Friday, January 20, 2012

Arty Farty Friday ~ Gustave Courbet: Enfant Terrible

Opening paragraph of an excellent piece from The Smithsonian, Larger than Life by Avis Berman on French 19th century painter Gustave Courbet:
Painter, provocateur, risk taker and revolutionary, Gustave Courbet might well have said, "I offend, therefore I am." Arguably modern art's original enfant terrible, he had a lust for controversy that makes the careers of more recent shockmeisters like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Robert Mapplethorpe seem almost conventional. As a rebellious teenager from a small town in eastern France, Courbet disregarded his parents' desire for him to study law and vowed, he wrote, "to lead the life of a savage" and free himself from governments. He did not mellow with age, disdaining royal honors, turning out confrontational, even salacious canvases and attacking established social values when others of his generation were settling into lives cushioned with awards and pensions.

Courbet is reported to have said or written:
"I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; when I am dead let this be said of me: 'He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty."

Courbet was a realist painter - and realist in every sense of the word. He painted the reality he saw around him, not only the reality of the bourgeoisie, but the reality of ordinary people - those we have recently labelled "the 99%".

Gustave Courbet's era offered ample outlet for his revolutionary nature. He was involved in the 1848 revolution in France, the Paris commune in 1871 and was one of the founders of an artistic movement many of his contemporaries found shocking.

Investigating events of 1848 swiftly brings to mind a somewhat milder yet comparable set of events nearer to our own time. Europe was then in the throes of several vatieties of revolution. In Britain the Chartist movement (a working class labour movement) was thriving. Marx and Engels had published the Communist Manifesto. In France protesters forced the abdication of King Louis-Philippe. However, an attempt at setting up a Constituent Assembly to represent France's poor failed amidst counter-revolution and the slaughter of thousands at the barricades. Eventually Napoleon III, after being elected president of the French Republic, proclaimed himself Emperor after a coup in 1851.

Gustave Courbet, a man whose temperament was well-suited for his times. He was born in Ornans on 10 June 1819. Time of birth given by Astrodatabank is 3:00 AM.

I was half expecting to see rebellious Uranus conjoined to a personal planet - it isn't, but Uranus is conjunct Neptune, planet of creativity and opposing his communicative Gemini Sun. We needn't look very much further to seek the source of his revolutionary spirit. But there is more... Jupiter in Aquarius (rulership sign of Uranus) is in close harmonious trine to Sun in Gemini - another link to rebellion and the avant garde.

Moon in commonsense, business-like Earthy Capricorn harmoniously trines Venus, planet of the arts in its home sign of Taurus. In spite of his revolutionary traits, for most of his life Courbet managed to surf disapproval and maintain a reasonable lifestyle, reflection, perhaps, of this balancing Earthy input from Moon and Venus.

It wasn't until he, as head of the Arts Commission, was amongst those who destroyed the Vendôme Column, that his rebellious nature overcame commonsense and led him astray. The Column was a monument to Napoleon I, a symbol of the French revolution of 1789, later seen more as a symbol of French militarism and imperialism. After the defeat of the Paris Commune and the massacre of thousands of those who had taken part in it, Courbet was arrested and sentenced to six months imprisonment. Later the government fined him 300,000 francs to pay for the rebuilding of the Column. As he could not afford this vindictive fine he fled to Switzerland where he lived out the rest of his life, painting (and drinking heavily) until his death in 1877. In 1919 his remains were returned to Ornans where he was interred in the local cemetery. (See HERE).....And HERE re Franco-Prussian War).

Courbet's paintings include landscapes, nudes (some erotic), portraits, self portraits, and many scenes of ordinary people doing what ordinary people did.

Below: Considered to be one of Courbet's masterpieces, from 1850: Burial at Ornans. French critics were not impressed. It was, they claimed "too big and the figures were too ugly". It measures 21 feet by 10 feet -huge! It was customary for paintings of this size to be of religious or mythological subjects, and certainly not a peasant funeral in rural France.....the very idea!!

Sleeping Spinner

The Stone Breakers


The Source

The Draughts Players

The Guitarrero, Young Man in a Landscape

Les Demoiselles des bords de la Seine
Two young women resting at the edge of River Seine. Not women of the elegant bourgeoisie, but two very ordinary gals, one of whom has removed her dress and relaxes in her petticoat.

Courbet painted himself - lot! A collection of his self portraits can be seen at the blog Fifty Two Pieces

Three examples, top to bottom
: A Desperate Man; Man with Leather Belt; Man with Pipe.


Anonymous said...

GP: Interesting that you present Courbet today with Moon transiting his Uranus/Neptune and Saturn opposite his Mars. For a revolutionary which he was you sure picked a good moment, T!

JD said...

Comparisons with current 'rebels' break down when you see that Courbet could actually paint (unlike the latest attention seekers)

Twilight said...

Anonymous/Gian Paul ~~ Transiting Jupiter at 1 Taurus is conjunct his Mars at 0 Taurus too as it happens.
Didn't notice any of that - I picked him just because of his rebelliousness. ;-)

Twilight said...

JD ~~~ True enough! They have now taken rebellion (in art) to a place where I don't wish to follow.

Juno said...

Another great article. When I was in school in the late 80's, I remember being fascinated by "60's rebels" like Jim Morrison and the figures of the art scene in general at the time. More recently there have been people labelled "rebels" like Kurt Cobain and Amy WInehouse, and although they were both very talented, they seem to have been depressives with substance abuse issues and not interested in the "rebel" tag.

If you had to list any other figures from art, literature, or music from the last few centuries who would they be? I find this topic very interesting at the moment given how there is starting to be a popular upswell again but no charismatic figures have materialized as of yet.

Twilight said...

Juno ~~~ Hi !

That's an interesting question.

On the face of it "the last few centuries" gives lots of scope, and yet....
Rebels within their own limited sphere in a branch of the arts abound, someone was always trying to be different, to stand out. Those who took their (true) rebellion outside, looked around and thought "something needs changing" and tried to do something about it - like Courbet - are rare gems.

Let's see, off the top of my still a bit sleepy, one cup coffee, head:

Though all the early jazz muscians were rebels within music, few had opportunity to express rebellion other than through their art - Nina Simone did though, a bit later on. Woody Guthrie was a rebel, his son Arlo is a much watered down version, I guess.

In art proper, not many ventured outside of their sphere to rebel - Dali wasn't afraid to be loopy, but didn't venture outside his realm. William Morris is one of my all-time heroes in art and design and an early rebel socialist - he'd fit the bill. The Dadaists were getting there - they tried to both rebel in art style and comment on what was going on around them.

In writing, lots of words and anger have been written, but a well-known writer venturing outside of the literary sphere to do or say contraversial stuff - not common, most hide it within their fictions....Dickens for instance, Steinbeck; but I can't think, right now, of any who actually got outside and rebelled openly - that's not to say there haven't been any, just can't bring any to mind.

Who are your true rebels?

Juno said...

Thanks for the input - I had forgotten about William Morris; I try to abide by his quote,"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
I also agree about Woody Guthrie and JOhn Steinbeck.
When I was 18, I liked Brecht, Morrison, and Hunter S. Thompson but outgrew the last 2. I think James Joyce and Georgia O'Keefe were rebellious in their personal choices, at least, although it is always easier to be rebellious if you have the financial means.

Twilight said...

Juno ~~~ Hunter S Thompson - yes I'd forgotten about him. He was sort of on the cusp of being a true rebel - I suspect he enjoyed shocking people rather than actually trying to change things though ( how I define a true rebel against the status quo).

Joyce and O'Keefe were rebels within their own spheres for sure, found a viable "brand" the public enjoyed - and a way to develop it.

Today, as you've said, it's not easy to identify a charismatic rebel within the arts who is willing to step outside their chosen sphere and rebel properly.
Michael Moore? Sean Penn?