Expo Paris Episode 11 – Gustave Courbet @ Musee d’Orsay


Written by:

Gustave Courbet - Le Désespéré

Gustave Courbet – Le Désespéré

In which your host  is completely exhausted by contemporary art and just wants to look at pretty pictures.   [ audio + transcript ]

This week, Expo Paris visits the Courbet Gallery at Musee d’Orsay.

There is no museum in Paris that is more Parisian in personality than the Musee d’Orsay.  Like the residents of the 7th arrondissement, where it is located, it is refined and sedate, a  grande dame who, while maybe not dressed in the latest style, is always impeccably put together.

A lady so grand you find yourself speaking in hushed tones and on your best behavior without even realizing it.  Indeed, the crowds at Musee d’Orsay are not as colorful as at Centre Pompidou or Palais de Tokyo, and they’re not the noisy tourist crush at the Louvre.  The ambiance is soft and quiet, hushed and respectful, and it makes you feel moneyed and sophisticated just being there.  You could almost be spending an afternoon with this grande dame drinking tea  in the 16th… .but not quite.

Because, like so much of Paris and Parisiens, beneath that refined exterior, the Musee d’Orsay is quite subversive.  You have to look very closely, you have to know something of French history to get it.  As with so much of Parisian life, the living — and the real information — is in the details, in between the lines, and what is left unsaid as much as what is said.

Beating just beneath that Beaux-arts exterior is the obvious eroticism — in fact, there is a Marquis de Sade expo on now that explores de Sade’s influence on modern sexuality — but I feel like I’ve been talking about sex a lot lately — at La Pinacotheque,  at the Jeff Koons retrospective, at the supermarket, at breakfast….  so it’s time, I thought, for a little less  conversation and a little more action.

I came for “L’hallali du cerf” or the Kill of the Deer, the last of Gustave Courbet’s very large format paintings, and on loan from the Musee des Beaux-Arts in Besoncon until 2015.  Born in 1819, Courbet rejected romanticism for realism, he innovated the entire sphere of painting by exalting the everyman, the peasants and farmers of France, into positions normally reserved for kings and popes.  Relentlessly criticized and sometimes shunned for daring to paint the underclass as noble creatures, he challenged the status quo and artworld hypocracies… all the while courting controversy to heighten his own fame and success … he was a singular and daring figure in the world of Paris art, and was a huge influence on the Impressionsists and later the Cubists as well.  He was remained independent of government, societal constraints and spirit until his death in exile in 1877.  He was the bad boy of art of his time.

To get to the large format Courbet’s, you walk through the precedent galleries — and of course, what’s so great about the galleries at Musee d’Orsay is that there’s enough room to get close or stand back — and you bask in the golden light of the French countryside in Rosa Bonheur’s Le Sombrage, or you reminisce about the copy of Millet’s Des Glaneuses that hung in your parent’s living room, a painting from childhood before you even knew it was art.  You enter the Orientalisme galleries and are surrounded by paintings so large you can step inside, or you pass by the dark dramas of kings and devils in the paintings of the Salon artists.  Some of these paintings are so famous and are such staples of art history classes, that walking among them is like visiting old lovers, passions suffered and savored, now a cherished piece of personal history.

But go back and look again: Why are Millet’s countrysides and peasants hanging in the same gallery with the satirist Daumier?  Are the paintings of the orient really exotic, or are they actually subtle comments on exoticising racism?  Another take of Sellier’s “Portrait de Napolitain” and you notice how vague and fuzzy the eyes are — a bit of a French comment on their Italian; a re-viewing of James Tissot’s “Parabal of the Prodigal Son” and the scenes are almost comical in their accuracy of very French melodrama in store for first-born sons.

The display is subtle and genteel, but can cut to the bone so deftly you don’t even get it until 3 galleries later…  like that moment when you finally learn enough French to understand when you’re being insulted at dinner parties.

…and so, it only makes sense that this museum’s pride and joy, is Gustave Courbet.   A subversive painter himself, Courbet was a master of Realism, interested in painting only what he could actually see.  Courbet’s very famous “Un enterrement a Ornans”, is one of his most scandalous painting, depicting peasants and country people in the same format and somber tones usually reserved for religious or classical themes.  “L’atelier du peintre”, of course, is Courbet’s not very subtle but very sarcastic comment on the art market of his time, and “L’Origine du Monde”, a beautifully rendered but incredibly graphic depiction of a woman’s genitals is a brilliantly scathing comment on sexual and religious hypocracy.  Well aware of the financial and fame potential of les scandales, Courbet was doing Warhol Factory-style events about 100 years before Warhol, creating Koons-level porn scandals a full century before Koons.

But, just as in Paris, nothing in Courbet’s paintings is as it seems.  His paintings are allegorical, subtly or not so subtly ridiculing social imbalance, challenging social convention, and encouraging the beauty in the every day and the common.

Measuring 355 cm × 505 cm, L’Hallali du cerf is perhaps the most allegorical of all of Courbet’s large format paintings.  It is certainly the most violent and bloody.  In a snowy wood in thin winter light, a single stag has been caught in a hunt, and is being tortured by the attacks of hunting dogs, who are being whipped into a frenzy to take the stag down.  A huntsman cracks the whip in the crisp winter air, and the nobleman for whom he works remains astride his horse, enjoying the afternoon’s bloody entertainment, a wry smile playing across his chilly face…

L’Hallali du Cerf, Gustave Courbet

L’Hallali du Cerf, Gustave Courbet

Perhaps because I’m a writer I love the allegory of L’Hallali du cerf; perhaps because I’m half German and my grandfather was a jaegermeister — this scene of the hunt is in my blood.  I love the Germanity of it.  But in all the quick and the violence, it’s an interesting allegory of societal imbalance too — the cruelty of the huntsman cracking his whip to frenzy up the dogs and keep them killing the majestic and singular stag; the nobleman — actually based on the cruel Ottoman soldier in Eugene Delacroix’s “The Massacre at Chios” — who is clearly enjoying all of this as entertainment…  at clean distance, staying on his horse — he’s going to savor that venison later, that’s for sure, and maybe give a cheaper cut to the huntsman as a gratuite…  never mind the fact the starving dogs did all the work and a beautiful and wild individual was destroyed.

And the dogs — the peasants, the plebes, ravenous and easily worked up into a mob, their genitals on full display — anthropomorphized and very human looking, also very much a shout out to the working class.  The text accompanying the painting makes a point of the dogs’ genitalia, and refers to it is as “ironic contrast.”

The other side of French humour — the after-the-dinner-party side — is scatalogical.  The French love bathroom humour, and Courbet’s references on those dogs is indeed very French, very Parisian.  Because Paris is covered in penises and my guess it always has been.  I don’t mean this metaphorically.  I have seen penises graffittied on the sides of trucks, in the metro, on buildings, in elevators of expensive apartment houses.  There was even an entire television commercial of an animated graffiti penis having no luck with the animated ladies — to promote safe sex.  Who is responsible for this penile graffiti?  Probably poeple from all social classes, but the majority are done by the working class, the people from the banlieue, the perigots, as it were.

But to me, it’s as if the artist can’t help himself — as serious and vibrant and sophisticated as the painting is, he still has to draw penises all over it — he gives in to his peurile sense of humour… and his innate desire to give the finger to the establishment, as most of his paintings do.  He was a punk… and I love him for that.   Never mind the bollocks, here comes Courbet.


In Courbet’s hunt scene, it is the working class who attack and rip apart the deer, slavering for blood — for anything to satisfy their bloodlust and frustration, probably — ripping apart the sole creative and divine stag.  Perhaps the stag is Courbet himself, a man of steel and virile courage, bold ideas, unique vision — torn apart by the common, the basic, who themselves are driven on by the keepers of the status quo.. the one percenters.  L’hallali du cerf is a beautiful and vivid allegory for the suffering of visionaries, for the price of change.

The Courbet Gallery, located at the back of the museum — head for the polar bear and turn left — features a clever timeline of Courbet’s large format paintings.  This gallery, by the way, has the best bench, designed so you can scoot around it and rest your eyes on all the Courbets in the room.

It’s a wonderful display, beginning with Courbet’s “L’atelier du peintre”, coming around to “Un enterrement a Ornans” and finally juxtaposing it with “L’Hallali du cerf”, the works getting progressively more allegorical, more lyrical and yet more sinister and damning in Courbet’s maturing critique of his world, in art, in politics and in society in general.

“L’atelier du peintre” is currently being restored, the painting surrounded by three glass walls, that also enclose scaffolding — all very clean and shiny, it looks like an installation too, a mini modern studio restoring the Painter’s Studio : it’s meta. You can watch the restoration process, and you can even be a part of it — there’s a crowdfunding apparatus in the gallery that lets you participate.  But the whole concept of making the restoration public is glorious — how cool to see such rare and specialized technique in person!  And of course, the amazing Un enterrement a Ornans… the sombreness of it, the sadness that permeates every shadow and glimmer of light.  Death of a peasant in the countryside is just as sorrowful and moving as death of a nobleman in Paris.

The Courbet’s are such beautiful paintings, just for technique and composition alone, and they do such a lovely job of enveloping you in grandeur, it’s easy to just soak up the beauty and forget the deeper meaning — especially on a cold winter afternoon.  But stay awhile, listen and look deeper.  You thought you were having a cosy tea with that grand dame d’Orsay, but if you wait long enough, she’ll eventually launch into her favorite anecdote about the Revolutionary and the Private Dick.

And in the best form of French farce, there is currently in the museum, a giraffe.  Also a gorilla.

“L’Hallali du cerf” will be on display at Musee d’Orsay until April 2015.  Musee d’Orsay is located at 1 Rue de la Légion d’Honneur in the 7th arrondissement.

That’s all for Expo Paris this week.  I’m Susie Kahlich.  From the American University of Paris, this is WRP.

From Susie Kahlich originally posted on Artipoeus

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: