Courbet and the Commune
In 1870, Gustave Courbet was at the peak of his fame. Seven years later, the artist died a broken, forgotten man. Between these two dates, Courbet lived through one of the most violent and passionate crises in French history: the Paris Commune.
This is the first exhibition on this crucial episode in the life and career of the painter. It gathers more than a hundred documents and artworks and provides an occasion to study the artist's role in the political and cultural history of the Commune as well as the evolution of his work during the same period.
Although a sensitive observer of his time, before the Commune Courbet had never been fully politically engaged. To understand his involvement in the Commune, one must first remember the shock represented by the French defeat against Prussia in 1870. Far from fleeing from Paris, Courbet then committed himself to an energetic and idealistic resistance. When the Republic was proclaimed, he became president of the Arts Commission and endeavoured to protect the Parisian museums. He also exhorted the national defence government to dismantle the Vendôme column, a symbol of Napoleon III's power, which was later to cause his downfall. Courbet was even a candidate at the elections to the legislature in February 1871, failing to win a seat by a small number of votes. When the Commune was formed in March 1871 Courbet joined with an earnest enthusiasm and a militant faith. He was elected to the Council of the Commune, delegate to public instruction, and president of the Artists Federation that succeeded the Arts Commission.
But Courbet's dream of an artistic and peace-seeking fraternity finished in the bloody excesses of the end of the Commune. Courbet was arrested, tried by the war council and condemned to six months imprisonment which he served in Versailles, Paris, in the Sainte-Pélagie gaol and Neuilly, in the clinic of Doctor Duval, where, in ill health, he was a prisoner on parole. This started a slow downfall, and the only charge retained against him was "to have become an accomplice, through an abuse of authority" of the destruction of the Vendôme column, of which he had suggested the destruction six months before the beginning of the Commune.
Besides evoking an artistic figure involved in political action and caught in the machinery of history, the exhibition presents major artworks painted by Courbet between his imprisonment and his exile. In these paintings, the repercussions of the events he lived so intensively and directly are paradoxical and overwhelming.
Having little chance to paint during the short weeks the Commune lasted, Courbet reacted as a painter a posteriori. He then ambitiously stigmatised his imprisonment (Portrait of the Artist in Sainte-Pélagie, Ornans, Musée Courbet), but above all he resumed his lyrical and carnal exaltation of nature in a dazzling series of still-lives. Some of them, such as the Trout (Zurich, Kunsthaus), have an clear autobiographical dimension. Bearing the Latin inscription In vinculis faciebat (done in bonds), the painting shows an injured animal, between life and death, to be understood as an allegorical self-portrait of the artist. The three paintings by Courbet devoted to this subject, kept in Zurich, Berne and Paris, are seen together for the first time.Also displayed are a few of the most beautiful still-lives of fruit or flowers Courbet painted during and after his imprisonment, such as Red Apples at the Foot of a Tree (Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen), rejected at the 1872 Salon because of Courbet's participation in the Commune, and also paintings kept in Boston, Philadelphia, Amsterdam, the Hague, Copenhague... The neutrality of these subjects is only apparent, for the deafening silence that these paintings inspire is that of an artist shattered by history.