- The Washington Times - Friday, October 20, 2006

BALTIMORE — The lights in the center gallery weren’t working the morning I went to see the new Gustave Courbet exhibition at Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum. Standing in the dark prevented me from viewing a large section of pictures, but it also allowed me to concentrate on an unusual aspect of this show, the accompaniment of recorded music. Composed for the exhibit by students at the Peabody Conservatory, the atonal soundtrack is just part of the multisensory experience at “Courbet and the Modern Landscape.”

A return visit revealed another unexpected presentation technique: ever-shifting light levels in the galleries that are intended to suggest different times of the day. These silly effects are meant to foster “atmospheric immersion” in the show’s moody artworks, according to curator Eik Kahng, who organized the 37 canvases according to the four seasons. “We’re trying to create an environment for meditation that’s attentive to these beautiful paintings,” she says.

Instead of supporting the artwork, however, the spooky music and changing lights only distract from the intensity of Courbet’s swashbuckling brushwork. Still, if you can ignore these gimmicks — or bring earplugs and wait for the brighter lighting sequences — the exhibit is well worth seeing for its tightly focused display of muscular paintings by this influential father of modern art.

The exhibit is a smaller, earthier complement to the National Gallery of Art’s current John Constable show. It was organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and is the first museum exhibit to concentrate solely on Courbet’s landscapes.

These powerful depictions of the French countryside, created from 1855 to 1876, the year before the artist died, reveal how this brash painter became more avant-garde in his later years. Courbet not only portrayed nature in an unconventional way — up-close, almost abstractly and devoid of people — but used a freewheeling technique to capture its awesome force. Rejecting the slickness of academic painting, he wielded a palette knife, brushes and even his fingers to slather on layers of paint and scrape them away.

This experimental treatment is particularly evident in “The Gust of Wind,” a large canvas in the first gallery. (Called “Spring,” this section just as easily could have been titled “Summer” for its paintings of rocky green hills.) Stones and water in the foreground come to life through untamed strokes of color, while overhead, menacing dark clouds and blue sky are painted in a more controlled, conventional manner.

In reorganizing the traveling show according to seasons, although not in successive order, Ms. Kahng grouped similar subjects together to invite comparisons between almost identical compositions. Following “Spring” is “Autumn,” a long gallery filled with cropped views of woodlands, rocky gorges and streams. Here, the special effects imitate the artwork all too literally: Lights cast leaf patterns on the floor, and a snippet of sound recalls water being poured.

Courbet painted most of these forest scenes near his hometown of Ornans in eastern France, near the Swiss Alps. His black caverns, dense greenery and sculptural stone cliffs foreshadow the early work of Paul Cezanne, who also specialized in interpreting his native region of France. Their dramatic tonal contrasts and painterly effects inspired the impressionists as well as 20th-century abstract artists such as Willem De Kooning.

Of Courbet’s empirical approach, Mr. De Kooning once commented, “He could walk in a forest and see something, concretely, just the way it is; be obsessed by the bark on a tree.”

A populist and publicity hound, Courbet also had his schlocky side, which the exhibit reveals in “Winter.” In this section, the paintings are the least captivating, but the lighting is the most dramatic. Theatrical spotlights pick out snow scenes in the darkened gallery, turning their crusty whiteness slightly blue. The glow only accentuates the kitschy quality of their frosty glens with cutesy deer, turning these wintry landscapes into clips from Disney’s “Bambi.”

Last of all, “Summer” takes us to the beach, where waves crash and clouds gather on canvas, and the piped-in music swells rhythmically to suggest ocean tides. Courbet based many of these seascapes on trips to Normandy, where he was introduced to the genre by artist Eugene-Louis Boudin, whose influence is seen clearly in big skies over the horizon line.

Hints of earlier marine paintings also are felt. “The Waterspout” recalls British painter J.M.W. Turner’s swirling tempests, and “The Wave” suggests the foamy, cresting waters of Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s woodcuts. Although not wholly original, the atmospheric paintings are Courbet’s most meditative and abstract.

Yet contemplation of these sublime works is again foiled by lighting and sounds and, even worse, objects for sale in the next room. Visible through a doorway is a French-themed gift shop, the final stop in this irritating recasting of Courbet’s late work.WHAT: “Courbet and the Modern Landscape”

WHERE: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore

WHEN: Throgh Jan. 7; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday


PHONE: 410/547-9000

WEB SITE: www.thewalters.org

Sideshow includes some pretenders

Painter Gustave Courbet spent his last years in Switzerland, churning out landscapes to raise cash and pay his debts. He fled France in 1873 after being accused of masterminding the toppling of the Vendome column, an imperial symbol of Napoleon’s victories, during the Paris Commune. The French government ordered the artist to pay more than 300,000 francs to restore the monument.

While in exile, Courbet, who died in 1877 at age 58, worked with assistants to hasten the production and sale of his canvases. These collaborations make up an interesting sideshow to the Walters’ larger Courbet exhibit in raising questions of technique and authenticity. A few of the 11 paintings in “Courbet/Not Courbet,” installed on the fourth level, clearly reflect the artist’s fluid brushwork. Others, including several purchased by museum founder Henry Walters, are stilted forgeries.

“I thought I should be honest about the situation,” says curator Eik Kahng, who organized the exhibit. “We have Courbets that are clearly not Courbets, and so do other museums. Some of these were painted in large part by [Courbet’s] students and have been reclassified as fakes.”

Courbet’s most talented disciple was Cherubino Pata, whose own signed seascape-and-snow scene reflects a slightly stiffer style than that of his teacher. The two may have collaborated on a painting of cliffs and stream, also in the show. The exhibit provides no definitive authentication for the landscape but invites visitors to speculate as to its creator. The person with the best explanation wins a poster after this small show closes in March.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide