as the progenitor of a highly adaptable form of painting whose repercussions continue to fascinate today.

No comments: