Gustave Courbet (French, 1819–1877)
The Wounded Man, 1844–54
Oil on canvas; 32 1/8 x 38 3/8 in. (81.5 x 97.5 cm)
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
The Special Motion of a Hand
T.J. Clark goes to the Met
Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, the whole madness of painting seems to pass in front of your eyes. It felt that way to me in New York this spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two great exhibitions – one exploring Nicolas Poussin’s role in the invention of the genre we call 'landscape', the other an endless, stupendous retrospective of Gustave Courbet – are happening a few corridors apart. I stumbled to and fro between them day after day, elated and disoriented. They sum up so much – too much – of what painting in Europe was capable of, and they embed that achievement so palpably in a certain history. Behind the glistening meadows and the huntsmen in the snow one catches the smell of autocracy and public burnings, of permanent warfare and bankers with impeccable taste.
I have found over the years that looking at Courbet and Poussin leads a viewer in contrary directions. Sometimes it matters intensely, and seems to be the key to these paintings' mysteries, that they were made for Lyon silk merchants or left-leaning notables from the Franche-Comté, and that the Fronde or the Commune are just off-stage. (Breton put it this way in Nadja: 'The magnificent light in Courbet's pictures is for me the same as that in the Place Vendôme at the moment the column fell.') But these are also objects that speak to their makers' deep, naive absorption in the material practice of painting. They live in the confines of oil on canvas, delighting in procedure, hiding there from principalities and powers. Wildly different as the two men were temperamentally, their art shares an expository tone. They are both concerned to spell out the true nature and proper province of their craft. Therefore the impossible question 'What is painting?' tends to occur in front of the work they have left us. Or, just as daunting: 'What can painting do that no other art can?' The questions are abstract and dangerous, but there is something about Landscape with Diogenes or The Origin of the World that brings them on.
Painting is a craft. It works up its grandest, largest-scale effects from a set of familiar coloured substances. Usually, looking at the way these substances go to make a world within the rectangle, one is aware of the special motion of a hand putting them on: a hand and a forearm, or occasionally the whole arm swinging from the shoulder. Poussin, whose hand in later life trembled from the effects of syphilis, devised a way of painting through the trembling - but also taking advantage of the slightly broader patchwork it dictated - that seems to me 'handling' in the most moving form we have. [read full article...]
Nicolas Poussin (French, 1594–1666)
Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice
Oil on canvas; 48 7/8 x 78 3/4 in. (124 x 200 cm)
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des Peintures (Inv. 7307)
If you really get into Poussin (as I have), you might consider buying T.J. Clark's The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing, and reading it daily in between visits to the exhibition (as I am doing - it's up through May 11). The Sight of Death is Clark's personal, passionate and at times downright weird diaristic treatment of two Poussin paintings he came to know intimately at the Getty... (thanks Andrea!)
Here's the blurb from amazon:
Why do we find ourselves returning to certain pictures time and again? What is it we are looking for? How does our understanding of an image change over time? In his latest book T. J. Clark addresses these questions - and many more - in ways that steer art writing into new territory.
In early 2000 two extraordinary paintings by Poussin hung in the Getty Museum in a single room, Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (National Gallery, London) and the Getty's own Landscape with a Calm. Clark found himself returning to the gallery to look at these paintings morning after morning, and almost involuntarily he began to record his shifting responses in a notebook. The result is a riveting analysis of the two landscapes and their different views of life and death, but more, a chronicle of an investigation into the very nature of visual complexity. Clark's meditations - sometimes directly personal, sometimes speaking to the wider politics of our present image-world - track the experience of viewing art through all its real-life twists and turns.