Courbet / Proudhon, l’art et le peuple

Courbet / Proudhon, art and the masses

Arc-et-Senans, Saline Royale, 4 June-6 September 2010

1. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Pierre Joseph Proudhon and his Children in 1853
Oil on canvas - 147 x 198 cm
Paris, Musée du Petit-Palais
Photo : RMN

The buildings which have been preserved and restored at the Saline Royale in Arc-et-Senans (Doubs) by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux alone are worth a visit. The disposition of different architectural styles, the semi-circle formed by the various pavilions, the decorative choice of luxurious simplicity all recreate the idea, in their orderly and panoptical organization, of early 19th century phalanstery. This important architectural ensemble is the ideal setting this summer for a jewel of an exhibition, which we highly recommend, Courbet / Proudhon, l’art et le peuple, organized by Frédérique Thomas-Maurin and Julie Delmas, respectively curator and conservation attaché at the Musée departemental Gustave Courbet in Ornans. The museum has selected a choice exhibition site, ideally suited for the subject it is highlighting during the refurbishing work currently under way.

The presentation is simple and effective with the white walls, red picture rails and steel gray furnishings emphasizing a clear theme, thus making perfect use of the rooms on the top floor of the “directeur” pavilion. Some prestigious loans are finely displayed and other less familiar works, at times totally unknown, are equally well presented ; together they provide the basis for a demonstration which we unfold here in our review and might be envied by more publicized shows.
It all starts with the social utopias of the 19th century, a succession of ideas which from Saint-Simon down to Fourier, aspired to creating a better world. On entering, an extremely interesting poster printed in 1831, lent by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, initiates visitors to the concept of love which, from God’s to man’s, can be the basis for a more just and happy society. Some of the lines reflect an attempt at Art but, for a Chenavard, unfortunately not present enough here, we must admit that these great thinkers were not really great aesthetes and that Enfantin when choosing Alexis Pérignon for a portrait is less inspired than when representing Hortense Schneider in theatre costume on other occasions (Compiègne, Musée du Château).
Even David d’Angers seems to fall below his artistic level when sculpting the Bust of Lamennais (1839, Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts) as if the thinker had frozen his chisel into an intellectual abstraction devoid of all humanity. Fortunately, a few steps away, thought turns into action and the study of Last Night of Slavery by Dominique Papety (around 1848, Montpellier, Musée Fabre), flung down rather than sketched, foreshadowing the freedom of line and colour found in Carpeaux, succeeds in making us forget the idea, seeing only the act, which here acclaims generosity and love, the keywords embodying the thought behind it.

2. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Portrait of Madame Proudhon, 1865
Oil on canvas - 73 x 59 cm
Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Photo : RMN

The change is evident when entering the second room. Visitors immediately encounter Proudhon and his Children in 1853 (ill. 1) from the Parisian museum at the Petit Palais, Courbet’s tribute in painting to his philosopher friend but also an artistic mystery. Aside from the very understated Portrait of Madame Proudhon, the viewer is surprised by the composition itself and the insertion of the main figure who seems to be stuck on, outside the real world and “in glory” almost like the new Messiah. He is the only character who appears to stand out from his surroundings whereas his children, on the right, busily playing, blend in perfectly with the environment. Nearby, the Portrait of Madame Proudhon (ill. 2), lent by the Musée d’Orsay, after a magnificent restoration and enhanced by the lighting, evokes the thinker’s companion and merits an in-depth study. Her pose, with head bent and slightly turned, as well as her furtive look do not correspond to the stereotyped model found in many other portraits. The crimped hairdo, with amazingly delicate blues by this master from Ornans, is more than just the adornment of a philosopher’s wife or a bourgeoise, and appears as an accessory whose meaning is both obvious and dissembling at the same time. An important moment in the relationship between the painter and the philosopher corresponds to the events of 1848 and the enthusiasm for a future where anything seems possible : the celebrations represented by Jean-Jacques Champin (1848, Paris, Musée Carnavalet) are signs of happy days ahead. Although, quite soon, the Prince-President then the Emperor quell the hopes born in February, offering the majority of the population only disappointments, things will never be the same. Old friendships, however, remain (Max Buchon, around 1855, Vevey, Musée Jenisch), and new ones are formed (Jean Journet, around 1850, Ornans, Musée Gustave Courbet, and Champfleury, 1855, Paris, Musée d’Orsay). These friends are also patrons, at times, as in the case of the very famous Alfred Bruyas, in his profile portrait of 1854 lent by Montpellier, or the more striking and less familiar Jean-Paul Mazaroz whose portrait comes from the museum in Lons-le-Saunier. He is seen standing at three-quarter length below the knee, with his right hand on a stack of books piled on a table, while on the left a window opens out onto a landscape. The composition recalls Bonnat where nature also finds its place for this cabinet maker and mason, known for his pertinent political writings.

3. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Portrait of Armand Gautier, 1867
Oil on canvas - 55.5 x 46.5 cm
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Photo : RMN

Following Proudhon’s death, his name appears below his artistic legacy, in the form of brief notes with the title : On the Principle of Art and Its Social Purpose, which was built up slowly, on request and for the defense of Courbet’s work, in opposition to a tradition considered as stagnant. Naturally, the room where this text is displayed, on loan from the Bibliothèque of Besançon, is an introduction, and presents both admirers and critics of the author. Without trying to list all of the works reflecting the originality of this presentation, we do point out the two Courbet masterpieces reunited here : The Sleeping Spinner from Montpellier and the Peasants from Flagey (Besançon) surrounded by painted, drawn or sculpted pieces. The ensemble illustrates the obvious contribution by Realism and Courbet to the aesthetics of this period without denying the intrinsic qualities of the works signed by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and James Pradier.
The last rooms continue Proudhon’s analysis by treating the Commune (with a magnificent series of portraits by Courbet representing Amand Gautier, a loan from Lille, Henri Rochefort, from Versailles and Gustave Chaudey from Troyes) as well as various considerations on art and the masses, from 1870 to the end of the century. The juxtapositions remain as eloquent when Courbet is no longer facing Academism, rather an insinuating Naturalism which still recalls his work but has also moved on to Degas or Japanese elements to forge a consensual art which forfeits Proudhon’s hopes. The Young Girl Selling Flowers in London (1882, Nancy, private collection) by Jules Bastien-Lepage, the last canvas in the show, summarizes the defeat of Utopian and Socialist thinking, therefore of the common folk, as well as that of the intellectual failure of certain intellectuals which supported it. Courbet has been defeated here. Time will then incorporate him into the establishment and blot out any inconsistencies.

In this exhibition, the public nonetheless rediscovers Courbet’s true dimension. The organizers should be commended for having refreshed the images while maintaining the aesthetics sufficiently at bay in order to retrieve the message now inscribed in Time and History.
Frédérique Thomas-Maurin and Julie Delmas have coupled this brilliant demonstration with a remarkable didactic effort : clear and concise explanatory texts abound in the various sections, enabling visitors to follow the guiding theme, evoke paintings which could not be lent, while expanding its dimension : the artist and the works are seen through caricatures which many thinkers considered “contrary to the principle or art and its social purpose”.
The finely illustrated catalogue – which we might criticize only for not distinguishing clearly between works exhibited and pictures for comparison – accompanying the exhibition (Besançon, Editions du Sekoya), is on a par with the ideas presented here. The range of opinions, the space allotted to historians or philosophers, as well as to art historians, results in veritable essays which are valuable scholarly sources and, embodies an innovative approach which we hope will set an example for future exhibitions in their excellence.

Under the supervision of Noël Barbe and Hervé Touboul in collaboratin with Frédérique Thomas-Maurin and Julie Delmas, Courbet/Proudhon, l’art et le peuple, Les Editions du Sekoya, 2010, 144 p., 24 €. ISBN : 978-2-84751-078-2.

Visitor information : La Saline Royale, 25610 Arc-et-Senans. Tél : +33 (0)3 81 54 45 45. Open from 9 to 12 and 14 to 18 (June and September), from 9 to 19 (July and August). Rates : 7.5 € (normal price), various reduced rates.

Internet website for Saline Royale d’Arc-et-Senans

Dominique Lobstein, jeudi 17 juin 2010

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