Courbet and the Modern Landscape is an ambitious attempt to look solely at the landscape paintings of Gustave Courbet. Ambitious not only in the focus of the exhibit, as Courbet is most known for his figurative compositions, but the Walters Art Museum has also gone beyond a traditional presentation. This exhibition of 37 paintings, which opens on Sunday, is divided into the four seasons, spring, summer, fall, and winter; each season also has a specific color, lighting, and ambient music. The system was still being adjusted when I previewed the exhibit. I will be interested to see how this works in a full gallery.
Spring’s gallery walls are painted a soft yellow, in an attempt to match the mood; in the background ambient music plays, composed by Peabody Conservatory students (a CD is available in the gift shop). Another twist is that the lighting varies incrementally to produce a more natural environment. The calm mood of spring is shaken here by The Gust of Wind: a gusty tour de force, its foreground is layered with juicy impasto, courtesy of a palette knife; which was a big break from tradition and would in turn have a great influence on painters that followed, including Jackson Pollock, surely Willem de Kooning. Courbet really shows off as your eye makes its way into the wind-blown trees and gorgeous sky. In Valley of the Loue and Rocks at Chauveroche, Courbet's influence on the way Cezanne would later chisel light and form and also Balthus, is crystal clear.
Fall’s gallery, with its walls a shade of salmon, is dimmer, making you notice the changes in light level more in this space. A leafy tree image is projected onto the floor, an interesting touch; however, with a crowded gallery this will not be noticed. Another thing I noticed are the ever-present deer in many of the forest scenes, which at times seem arbitrary. Courbet was known to add objects at a patron's request. I couldn’t get the image of a Thomas Kinkade painting out of my mind (the horror!). As is most obvious in this exhibit, Courbet at his best had a pronounced influence on many artists who followed him; unfortunately, many hacks are included in that, from the TV instructors with their magic fan brushes to the mass-produced painted-over-giclee prints; they get their license here. Of course that’s not entirely fair to Courbet; he was an innovator and used the technique masterfully. The grotto series is my favorite in this section, with their deep colors, an ode to Goya's black paintings.
Winter has a suitable light blue tone on its gallery walls: each of the paintings is directly illuminated, giving it a light-box effect. This was troubling at first, but I quickly adjusted. If you love the impressionist snow scenes of Sisley, Pissarro, or Monet, Courbet is the one from whom they got the inspiration to paint them. He was a snow master, and Winter Landscape is a good example of his ability to infuse it with a beautiful, luminous quality.
Summer’s transition to buff tone walls is a perfect ending to this show. Courbet’s seascapes are for me the strongest group. Waterspout, with its wispy dark torrents of rain, surely owing a debt to Turner and Constable, is my favorite. Sunset, Vevey, Switzerland has a foreground of dark, forebidding rocks, the light blue from the walls in the Winter gallery floats on the ocean's surface, and in the background, a gorgeous orange end of day sky.
Courbet was a boisterous maverick of his time. Instead of academic perfection he chose to paint the realism of his time, the harshness in life, a more spontaneous handling of paint (realism being a term he is credited with).
During the Paris Commune in 1871, Courbet proposed that the Colonne Vendôme, which he found an artless testament to war, be torn down; it was and Courbet was sentenced to six months in prison. In 1873 a new column was proposed and he was singled out to cover the expenses; he fled to Switzerland. At this point, in debt but still with a strong demand for his work, he set up a studio with assistants and began a mass production of paintings. Sound like a Warhol factory?
This also gave impetus to a profitable market for Courbet knockoffs, with a ready market of American collectors to buy them up. Many collections around the country have dubious Courbets in their midst. As a challenge the Walters has assembled a dozen paintings and prints from museums and private collections in a corresponding show, Courbet/Not Courbet, to investigate the authenticity of his late landscapes. With one painting, visitors are asked to guess if it is authentic: winners will receive a free poster.
The organizers of this exhibit have challenged themselves by experimenting with lighting, gallery colors, and ambient sound. For me, I would be just as satisfied to get right to the paintings: let me at them! But for entertainment's sake, they have some tweaking to do, but why not. Certainly the ornate salons of Courbet's era used some bold tactics to sell art. One suggestion would be to allow podcast downloading of the ambient music, so visitors could use iPods/Mp3 players. Otherwise, we are fortunate to have Courbet in Baltimore at the same time the National Gallery of Art is showing Constable: a perfect mix.