A Letter from Courbet

I saw several films, during the screening of films about the “Grands Maîtres d’Art” organized over 4 weekends at the NGMA (Bangalore) in collaboration with the Alliance Française. The two films that stayed with me and I would strongly recommend to everybody interested in art, whether a novice or an expert are  “La Danse et Degas” and “Courbet, les origines de son monde.”

I knew Courbet as one of the first artists of the Realist movement and have not only studied but also used his painting “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet” in class. Even though I have also studied some of his other works (Artist’s Studio, A Burial at Ornans etc.), the film was a revelation of sorts. Courbet hailed from a reasonably rich family. After abandoning art school in Besançon since it was too slow and boring for him, he moved to Paris to establish himself as a serious artist. Relying heavily on the funds sent by his family every month, Courbet started working towards his career with a single-minded ambition.

Like many other artists, Courbet too rejected the norms and guidelines set by the Academy. Breaking away from the predominantly Romantic and Neoclassic style of paintings in the 19th century, he painted landscapes, still life and portraits, making it a point to address social issues and paint his subjects as they were, even if they were deemed ugly or vulgar by the audience. His paintings caused uproar but after the initial hiccups he was able to find agents and sell his paintings. But he continued to challenge the limits of art, innovating constantly and evolving as an artist. Known for his self portraits, his paintings shocked the genteel society with what they seemed to suggest – lack of grief at a burial, vanity, abject misery, sloth, decadent sensuality. The women in his paintings were not beautifully proportioned, were often prostitutes and their flagrant rejection of modesty shocked the critics and public.

His painting “L’Origine du Monde” (The Origin of the World) sent ripples of shock across the audience. The 19th century audience was not prepared for something as brutal and honest as a painting of a woman’s vagina entitled “The Origin of the World.” Courbet spent the last years of his life in exile in Switzerland, after he was accused of being responsible for the Vendôme Column during the Paris Commune (1871).

The entire story is narrated using letters Courbet sent home, asking his parents to send more money so that he could pursue his artist’s career and make a name for himself in Paris. The epistolary format and the staccato tone of the narration complemented beautifully Courbet’s personality. The film is a Courbet 101 for the beginners and a must watch for those interested in art.

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