Out Standing in His Field

The Gust of Wind (1865) Museum of Fine Arts, gift of Caroline Wiess Law, Houston

Everybody knows what a painter is like. Bigger than life, flaunting convention in both his personal life and art practice, the great man stands at the threshold between the wilderness and civilization, channeling the creative forces of nature as he slathers, wipes, pokes, scrapes and daubs the oily patches of color in a fever of improvised choreography — pausing only to quaff a stein of ale or bang a model — until his latest masterpiece is birthed, ready to be unveiled to the astonished and scandalized bourgeoisie, who, if they play their cards right, may be accorded the privilege of paying through the nose to take the miraculous, revelatory canvas home.

As cartoonish a stereotype as this is, the only part I have any problem with is the implied gender exclusivity. Yet as a myth, its power and centrality have been such that painters (and most other artists) have been exploiting or struggling to undermine it for at least the past century. And they pretty much owe it all to Gustave Courbet, the 19th-century French painter who coined the term “realism,” launched painting on the path of sticky formalist self-absorption that wouldn’t peak until the advent of the Abstract Expressionists, and created a persona for himself that continues to be the template for the market- and publicity-savvy art star to this day.

Hot on the heels of the refreshing revisionism of the LACMA (via MOMA) exhibit “Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885,” “Courbet and the Modern Landscape” presents Angelenos with another rare opportunity to explore this signal era of French landscape painting that spawned Impressionism, Cubism, and ultimately Modern Art as we know it. Although Courbet is probably best known for his hunting scenes and epic social vistas like 1850’s Burial at Ornans, the Getty’s “Courbet and the Modern Landscape” makes a strong argument for his gnarly, depopulated visions of forests, seashores and grottoes as his most personal and historically significant accomplishment.

For starters, landscape became Courbet’s most successful vehicle for flipping off the Man. Many of the artist’s career highlights pertained to this ongoing endeavor: his establishment of a separate, pay-per-view pavilion devoted exclusively to his own work in direct competition with the state-sponsored 1855 Salon; his increasingly explicit erotic content in unexhibited but nevertheless notorious works like The Origin of the World (Google it — you won’t be sorry); his refusal of the Cross of the Legion of Honor in 1870; and his subsequent service as head of the Arts Commission for the fleeting proto-anarchist Paris Commune the following year, which ultimately led to his imprisonment and exile.

But 15 years earlier, when Courbet began to focus his energies on landscape painting, it was the bottom rung on the French Academic establishment’s ladder of favored genres, which valued tightly rendered historical and allegorical narratives above all. But times were changing, and the landscapes found a lucrative international market ready to embrace them. Courbet discovered that the combination of his carefully managed persona as anti-urban provocateur and the unaffected tastes of the emerging marketplace allowed him to circumvent the conventions and pecking orders of the Beaux Arts mafia entirely.

While the political contexts of Courbet’s practice have been a focus of critical attention, what ensured his contemporary currency — particularly through the interest and advocacy of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists and critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried — was his radical formal experimentalism with composition, the depiction of space, and techniques and performancelike approach to paint-application. All of which are at their most unfettered in the landscapes.

“Courbet and the Modern Landscape” offers ample evidence to support this view of 19th-century country Realist as action painter, beginning with the impressively scaled The Gust of Wind (1865), which confronts the viewer upon entry to the first — “Cliffs and Valleys” — gallery. The idiosyncratic, vortexlike composition and almost lurid light and color effects would torpedo a less virtuosic painter’s efforts, but Courbet somehow pulls it together into a trembling, almost hallucinatory pictorial cohesion. On close inspection, as with most of the works here, this seemingly ordered illusionism collapses into a bewildering array of painterly flourishes, with surfaces caked, scumbled, scraped or barely stained with pigment, transforming the painting into a double landscape — the feverish panorama depicted in the conventional sense and the simultaneous and equally compelling aerial topography of the painting surface.

The next grouping, “Forests and Streams,” incorporates a stunning sequence of paintings of the Puits-Noir (Black Well, a shaded bend in a stream near his hometown of Ornans) that illustrate how the one type of mapping — the self-reflexive material engagement with the painting surface and the record of its accumulation — moved from being subservient to the image to being on at least equal footing. In the later, most abstract of these, the dark, jostling planar geometry even seems to be getting the upper hand, implying the trajectory of avant-garde painting for most of the next century.

“Rocks and Grottoes” encompasses the most boiled-down incarnations of Courbet’s archetypal void fetishism (not counting The Origin of the World) with an array of central darkened recesses — caves, springs, velvety nooks — surrounded by glissandi of geological formations mimetically rendered from ground-up minerals suspended in oil and turpentine and built up in what appears to be a compressed recapitulation of geological accretion. Almost binary in their mysteriousness, these works flicker on the threshold between being and nothingness — in both their content and structure — with an elegance unsurpassed in art history.

After a dim chamber of didactic asides — contemporaneous newspaper caricatures ridiculing Courbet’s grandiose celebrity and landscape photographs he might have seen — the exhibit opens up onto a selection of the luminous “marine” seascapes which, in their seriality and sensitivity to tonal subtleties, are obvious precursors of Impressionism, and, in more than one instance, of color-field artists like Mark Rothko. Conversely, the storm-force “Wave” paintings bring a turbulence to the painting surface that prefigures the agitated brushwork of German Expressionists (particularly Nolde) and their later American namesakes.

The group of paintings made during his exile in Switzerland seem relatively tentative and melancholy — unsurprising, since he was about to die from cirrhosis of the liver and had a factory churning out hackwork auto-forgeries to try and pay off the fines imposed by the restored Imperial government. Rounding out the large gallery is a selection of Courbet’s innovative “Snowscapes,” which, while at least equal exemplars of his facility with palette knife, rag and thumb, point out one of the biggest impediments to getting Courbet — the fact that they are so familiar. Hugely influential, these are the type of picture that everyone can love, that have adorned a zillion Christmas cards and made Thomas Kinkade the most successful artist in America.

But the difference is driven home by the experience of seeing the works in person. In reproduction, Courbet’s winter wonderlands could easily be mistaken for mere pretty pictures. In the flesh, whole new worlds reveal themselves. And it seems to me that the snowscapes offer one last example of Courbet’s “Va te faire foutre” to the powers that be. As much as he relied on his patrons to keep him free from Academic strictures, he must have rankled at the frequent requests from clients to insert a deer in his pristine forest scenes. Otherwise why would he have used the stencil-same doe almost every time, positioned squarely in the center of the canvas, with its fundamental orifice (The End of the World?) winking slyly at the viewer? Any asshole can channel the forces of nature, but it takes a genius to paint an asshole.

COURBET AND THE MODERN LANDSCAPE | Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Dr. | Through May 14

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