TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 2008

WHAT IS GUSTAVE COURBET?

HOW CAN ONE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE COURBET YEAR? After all, that’s what I’m hoping this year will become. I saw the major retrospective in Paris last winter, when it was showing at the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais; it is now on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until May 18 and makes its final stop in June at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier, France. Notably, for this exhibition, the Fabre, home to so many of Courbet’s major works, loaned out La Rencontre, or Bonjour Monsieur Courbet—whose title the painter’s contemporaries parodied by calling it La Fortune saluant le génie (Fortune Saluting the Genius). The character of their humor becomes clear when we consider the entry on this painting in the catalogue raisonné, which quotes critic Paul Mantz from 1868, the year Alfred Bruyas donated the work to the Fabre:

In the year 1854 Courbet had a serious accident[:] he painted an insignificant, ridiculous painting, probably with the intention of preserving the memory of his first meeting with Alfred Bruyas, the congenial art lover who was supporting him in his struggles; he composed La Rencontre, a fairly unambiguous painting that shows Bruyas, the painter himself, a domestic servant and a coach. The scene is taking place on one of the main roads outside Montpellier in the dust of midday. This painting, a work of mediocre interest, immediately became famous under the title: Bonjour Monsieur Courbet. This is the source for the ironic, wittily bleak lines by Théodore de Banville, the poet who one day goes wandering through the countryside, finding baseness for which he is ill prepared and unanticipated vulgarity: trees are standing askew, the flowers favor garish colors, the wrinkles in Cybele’s robes are overdone. When challenged to explain these absurdities, this senselessness, great Nature replies in a melancholy voice:

“—Friend, when you behold something so utterly sad and ugly as this, it can only mean that Monsieur Courbet has just walked by.”

Explanations of this sort ought to have plunged Courbet into an abyss of bad conscience. He contents himself with smiling, for he is intractable or at least comports himself as if he were.

Nowadays, you can’t bring up Paul Cézanne; no one cares about him anymore. I recently overheard someone saying words to this effect, referring to art academies in New York. And of course this person was referring above all to the interests of the average art student. For there is a different coolness factor at work now, steeped in ideas of the “ready-made artist,” “expropriation” instead of “appropriation,” “painters without paintings and paintings without painters,” “shandyism,” and formalism in its new form—which basically means practicing Kandinskian formalism in the full knowledge that it cannot possibly work out, but sticking with it all the same. (Which, in fact, sounds like fun.) Yet at the moment, the classiest works are those in which irony takes effect only on the third level: Irony takes on irony. And so now there can be “painting” again. Admittedly, this is not merely a side effect of any newly ironic approach—“models” can, after all, be simply means to an end. But I find the mood at this point quite good. And now I’m being ironic. I’m already enjoying thinking of the results and the extent to which they will be prêt-à-porter. The nasty critique of irony I describe is, naturally, working with quite different weapons than was Courbet.What Is Courbet?

NOT HAVING PLANNED WELL for my visit to the Galeries Nationales, I stood for two hours in the cold, for which I was underdressed, in a really quite long line without any particularly convincing prospect of successfully entering the show. When at last, frozen to the bone, I found myself indoors in the first room of the exhibition and wanted to see how it would feel now to look at Courbet, I was caught unawares by my reaction and wound up alternating between tears and fits of hysterical laughter that I was simply unable to suppress, because I was constantly being presented with something new to laugh about in the form of the next painting. And so I had to keep moving, because my giggles were embarrassing. I more or less surfed through the exhibition, as if stoned, often hesitantly peering ahead around the next corner or into the next room. I also couldn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t laughing as well, and I had the word ridiculous in my head, but it was meant not maliciously but in admiration. I was genuinely delighted, charmed by every dog, every cow, the pig. Everything I can think to say about it is kitschy. I think Courbet truly understood dogs. Courbet was Maria Montez.

BACK WHEN I WAS STUDYING ART, someone loaned me Louis Aragon’s Exemple de Courbet (1952) in an East German edition from 1956. What interested me, however, was by no means the socialist Courbet that Aragon describes, but rather the painter, and I tried in all seriousness to study his work, hoping to find something in it for myself. That’s when I became his fan. I even traveled to his birthplace, Ornans. I drank beer in the café on the village square beside the fountain with the gorgeous Courbet sculpture Le Pêcheur de Chavots (The Chavot Fisherman), 1862. I climbed around on the cliffs, traveled to the source of the Loue, and bought a large number of postcards from postcard racks to take home with me as trophies. For the most part, these were photographs of Courbet’s sources, and, yes, the postcards looked exactly like Courbet paintings. The photographers hadn’t done things any differently than Courbet himself. They had chosen just the same detail views, which were postcard motifs.

As Baudelaire says: “Let one only paint what one sees. And thus you will not paint what I do not see.” Courbet’s claim that he painted only what he saw is difficult to reconcile with the paintings themselves, but we are helped by Arnold Hauser’s four or five pages on Courbet from The Social History of Art (1951): “[B]ohemianism is and remains an heir of aestheticizing romanticism. It often ascribes a significance to art which it did not have even in the most exalted theories of the romantics and makes a prophet out of a confusedly chattering painter and a historical event out of the exhibition of an unsaleable picture.”

Ce qui m’interesse, c’est Ingres
Ce n’est pas Cézanne et les pommes

(That which interests me is Ingres
It isn’t Cézanne and his apples)

This is an assertion by Marcel Broodthaers that has long troubled me, since I have wanted to admire both Broodthaers and Cézanne, and regarding the latter I’ve even gone so far as to study the apple pictures—which is not unlike saying I prefer Courbet’s paintings to Courbet the socialist or anarchist and Communard. Broodthaers’s phrase, however, might have something to do with Jörg Immendorff’s famous story about Michael Werner (this is, after all, the milieu in which Broodthaers spent time and exhibited): When Werner first saw the paintings from Immendorff’s Maoist period, the dealer remarked that all he saw were apples.

Whether Immendorff was, in fact, ever political, or merely thought he was, is a different question—but one that is, as it turns out, relevant here. Courbet and Broodthaers were most definitely political, and in similar ways.

ONCE, DURING THE EARLY 1970S, I found myself in highly unfavorable circumstances. I had intentionally moved from Cologne to a provincial city in southern Germany—Karlsruhe—in order to study with Markus Lüpertz at the local Kunstakademie. In Cologne and Düsseldorf at that time, one could find pretty much everything that made up art and the art world; and I knew my way around there quite well. Uprooting to Karlsruhe in this context meant more than just going backward. For there was nothing at all there, or only the most absurd things, and the only thing that resonated in any way for me there was Lüpertz himself. Enduring Karlsruhe was like fulfilling a monk’s vows, and this included the dialect, the beer halls, the paintings by Hans Thoma, and the students who ran around saying, in all seriousness, “What did the master have to say?” or “Time to get to work!” before producing and signing actual paintings. And all of this taken together constituted, to my mind, the aura of Lüpertz. Even then, I was already finding its taste somewhat insipid. But there is a way of thinking about these things that makes it easy to consider something haut goût when one wants desperately to see it differently.

The Aragon book was given to me at this time by someone who lived in Cologne, who knew Dan Graham and Sigmar Polke, and who came from the other world—which, in fact, was the better one. This book fit my circumstances perfectly. But it didn’t do me any good. My interests were not diverted to the Commune and the Vendôme Column, but rather to these paintings. When all is said and done, I find the idea of liking solely this other Courbet a bit suspect.

You see, the current retrospective is fantastic and, in fact, ideal, because the paintings are on display and the exhibition isn’t didactic. Social history is completely absent. There is no Commune, no Vendôme Column.

The following statement was made by Friedrich Wolfram Heubach, the editor of Interfunktionen, to accompany a text on Courbet published there in 1970:

ART—WHY OH WHY

why oh why
when something’s too much for you
—in reality
do you have to go on doing something
—art

why oh why
when you’re missing something
—in reality
do you have to offer up something else
—art

why not instead
destroy what is too much for you
take what you’ve been missing

art doesn’t come from ability—the ability to put into practice.

This is what the exhibition was missing.

Michael Krebber is an artist based in Cologne.