Friday, January 22, 2016

Rocks at Mouthier

Gustave Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855

I have been reading the new anthology of John Berger's art writing, PortraitsIt is arranged in approximate chronological order from the Chauvet cave paintings to some recent sculptures by a young Palestinian artist. Where Berger has written more than once about an artist, the pieces are spliced together and you have to look to the end of the book to see when the component parts were written.  Although there are risks of repetition in this (e.g. reading twice a story about Monet painting his wife on her death bed) it actually works rather well.  On Gustave Courbet, for example, there is a 1953 essay defending his critical reputation and concluding that socialism was expressed in his work 'by its quality of uninhibited Fraternity'.  This is followed by something written twenty-five years later, by which time a new generation of art historians had written major studies reassessing Courbet's art.  I will quote from this second piece, 'Courbet and the Jura', below.

Five hundred pages long, Portraits is a rich source of ideas and insights on a wide range of artists, all written in Berger's marvellous, clear prose.  One small gripe though: for a book about art, it has surprisingly poor black and white images.  I couldn't help comparing them with the beautiful small colour reproductions in Robert Walser's Looking at Pictures, another set of essays published last year (a book I highly recommend).  This was a deliberate choice: Berger says in the Preface that 'glossy colour reproductions in the consumerist world of today tend to reduce what they show to items in a luxury brochure for millionaires' (which may be true, but one would have more sympathy with this if Verso weren't charging £25 for the book).  In the case of Courbet though, no reproductions in book or web page or smart phone would be able to do justice to a monumental painting like A Burial at Ornans, which is nearly 8m wide and covers a whole wall in the Musée d'Orsay.

Gustave Courbet, A Burial At Ornans, 1849-50

Berger is fascinating on the geographical origins of Courbet's art. In 'Courbet and the Jura' he writes that 'the region in which a painter passes his childhood and adolescence often plays an important part in the constitution of his vision. The Thames developed Turner.  The cliffs around Le Havre were formative in the case of Monet. Corbet grew up in – and throughout his life painted and often returned to – the valley of the Loue on the western side of the Jura mountains.'  The heavy rainfall in this region sinks into the karst landscape's underground channels and gushes out powerfully as the river Loue.  'On the horizontal strata of limestone there are often marl deposits which allow grass or trees to grow on top of the rock. One sees this formation – a very green landscape, divided near the sky by a horizontal bar of grey rock – in many of Courbet's paintings, including A Burial at Ornans.' But this environment offered more than just background scenery, according to Berger it influenced the forms Courbet's paintings took.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers, 1849

  • Darkness - in paintings like The Stonebreakers there is little visible sky.  'Due to its folds, the landscape is tall; the sky is a long way off.'  In the shadowy spaces of valleys and forests light is only partial and the painter develops the eye of a hunter.  In The Painter's Studio the only light seems to emanate from the woods in the painter's canvas.  Sometimes it is as if Courbet's scenes take place underwater, where light plays tricks with perspective.
  • Water - it frequently occurs in his art (I've written here more than once about Courbet's paintings of the sea) and even when absent, 'the foreground forms are frequently reminiscent of the currents and swirls of running water.'  His objects have the brilliance of pebbles seen in a clear river. Rocks at Mouthier, colour glistening on its surface, might be a reflection in a pond.  His palette knife was like 'a stream of light passing over the broken surface of leaves, rocks, grass...'
  • Rocks - they are 'the primary configuration of this landscape.  They bestow identity, allow focus.'  Rocks do not take on a particular form and in them the painter finds something arbitrary and lawless, but at the same time irreducibly real.  Courbet, the great realist painter, painted everything as if it were a rock face, without interiority, but in amazement because 'to see, where there are no laws, is to be constantly surprised'.

Gustave Courbet, Rocks at Mouthier, c. 1855
Images from Wikimedia Commons

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