Courbet Landscape Collection Debuts at Getty Center

And now for something completely different is a thought that enters my mind when stepping into the Getty's newest show 'Courbet and the Modern Landscape.'  This thought is echoed by Director of J. Paul Getty Museum Michael Brand's words as he welcomes the press.

"The Gust of Wind," about 1865, Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of Caroline Wiess Law. Houston, Texas.

'This exhibit brings fresh attention to the neglected aspects of Courbet's career,' Brand says.  'This is something that needed to happen.  It is a profoundly important (event).'

Indeed, Gustave Courbet is perhaps best known for his stunning- and often shocking- figural works he exhibited in Paris in the 1840's and 1850's.  The Getty treats the visitor here, instead, to a collection of lush and almost hypnotic representations of nature. 

Characteristic of the quality of Getty exhibitions, this major tour of Courbet's pivotal landscapes debuts at the Getty before going on to two other major US museums.  It brings together for the very first time ever forty-seven Courbet landscapes.  Most of these are representative of the countryside and shores of the Normany coast where the artist spent earlier years.  The exhibition finishes with work painted in Switzerland.  This grouping seems a fitting finale as it was in Switzerland that Courbet lived out his final years in political exile until his death in 1877.

Curated by the team of Mary Morton and Charlotte N. Eyerman, Associate Curator and Assistant Curator of Paintings, respectively, for the J. Paul Getty Museum, this show is uniquely divided into sections which are grouped thematically.  There are 'Cliffs and Valleys,' 'Forests and Streams,' 'Rocks and Grottoes,' 'Snowscapes,' 'Seascapes,' 'Switzerland,' and, finally, 'Courbet and Photography.'

"Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne," about 1864, Gustave Corbet, oil on canvas. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

'I'd love our visitors to be taken to another place when they view this exhibit- to the beach, to the forest, etc.,' Charlotte N. Eyerman, Assistant Curator of Paintings, tells me.  Eyerman and Morgan have certainly attained that goal since the walls of the show's rooms form a richly hued complementary color backdrop that encourages the eye to draw each piece in the section into one 'feeling.'

'I'd also like to evoke a recognition that a person made these- a person made this photograph or a person made that painting,' Eyerman adds.  'It is the power of an individual imagination, the power of an individual execution.'

'It was always my intention to draw a link between Courbet and the present day,' Eyerman says further, 'so that we as viewers- or visitors, or thinkers, or art historians, or 'just' people interested in the subject- could make connections that, maybe, even the artist, himself, didn't intend.'  She points to a black and white photo in the 'Courbet and Photography' section.  The subject is an ocean wave- fitting, she points out, for L.A.  'I saw something like this at a colleague's party and decided we needed something like this for this exhibit,' she confides.  The rest is a bit of history about how the Courbet and Photography grouping relates to the paintings there.  'You look at this and then you see these fabulous wave paintings by Courbet- of which there are about thirty.' 

The connection is clear, even clearer as one views the other photographs contained in exhibit.  We continue to walk through the rooms together.  There is a certain excitement about her that is palpable, and when our view opens onto the collection of seascapes, the source is obvious:  the work is grouped in a way like no other show.

"The Waterspout" ("La Trombe"), 1866, Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas on gypsum board. Philadelphia Museum of Art, The John G. Johnson Collection, 1917. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

'We have this wonderful wall of 'marines,' Eyerman tells me, smiling, 'and we made the decision to hang them on the horizon line and that, again, is curatorial taste.  It was suggested and (others) said, 'I don't know, (what about) the frames,' and I said, 'Forget it! He's painting the sea!  It's (all) about the horizon line!'  The choice of hanging, and spacing the pieces very closely together, creates a further, special relationship between them.  'This is about seriality,' Eyerman says passionately, 'about something that also connects to modern painting- to Courbet in his own day, to artists working in the abstract mode.'

"The Roe Deer's Shelter in Winter," ("Remise De Chevreulis en hinver"), about 1866, Gustave Corbet, oil on canvas. Musee dex Beaux-Arts, Lyon. Lyon, France.

We explore the 'Snowscapes' section together, too, and Eyerman recalls the sense of joy she experienced acquiring certain hard-to-get pieces.  We discuss the fact that most of this work includes thoughtfully placed deer in the landscape- certainly requests by patrons- and admire the piece that is void of wildlife.  'I'm especially happy about this little piece.  This is from a small museum in Germany called Wuppertahl.  What I love about this piece is that there are no deer.  This is the only anecdotal painting in the show.  This is a great painting; as you look at the color, at the way he has laid the paint on, (you see) he's definitely gotten beyond the subject matter.'

'The more you look at these (paintings),' she says, 'the more you realize how much variety, how much experimentation, how (Courbet) is getting such different effects out of, seemingly, the same thing.'

"Le Chateau de Chillon," 1874, Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas. Musee Gustave Courbet, Ornans, France.

It is easy to feel drawn into each grouping, to feel as if one is standing in a forest, near a stream, at the beach and so on.  As Michael Brand describes it: 'It is an unfolding landscape'- yet another of the special ways the Getty blesses the visitor with a new way to appreciate great works of art.

A word on this:  The Getty Center is always a wonderful place to visit- even on the unusually chilly evening of this exhibit's opening.  Staff members miss no detail in attending to visitors' comfort; the trams are heated and run so frequently that the cool of the evening is not an issue- and the scene at the approach to the Center buildings once arriving at the top never fails to delight!

The Courbet show moves to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, June 18-September 10, 2006, then on to The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, October 15, 2006-January 7, 2007.  Don't miss this!

."Stream in the Forest," about 1862, Gustave Courbet, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts. Gift of Mrs. Samuel Parkman Oliver. Boston, Massachusetts.

"Courbet and the Modern Landscape" can be seen from February 21 through May 14, 2006. 

Related events are slated as described below.  All events at the Getty Center are free, unless otherwise noted.

"The Artist's Artist:  Courbet's Legacy in the Twentieth Century."  Thursday, March 9, 7:00 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium.  Charlotte Eyerman, co-curator of "Courbet and the Modern Landscape," traces Courbet's impact on 20th century artists and critics and considers how subsequent generations of artists have responded to Courbet's work and to his landscapes in particular.

"Courbet's Landscapes and Impressionism."  Sunday, March 19, 4:00 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium.  Richard Brettell, professor of art history, University of Texas at Dallas, and noted authority on 19th century French painting, considers the delayed effect that Courbet's landscapes had on Impressionism- delayed due both to his exile from France and the long period between his death and the 1882 posthumous exhibition in Paris devoted to his work.

"How Landscape Means:  Courbet and His Territory."  Thursday, April 6, 7:00 p.m., Harold M. Williams Auditorium.  Linda Nachlin, Lila Acheson Wallace professor of modern art at the institute of Fine Arts/New York University, explains how Courbet created works with multiple meanings by depicting landscape elements in an apparently neutral manner.  She shows how regional history and local politics shed light on the symbolic meaning of Courbet's landscapes.

"Performing Nature:  Courbet's Revolutionary Landscape Painting."  Sunday, April 23, 4:00 p.m., Harold M. Willilams Auditorium.  Mary Morton, associate curator of paintings, the J. Paul Getty Museum, focuses on Courbet's career during the electric decade of the 1860's in Paris.  Courbet's radical innovations in technique and composition encouraged the ascendance of landscape as "the" avant garde genre, thus initiating a powerful strain of Modernism.

Portrait of Gustave Courbet," about 1860-1865, Andre' Salmona, albumen silver. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California

Text copyright 2006 M. D. Caprario

Photographs courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust and used with permission.

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