© RMN (Musée d’Orsay) /Hervé Lewandowski
L'empremta de Courbet
Carolus-Duran. El convalescent o el ferit
I must admit that I was waiting to be convinced, during my stroll through the galleries at MNAC, about the premise of an exhibition called ‘Realisme(s)’ that ends with the work of abstract Catalan artist Antoní Tàpies. By the time I left MNAC, I was not.
At the very least, it affords the viewer the opportunity to see several verifiable masterworks by Frenchman Gustave Courbet that rarely leave the Musée d’Orsay and which have never been to Spain before. But the exhibition doesn’t exactly live up to its hype. “Through [Courbet’s] brush, reality entered painting: Realism was born.” Well, certainly as a reaction against the prevalent Romanticism of the early 19th century, Realism was RE-born. But didn’t Caravaggio depict his Baroque saints and sinners in the 17th century with a kind of street smarts and in a style of photorealism (okay, this is an anachronism) that must have made Courbet green with envy? Competent, certainly, and important, in Art History 101, but Courbet as the ‘father’ of Realism when it was ‘born’ in the 19th century? Certainly not.
Hyperbole aside, Courbet (1819-1877) is definitely a linchpin in 19th-century art, during the period between Romanticism and the arrival of the Impressionists. The exhibition starts strong, with a group of self-portraits of the artist with his wild mane of dark hair, one of which, while with its roots still clearly in the Romantic period is shocking in its confrontational character.
The exploration of Courbet’s precedents and his legacy has two unintended affects. Firstly, his Catalan contemporaries come off looking rather badly, except for perhaps the paintings of Ramon Martí, a competent but uninspired local boy (from Mataró). While on the other hand, French realists like Millet and Carolus-Duran stand up proudly next to Courbet.
But it’s Courbet’s direct and unflinching depictions of the female nude that put him on the map. His choice to depict the voluptuous reality of women’s bodies freed him from the strictures of academic representations and he tackled eroticism head on. His iconic Origin of the World which depicts female genitalia, surely no longer shocks, yet is it presented here as a fleeting, apparently embarrassed, projection onto a dark corner at the exit. The portal from which all of us entered life was a scandal in 1866, and apparently it still is. Seeing Tàpies’s abstraction of the same subject, one is somewhat primed for what lies around the corner, and yet…