Monday, May 05, 2008

Courbet at the Met

Was in NYC over the weekend, checking out (among other things) the Courbet exhibit at the Met, and was amused to find this painting tucked coyly away in a dimly lit gallery with a sign outside it warning visitors that the section contained explicit sexual images.

I suppose the Met has all sorts of legal issues it needs to be concerned about, but I can't help wondering how Courbet would have felt about such prudishness. I mean, it kind of destroys the point, doesn't it?

To begin with, the exhibition seemed a little underwhelming. Courbet's portraits - which make up the first few galleries - are excellent, of course, but coming so soon after the Met's exhibition of the Dutch masters it was hard not to see the influence of Rembrandt and Hals in Courbet's work, and they suffered by comparison. The ones I liked best (other than the familiar Desperate Man) was the Man Made Mad by Fear, with its Dali like depiction of a human figure poised on the edge of the abyss and Courbet's charming portrait of Proudhon, where a startlingly modern-looking figure of the painter is set against a backdrop that seems quaint and artificial, the blandness of the surroundings (those ubiquitous children) emphasizing, for me, the impression of Proudhon's living presence.

The other fascinating thing about Courbet is the subtle and not to subtle way in which he emphasizes the scale of his female figures, making them seem larger than life. In paintings like Young Ladies of the Village, The Source and The Woman in the Waves (below) Courbet sets the female form in settings that are at once realistic and diminished, using perspective to achieve an effect that is at once mythic and breathtakingly real.

The most impressive part of the exhibition for me, though, were the final galleries, that contained both Courbet's landscapes (including a set of immediate and powerful depictions of waves as well as the glorious harmony of brown and orange that is his Source of the Loue below) as well as his 'nature' paintings (including Fox in the Snow and Trout).

What stood out for me, going over the exhibition in my head afterwards, was the incredible range that Courbet's work encompasses, ranging all the way from the great Dutch and Flemish masters through the Impressionists and on to the first intimations of Surrealism. For an exhibition by a single painter to make one think of Rembrandt, Reubens, Renoir, Cezanne and Dali is a considerable achievement.

Note: Coming up (eventually) - posts on Poussin, Jasper Johns, the Tribeca Film Festival and Wajda's glorious Katyn. I love New York.


Szerelem said...

Amusing - that the painting was tucked away i.e. I'm surprised that a museum would put up a notice like that quite honestly.

I saw The Origin of the World at d'Orsay in Paris and it was displayed in all its glory in one of the first few galleries.

Wonder if the prudishness is just a cultural difference between Europe and America?

Anonymous said...

Erm, an NSFW warning and photos below the fold would be useful to us feed-readers!