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From the NS archive: Courbet, the politically conscious artist

28 May 1938: The almost mediumistic faith in his ability to extract good from anything is the source of both Gustave Courbet’s strength and his weakness.

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In this review of an exhibition of pictures at the Rosenberg Gallery in London by the realist painter and former Communard Gustave Courbet, Graham Bell considers both Courbet's art and his version of socialism. For Bell, a painter himself but no relation to the Bloomsbury Bells, Courbet could be too uncritical of his own work, and as a result Bell finds some of the paintings on display lamentable while others are sublime. But as a man with a strong social conscience – Courbet had been imprisoned in 1871 after the failure of the Paris Commune – Bell thought him admirable for the way he believed there was intrinsically “something good about being human”.

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It is agreed that Courbet was a lusty braggart, a practical man and a political failure, simple minded, a lover of good things and hunting, a painter of incredible gifts and a most uneven artist. As far as it goes this estimate is true enough, but it is capable of some expansion. For though Courbet was perhaps a poor exponent of [Pierre-Joseph] Prudhon’s political theories, and though like [Jacques-Louis] David before him he had his public pronouncements prepared for him by more articulate friends, he was anything but stupid in his human relationships.

Everything he did is obviously the work of a man not frightened, not shy, not faible dans la vie. And if his painting seems to lack the patient self-criticism and integrity of Cézanne, it also gains because Courbet knew a thing or two that Cézanne shrank from knowing. If his painting is uneven, that unevenness is the price he pays for the extraordinary heights of lyrical expression that he sometimes attains. Mr Sickert has claimed that he produces pictures as he pares his nails; it was Courbet’s boast that he painted as an apple tree produces apples. Between the qualified spontaneity of the one and the reckless optimism (what if the apples were not good?) of the other point of view, there is a vast difference. Once when Courbet was sketching with Corot, Corot spent an hour frenziedly trying to get the composition right, muttering about masses; Courbet sat down without looking, announcing rather rudely as he did so, that, provided he had nature before his eyes it didn’t matter where he placed himself.

This almost mediumistic faith in his ability to extract good from anything is the source of both Courbet’s strength and his weakness. The same confidence that is insensitively awful in one picture can become miraculous in another. The reckless and uncritical enthusiasm he had for his own work, which accounts for a piece of thoroughly ugly and unrelated painting like the femme endormie in the front room at Messrs Rosenberg’s Gallery, is responsible also for the lovely girl with seagulls. This, with its interplay of downy white birds, pink sky, distant sea and waving golden hair, is one of the loveliest pictures he ever painted. The same sort of comparison could be continued throughout the show. A regrettable picture of the lake of Geneva with snowy alps and something like an Arab dhow in the foreground is set off against a stunning beach scene with rocks and boats, and a sky done by magic. A quickly and crudely painted child is a foil to one of those gazelle-eyed portraits of Madame Boreau. While the opulent nude belonging to Matisse makes up in colour, painting, conception and everything else for a stodgy piece of work just inside the door.

In about 1849 Courbet became what would now be called “politically conscious”. Nearly all the pictures in this collection were painted after this date. It is difficult to see political sermons in rocks of Franche Comté, the water meadows of Indre or a wild profusion of flowers spread on a table in the open air, unless one is prepared to take a very long view. That Courbet desired the betterment of humanity (he really believed that the millennium had arrived at the time of the Commune) there can be no doubt, but he approached it as an individual, as though his own great affection could dissolve all differences in a love of white haunches and smooth bellies, of deer in forests and trout in streams, grapes and wine. He was a socialist on Christian and not moralising lines. There is nothing destructive in his outlook (he even preserved the pieces of the column which he was ordered to destroy). “Shoot no one” was his slogan in the days of the Commune. He seemed to believe that there was something good about being human, and until morality can produce an artist who loves the idea of reconstruction as Courbet loved his native soil, who can be sincerely more interested in plans for gymnasiums than in his sweetheart, until then Courbet will continue to be a cogent disruptive and non-moral advocate for first and last things about human beings.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)