Back in February I attended a talk at the Yale University Art Gallery about acquisition of Old Masters Drawings, then drank and ate at the reception, then toured the Old Masters Drawings on display; the exhibit was impressive, but not as impressive as I’d hoped, so I went up to the museum’s collection of paintings from Impressionism to the present and looked at paintings in a way that I hadn’t in far too long. Someday maybe I’ll go into more detail about my ruminations on the rather excellent little collection of modern art in the Yale museum, but for now I simply want to say that -- as I cruised around the gallery with three glasses of wine in me -- I realized that there are few things I enjoy more in this world than looking at great paintings. I tend to forget this because, of course, one is so seldom looking at great paintings. You have to seek the things out and, even if you do, you won’t necessarily find them. There are great paintings to be found in most good museums, but from the late 20th century to the present fewer and fewer of them are produced. I say all this by way of introduction to a few comments about a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC where two great shows of paintings were on display last weekend: one showcasing Gustave Courbet, the other Nicolas Poussin.
Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet”; and Poussin’s self-portrait which the note next to the painting said has been interpreted as an allegory of friendship. In Courbet’s case there were many other self-portraits on display; Courbet -- like Rembrandt before him and like Van Gogh after him -- got a lot of mileage out of the genre, but unlike those two greats he wasn’t so much interested in exploring the changes that time perpetrated upon his visage as he was in creating “roles” for himself. Courbet was, in so many ways, the inventor of the modern artist as we generally think of the type (sort of the way that Byron is the inventor of the romantic poet), and this is nowhere more evident than in the theatricality of his self-portraits, which at times are only indirectly self-portraits because they are actually “genre studies” for which he simply used himself as the model. Rembrandt and Van Gogh share the interest in delineating themselves as a subject, though only sometimes -- as in that wonderful Rembrandt self-portrait at the Frick -- is the concept of “artist” illustrated by pose and demeanor. Courbet, on the other hand, is always illustrating that the concept of “artist” simply is a pose and a demeanor.
Then there’s Poussin. I should say that when I told my daughter that I definitely wanted to see the Courbet show I termed him “the first truly great French painter.” Foolish of me. How could I have forgotten Poussin? And there he was to rebuke me for my presumption. It’s true, of course, that I really believe that most significant artistic events before the 20th century took place in the 19th century, but that’s only because so much from that time is meaningful for what modernism is and becomes. I don’t mean to say that the Renaissance and the Baroque and the neo-Classical era are lesser. Of course not. Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velazquez, Cervantes mean as much to me as anything does, but, still, the 19th century is the first century that resonates for me as a standard of living and production that makes sense, in the modern sense of “sense,” I suppose.
Poussin’s iconography usually involves: natural landscape, classical buildings, mythological figures, playful compositional use of line and color to involve the eye in that unique act of reading that is “following” a painting. So used to cameras controlling our attention, giving us “a shot” for a duration at the whims of an editing presence, we can luxuriate in letting our eyes take in a canvas in whatever incremental way we choose. And that’s even more the case, for me, in looking at Courbet -- seldom, in his case, am I concerned with reading some narrative or symbolic meaning. And this is why we know we’re looking at the major practitioner to emerge in that space between Rembrandt and early Cézanne: we’re looking at how paint makes the painting of rocks, water, nude female flesh, snow, sea become the entire point. We look to see the ingenuity of depiction, to see that Courbet is capable of making his own whatever subject he chooses. And because we know where the history of painting is going, we can’t help looking at how his paintings dispense with the pieties of compositional space and refinement of contour in favor of what sheer stylistic vigor (and one hell of a palette knife) makes happen before our very eyes.