Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Breaking stones

At the Paris Salon of 1850 Gustave Courbet annoyed the bourgeois patrons of high art by exhibiting The Stonebreakers, a portrait of two men building a road. Where more conventional artists made rural workers into mere subsidiary details of their landscape paintings - shepherds became as small and tame and picturesque as the sheep they tended, and cart drivers were mere decorations for pleasantly winding country trails - Courbet gave his road-builders a size and centrality normally reserved for mythological heroes or kings. Their struggle against the obstinacy of stone dominated his painting, vanquishing almost all of the landscape in which they worked.

It is hard to look at a reproduction of The Stonebreakers - the original was destroyed by the Nazis - without remembering that Courbet would become one of the most prominent supporters of the Paris Commune, and that he would, after the destruction of the Commune, be put on trial for his politics by the same French bourgeoisie that had sneered at his paintings.

In a piece published at the online Kiwi arts journal EyeContact, I liken a recent exhibition by the Tongan-New Zealand artist John Vea to the provocative painting Courbet delivered to the Paris Salon in 1850. Vea's show Homage to the Hoi Polloi attempted to describe and interpret the experiences of migrant Pacific labourers in New Zealand. You can read my review of Homage to the Hoi Polloi here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How times have changed. The walls of the brain have been overrun. The intentional bastions of the soul are falling. Taken together, the sciences of the mind and brain are developing a picture that in many cases out-and-out contradicts many of the folk-psychological intuitions that underwrite so much speculation within the humanities. Unless one believes the humanities magically constitute a ‘special case,’ there is no reason to think that its voluminous, armchair speculations will have a place in the ‘post-scientific’ humanities to come.

9:04 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I was in NY in 1993 and this art curator was at a poetry reading and wrote a poem about Courbet. I haven't seen much if any examples of his work. I have to admit I still didn't know anything about him. His art is a bit passe. But the poet / curator (he was quite a young man then) was opposed to Bernadette Mayer with whom he had quarreled or disagreed. I was interested in the work she had done and mainly in her "exercises" etc

In discussing say Language poetry (we stopped in bookshop as we crossed Manhatten to read Wallace Steven's Key Point poem so we weren't just talking about realism as such - his plaint was "there's too much shit going down" but I still feel with Auden that poetry [and art] has a value in that it makes nothing happen: and yet I am ambiguous about the art market as such.

The problem is that these artists will in their turn (like Andy Lelei) turn their back on their people. They may use their "rebellion" to do well as many Polynesian artists have - and they get a lot more grants etc than Europeans do in the PC climate we now have - hence they will become a part of this strange community of art and the art-market.

Courbet it seems put his life on the line, rightly or wrongly.

It is not clear what the motivations of these artists is. In the end sugar coated bullets, as Mao tse Tung rightly warned, may be the biggest danger in an hope of "revolution".

Art though is not necessarily connected to "use". Thus there are those who avoid payment. This itself cant be taken too far.

A purist approach is as problematic.

Your mate Tiso is keen on policing who is right and wrong he is the man to wade in on this one...

10:43 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tiso and Taylor. Feel the em-nity!

8:13 am  
Blogger Richard said...

This is a comment to get comments. I mean to myself.

But above I've thrown out some questions rather than statements. This view of art and art practice is always subjective. I think these things are great that John Vea et al are doing.

Maps has an (slightly annoying but always interesting) way of digressing into arcane subjects prior to something quite (or virtually) unconnected.

Some more qualifications: what were or was Courbet's motivations. A post about Courbet? I don't want to rely on Wikipedia...

Tiso aside, his ego is so vast we can dismiss him - but there is no question of his intelligence and insight, we are concerned about his almost Cromwellian fanaticism for moral righteousness: we can look at art and wonder if any "good" will come of these things. We can only hope of course.

10:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:56 pm  
Anonymous Dorian X said...


take a look at Courbet's famous self-portrait - it answers all your questions.

2:12 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


2:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I was indeed asking rather than critiquing. As it happens I saw a book in a s/h bookshop today about Courbet. It looked interesting but I had spent quite a bit already. Unfortunately most of the illustrations were in B&W.

I wonder if I can get a book of Courbet's work from the library.

Maps of course did an MA in Art History and theory and we have both always been interested in art etc

Re politics in Art that is wider more complex question and takes in the question What is Art? which is indeed the subject I dealt with in 1994 when I did a paper in The Philosophy of Art with Davies.

I am not sure that the other anonymous can remove politics from art although perhaps in a deep sense Art can transcend. I am not sure: it is a massive discussion in its own right.

5:31 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I hadn't paid much attention to Courbet but I watched this YouTube:


It reveals a fascinating artist - I do recall some of his works - but I didn't know much about the overall development of his art.

He was friends with Baudelaire and Proudon and became a kind of "star" but his painting of the stone breakers and his huge canvass showing a funeral of more or less ordinary people focused on realities that the conservative salons tended to avoid: as did the Romantic artists such as Delacroix.

Clearly anyone studying modern art needs to know a lot about Courbet.

I had no idea what my friend's poem (who in fact had a PhD in art) was about although he told me he was a realist. At the time the word wasn't for me: but seeing the YouTube was revelatory. The book I saw today (by chance) didn't seem to have any colour prints but it looked interesting.


11:00 pm  

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