The Courbet exhibition in Montpellier

1. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
The Meeting or Bonjour
Monsieur Courbet
, 1854
Oil on canvas - 129 x 149 cm
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Photo : Musée Fabre - Montpellier Agglomération/
Frédéric Jaulmes

28/6/08— Exhibition — Montpellier, Musée Fabre — The same exhibition can take on another look when it travels to a new location. This is certainly the case for the Courbet retrospective which has just started at the Musée Fabre in Montpellier after stopovers in Paris and New York (not visited).

The works exhibited in Montpellier are not all the same ones as in Paris although the catalogue does not take these changes into account : the canvases shown only at the Musée Fabre are not listed and those no longer present are not pointed out. Above all, the visit itself is significantly different.
In Montpellier, the curators have decided to highlight Courbet as a painter and have not mixed his works with photographs of his contemporaries. Some of these are still shown here, but set apart from the main itinerary avoiding the feeling of confusion caused at the exhibition in the Grand Palais which contained sections that lacked a real unity and a connecting thread which was difficult to follow except for visitors already familiar with Courbet’s work. The Montpellier retrospective seems clearer than the one in Paris and thus more accessible to the public. It also benefits from rooms that are better adapted to exhibitions than is the case at the Grand Palais. The natural lighting from above is particularly effective, especially in the gallery devoted to landscapes around Montpellier (a section not included in Paris but possible here thanks to extensive holdings at the Musée Fabre).

2. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
The Bridge at Ambrussum, 1857
Montpellier, Musée Fabre
Oil on maroufled on panel - 48 x 63 cm
Photo : Musée Fabre - Montpellier Agglomération/
Frédéric Jaulmes

We will skip any mention of works presented here but not shown in Paris (including some very important ones, such as the Portrait of a Spanish Lady from Philadelphia). Obviously, the large formats (The Atelier and The Burial at Ornans) could not make the trip. Only The Kill of the Deer from Besançon enjoyed the honor of being both in Paris and Montpellier, a perilous choice for this immense canvas. On the other hand, we are happy to see that—and on this point we differ with Colin Lemoine in his review—the Reclining Nude of 1862 was not exhibited. This mediocre derivative of the Venus from Urbino by Titian was rediscovered not long ago. It was immediately, and enigmatically, classified as a “major work for the interest of our heritage”. Happily, its very high price (11 million euros) and its poor quality apparently have discouraged French museums from acquiring it. The canvas would in no way have been able to stand the comparison next to the exceptional group of masterpieces in one of the last galleries which assembles the most beautiful paintings of women-nude or otherwise-by Gustave Courbet.

3. The Bridge at Ambrussum
Photo : D. Rykner

Finally, we would like to point out that a “Courbet itinerary” has been thought up by Montpellier. This initiative is significant in that it can help to awaken local officials to the value of their cultural heritage. The idea is to visit the places where the artist painted some of his most beautiful landscapes. Some of the points are a bit approximate—the site of the Meeting (ill. 1), for instance, has not been specifically located and recent urbanization now renders the whereabouts unrecognizable—but a visit to the former estate of François Sabatier in Lunel-Viel (exceptionally open to the public) is particularly pleasing. This is where Courbet stayed in 1854 while he painted The Tour de Farges. Another very enjoyable view is that of the Ambrussum Bridge even if it has lost one of its arches due to flooding in the last century (ill. 2 and 3).

Version française

Didier Rykner, dimanche 29 juin 2008

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