PRINT May 2008


THERE ARE THOSE WHO BELIEVE that May 1968 was not, in fact, the turning point that so many think it was. Indeed, there are those who believe that it was only in May ’68 that the effects of actions that had taken place years before finally became visible and then impossible to ignore—even for those whose eyes were perhaps not so subtle. In 1967, when tremors of the impending upheaval were already being felt, poet Francis Ponge provided a kind of organizing metaphor for this belief. Speaking with the critic Philippe Sollers in an interview broadcast on France Culture, Ponge disclosed his preferred mode of literary warfare: the bomb. Though he did not say so outright, it was clear that he did not mean conventional aerial bombardments; unlike more direct forms of combat, his weapons were to be prepared and planted in secret. While readers today are sadly all too familiar with this metaphor, in 1967, when former Surrealists still haunted the cafés, the word avant-garde conjured images of frontline soldiers, not guerrillas. Composing a poem as one might improvise an explosive device, tenderly and behind closed doors, was for Ponge an antidote to the notorious public provocations of Surrealism. The initial secrecy was a necessary evil that made the work’s detonation—insofar as it was unexpected—all the more sweet and effective.

Given that the events of May ’68, whose fortieth anniversary is commemorated in these pages, transpired a little less than a century after the Paris Commune, it might have been appropriate to introduce these reflections on Gustave Courbet by rehearsing his involvement with that earlier insurrection, which led to his ruin. But if we approach his work with Ponge’s model in mind, it becomes clear that we would do better to search for the ordnance that history has left behind and that still lies waiting to go off—and this is to be found not in the narrative of Courbet’s life but in the material stuff of his paintings.

One of the most spectacular works in the Courbet retrospective now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York most certainly did explode shortly after its creation. The Wave, 1869, is a large painting, a foreboding, elemental confrontation of sky and sea in which both seem to be grinding to a halt, as if in slo-mo; you get the sense, standing in front of it, of teetering on the brink of some catastrophe. One of the painting’s victims was Paul Cézanne, who is said to have enjoyed being simultaneously punched in the stomach and splashed in the face by it. The sheer force of Courbet’s technique, obvious to anyone who gets close to his canvases, is one thing on which almost everyone agrees. It is therefore shocking how little is actually written about his use of paint. A quote attributed to Cézanne by the writer Joachim Gasquet gets to the essential conundrum: “Courbet is a clever one. He makes crude paintings, but puts a fine finish on them.” So much for the cliché that Courbet was a crude worker-painter laying paint on thick with a palette knife as if it were a bricklayer’s trowel. (If anything, this is truer of Cézanne, especially in his early portraits.)

The painter Walter Sickert could stand neither Courbet’s personality nor his style. Yet his hatred gave him insight rare among the artist’s friends into the “fine finish” alluded to by Cézanne. To my knowledge, Sickert is the first to have noticed that paint applied with a knife dries more slowly than paint applied with a brush. Deprived of the desiccating air that the brush’s “toothing” effect introduces, a knife mark remains “a bag of wet paint sealed up in a glassy skin.” To this fundamental defect, Sickert relates both Courbet’s inability to draw (how does one define a contour with bags of paint?) and the necessity of painting alla prima (without grooves, how would a layer of paint cling to the one underneath?). Of course, these are precisely the qualities Cézanne would have most deeply admired, and he brought them to full fruition in his own late landscapes and watercolors. Moments like Cézanne’s before The Wave sneak up on you throughout the exhibition at the Met but, for the most part, not in the big broadsides. Not that The Peasants of Flagey Returning from the Fair, 1850–51/1855, an oversize genre scene of a humble troop trudging homeward, or Young Ladies of the Village, 1851–52, a triple portrait of Courbet’s sisters set awkwardly into a Franc-Comtois landscape, do not impose themselves or reward close observation. But it is the still lifes, landscapes, and waves that concern me here, not the feux d’artifice of the grands machines, whose dramatic effect depends on the perceived ugliness of their figures and compositions. Cézanne’s experience shows that a depopulated painting can be just as potent—even if, as in those paintings, like The Wave, that Courbet called paysages de mer (sea landscapes), there is no overt reference to politics.

And this is another reason to invoke Ponge. For among French men of letters, he comes closest to realizing the poetics of matter informing Courbet’s greatest paintings. One reason Ponge defended his own work on militaristic grounds is because of the apparent innocence of its subject matter. His poems are at first glance nothing more than loving descriptions of mundane, everyday objects. Why would anyone feel threatened by a fish, an oyster, or a bar of soap, to name a few of his favorite things? His entire poetic project comes down to a single guiding principle, eloquently stated by one of his ablest critics, Jean-Pierre Richard: To work the style is to work on the thing. In Ponge’s poetry, every word is carefully weighted so that in its etymological and metaphoric density, it summons forth the object’s material existence. What makes his poetry so singular is that the word and the thing become cosubstantial; any operation at the level of language produces a new perception of the materiality of the object, and, conversely, any action performed on the object generates a new linguistic form.

This helps get at one of the most fascinating aspects of Courbet’s art. From afar, works like the brooding, enclosed riverbeds, known as the Puits noir, or the waves seems fairly conventional. More thickly painted and less airy, no doubt, but nothing that more adventurous romantic landscape painters had not sketched before. It is only as one approaches that the difference between Courbet and his predecessors becomes clear. In most Western painting since the Renaissance, when gestures are revealed at all, it is at close range, at which point the illusion inevitably falls apart. With Courbet, the various palette-knife marks and brushstrokes instead appear, on closer inspection, to be part of objects themselves. The effect is not unlike twisting the magnification dial on a microscope while peering at a raindrop on a slide; it’s as if some integral process, some activity on the cellular level, were revealing itself. Here the breaking down of illusionism is delayed until the last possible moment. Courbet worked the paint so that to perceive a mark is to understand the object anew. I do not go from seeing a wave to seeing abstract paint, but from seeing a wave to seeing ripples and underlying currents, individual articulations of surface and depth.

This successive unfolding has an erotic component as well. Objects release their inner states of being in a kind of convulsive birth of form. In Ponge’s poetry, one might point in this regard to a word or piece of food emerging from the mouth; in Courbet, it is a landscape element arising slowly from a dark primordial soup. While one could relate this to the blatant sensuality of the nudes, I prefer the words of Brice Marden, who, when asked in a recent interview about the eroticism of The Trout, 1873—a large still life of a fish in its death throes—replied that Courbet “painted flesh all the time. When there is eroticism, it really comes up at different levels.” Comes up, slowly, but then explodes. It is these covert jouissances of signification, where form and content for a split second interpenetrate, that Courbet has planted on the battlefields of history. In a world where images and words slip easily off the surface of things (how often in recent years have we heard “terrorist,” “axis of evil,” “Islamo-fascism,” applied to that which is none of the above? How often is the term globalization invoked without anyone’s knowing what it really means?), moments that make us slow down to take in the substance of experience in all its complexity are needed more than ever.

Paul Galvez is an art historian and critic based in Philadelphia.