Art Thoughts, Week 33 -- Courbet & Pornography

Nude, Gustave Courbet (French, 1819—1877) 1864, oil on canvas, BF 810.

Mystery permeates the space between a painting and its viewer – it has always been that way. Of course, the importance of an individual’s response to a work of art has increased in the last few centuries, in the wane of more communal, pre-modern responses to art. But volumes have contemplated this numinous space – revealing the fact that what humans know little about, they’ve expended inordinate amounts of energy in investigating. Likewise, ever since the sexes were separated by a single rib bone, they’ve been incredibly fascinated in knowing more about the Other, by almost any means possible – pryingly and insistently; psychologically and physically. Betwixt these two realities of human impulse we find the painting Nude, by Gustave Courbet. A young woman, wearing little besides a knowing smirk, is reclining on her back on the ground near some woods, putting on (or is it removing?) a white stocking, revealing her thighs and buttocks to the viewer. A dalliance; fore or aft? We do not know for sure – but this is not an innocent Degas or Bonnard baigneuse scene. Courbet, later in his life, began creating erotic paintings – at least one on commission – perhaps signifying his famously intense penchant for anti-establishment action. This is one of the milder ones (the most blatant being The Origin of the World which Duchamp will later reference in a more impersonal and humorously nihilist way). It’s not immediately evident, but Courbet too had a sly, humorous bent in making this painting, not to mention cutting insight into basic human nature. Simply put, by viewing we implicate ourselves. The prime signifier in the picture is a large, implied X which lays smack-dab in the middle. It’s created by the girl’s lower leg and left arm on one side, and her left thigh and right foot on the other. The arms of this X enter the landscape through the upper right corner tree line; the shadow on the bottom right, and her red shoe pointing to the lower left-hand corner. An initial question of an X might be what is the locus? It is not, as one may imagine, the girl’s genitalia – it is rather her bowels, though obscured by her left thigh. (The bowels, incidentally, were considered by the Greeks to be the seat of human emotion.)

An X works both as a signifier (clue) and a blockage (stop) – it proverbially “marks the spot”, and also denotes “this far, but no farther”. Thus, because it simultaneously promises and rejects, this X is a major titillation, moving the picture towards what is euphemistically called “soft porn”. In pornography, there is usually – and sometimes implied – a culpable party, and here it is the viewers (i.e., after the artist, who painted and ran, leaving us with the question of responsibility). Pornography promises gratification – but here it is denied, while Courbet sniggers. Like her left thigh which obscures her genitals, so the large X prevents us from entering any further into the painting; from succumbing to the narrative. We are implicated but emasculated (for the implied viewer is male) without satisfaction; stopped in our tracks by the inapproachability of the figure, and the flaming sword of an X. We’ve tried putting our key into the lock, and it’s broken off in our hand – and now our entry’s been denied. Using our innate curiosity, Courbet has first lured us in, then denied us all meaningful and fulfilling gratification – metaphorically emasculating our desire, making the picture simultaneously saddening and maddening. In one thrust, it is the double-edged mystery of a painting and of sexuality. And ironically, if thought through carefully, it also reveals the futility of seeking further satisfaction through pornography. If we keep trying our keys in dubious locks, we may lose our ability to enter meaningfully altogether.


Art Thoughts, Week 32 -- Gritchenko & Compaction

Mountain with Two Figures, Alexis Gritchenko (Ukrainian, 1883—1977) 1921, oil on panel, BF 2066.
From my parent’s bathroom window, I would get a great view of the hill the house was built at the foot of, rising up to meet the woods at the frame’s top. The other large element in view was an elephantine oil tank, painted a glossy and highly-textured black. An early memory from staring out the window is seeing, as it were, the layers of the landscape – grassy hill; stone fence; trees; sky – reflected dully on the side of the black tank. I loved seeing the seasonal changes – light spring green to yellow-flecked tan; olives and oranges; umber and ruddy brown from the line of oaks and hickories; slate grey to brilliant blue from the sky, all arranged like a strange layer cake. In hindsight, extrapolating back from my current preferences, I think the most appealing thing was this sandwiched snapshot of the current layers of the seasons, all on the “canvas” of the oil tank. It was nature, compacted: a sensation familiar to anyone who’s made a terrarium. This experience, repeated over the years, informed my love of bound and abstracted reflections of the observed and natural world. In Gritchenko’s small painting Mountain with Two Figures, layering and compaction are important features. The ground, beach, lake and build-up of mountainous strata, though they do pivot, lend a strong layered, horizontal feel to the painting. Horizontals are almost inextricably linked to landscape in the human psyche. Even those indigenous landscapes which have strong verticals (such as highland Peru, or coastal Japan) are inevitably grounded in the reality of horizontals and the accompanying perpendicularity of gravity. We relate to the horizontals of landscape for various reasons: gravity as mentioned; time, and culture…but we learn about them best through layering (repetition of horizontals) and we learn about layering through vistas. What I saw in the tank was a limited vista; what Gritchenko shows us is wider, but still compacted.

Compaction is a form of abstraction, and the mountain and lake are certainly abstracted. But both compaction and abstraction function in a highly paradoxical way when it comes to landscape: that is, they give us a deep sense of a place, without an excess of information. In other words, they may condense and compact the onslaught of visual data that is landscape, and in the end come away with a better, more well-rounded sensual experience of the scene. (This is assuming the abstraction is well-done). In this picture, Gritchenko has pared down the visual information to a minimum, but we undoubtedly receive a better feel for this scene than if he’d taken a photograph. Why? Because an artist has at their disposal a myriad of tactics: composition, color, value, texture, pattern; and the more elusive mood and light. All of these are infinitely tweakable; none of them must be relayed literally, but all are firecrackers, capable of powerful visual sea changes. (It must be said that this is an artist’s personal tweaking; each one would go about it differently. Therefore, it’s a highly subjective sense, but highly accurate). If successful though, this particular inherency of painting is capable of conveying a vastly deeper sense of a scene than a photographic record ever could. So think of this process as a simultaneously visual, physical and psychological compaction. Gritchenko chose to frame this particular scene the way he did, to great and appealing effect; I had fewer choices with my oil tank. But in both cases, nature was constantly on the move; her panoply of elements in flux. The best we can do in most cases is try to keep up, and stake our claim when we are able – compaction is one way we do so.

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