‘Allegories were neither true nor false, or they were both true and false, depending on how one looked at them’ – Niklas Luhmann’s ‘Art as a Social System’
In 1855, three of Gustave Courbet’s paintings were rejected by the Exposition Universelle, something which Courbet took as a personal affront. It was, after all, the single largest exhibition in the history of the salon with a projected attendance numbering in the hundreds of thousands. In retaliation Courbet erected and promoted an exhibition all of his own, situated just across the road from the Exposition itself. It was called the Pavillion of The Real and inside the public were treated to over forty paintings by Courbet. Among them was a painting was called ‘L Atelier’ or ‘The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life’ (1855).
The artist’s studio is today considered a genre in its own right. It is a genre which lends itself well to allegory in that it offers a means of representation of the practice of art and offers up the artist as a personification of that practice. Variations of this genre can be informative illustrations of arts changing social history, the artist’s professional character and his production in relation to a market economy. Common features include introspective self-portraits such as Gericault’s ‘Portrait of an Artist in his Studio’, or the gallery of a dealer/connoisseur such as we find in ‘The Artist’s Studio’ by Amelie Legrand de Saint-Aubin. Images of poverty, power, fame, success and failure occur alongside images of the artist’s technical and iconographical resources. Sometimes we see the artist as he wishes to be seen; other times he sees us seeing him. In the paintings of Vermeer and Velasquez the studio is a site of encounter, between the artist and his model as well as other value systems. In the work of Braque, Matisse and Picasso, the studio is a metaphor for the psyche, a private world of individual creative passions.
Of his own studio painting, Courbet wrote that it ‘represented the whole world, coming to me to be painted’. He also subtitled the painting ‘a real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life’. And what a life it was. The second French republic is a shockingly alien situation when compared to our own time. It was a time when seemingly everyone including the state, the general public and critics alike appeared to be in total agreement that art and politics were one and the same, or else could not escape one another. The old established forms of hierarchal power could feel their cultural influence gradually slipping away and a general sense of possibility was in the air, an intuitive notion, that some great historical disruption was not only possible but necessarily unavoidable. All across France an idea was taking shape that would soon come to sustain the road of high modernism for the next century; that to imagine a new form of art would be to imagine a new kind of world.
Realism was the aim of Courbet’s early artistic life and realism in its original formulation was an ambiguous and provocative concept, perhaps the first significant achievement of the nascent French avant-garde. But what did it mean? It could mean all kinds of things. It could be sensuous. It could be grand. It could be picturesque. But above all realism was about concrete, public life as it was lived at the time, ordinary and mundane. This was a shocking concept for many society hacks working at the salon. They had never heard of that one before. For them, art represented social aspiration, moral certainty and idealism. It was the unreal fantasy theme park of the ruling classes. They recoiled in horror from Courbet’s lunatic materialism and obsession with contemporaneity. Even today people struggle with Courbet – many simply choosing to dismiss him as popular leftist painter. And can we blame them? The Stonecutters and the Burial at Ornans look quite dreary when miniaturised on a computer screen. Is this really the chap who inspired Manet?
‘The Painter’s Studio’ however is not a signature piece of realism per se. It has a metaphorical (allegorical) pretext, and one which allows Courbet to openly indulge in self-mythology. How can seven years be summed up in one image, in one room no less? When he says the whole world is coming to him, what does that mean? Not the entire world surely, but presumably a cast of character who we wouldn’t normally imagine to be found sharing the same space. The artistic and the moral are unironically conflated as well. Is our enjoyment of the painting perhaps misrepresented by this moralising aspect, or consolidated by it? More importantly how can an allegory be ‘real’ at all? Isn’t this an oxymoron? How can something possibly be real and symbolic at the same time?
Something I have to stress at the very outset of this essay is the painting’s massiveness. At 361 cm × 598 cm, its size and scale are spectacular, monstrous even. It’s a scale more suited to the scene of a battle, in its operatic grandiosity. It’s the epitome of the historical and the monumental. A space in which we expect to find heroic actors living through world historical change. To use such a scale for picture of a studio seems anachronistic, almost hopelessly esoteric. Courbet manages to make its giant size, its epic space into a real achievement. But an achievement of what kind? The size of the painting creates both a sense of proximity but also of inhuman distance. It stands on the same ground as ourselves but has a curious sense of groundlessness with its sliding floor and murky skyline. Its gigantism places us in the uncomfortable position of being minute, of being miniature. And in our diminutive insectoid scale we are forced to navigate, to crawl even, through and across the image as multiple series of split, dislocated episodes. We are placed tete-a-tete with the giants, looking up at them into a world that is flimsy, vulnerable but at the same time heavy and ordinary. There is a studiousness in the extremes pictured that verge, ludicrously, on polarity.
In essence, the case is simple. We are shown a picture of a room, a world we naturally inhabit. A world that we can see, grasp and imagine, except blown up. And as such, its difficulties, which is to say, its weirdnesses are blown up also. Mural painting and panoramas are usually exercises of pragmatism. The visual sewing together of different parts to form a whole across a surface of great height and width usually calls for casual, sufficiently obvious, even traditionally hierarchal organisations of form. ‘The Painter’s Studio’, certainly has a more-or-less traditional division of composition, with its centipedal episode and attendant wings, but it also has a genuine pictorial ugliness, faults, or rather, elisions of perspective and an intractable brute materiality. By virtue of their size these internal and structural difficulties are aggressively unavoidable. What does this proximity mean? What conditions of seeing are intended for a space we are never truly either outside of or within?
But what does the illusion represent? Courbet’s gloomy, vertiginous studio is all at once an allegory, a manifesto and a social satire. I shall attempt to be as empirical as possible in my attempts to describe the painting’s structures, its intellectual scaffolding, without relying too much upon analogous or fanciful means. Courbet represents, ‘all the world’ which is to say, all of French society standing in one room, with a clearly identifiable self-portrait positioned in the dead centre. On the right side of the painting are the artsy types, the cultural intelligentsia of Parisian society. How do we know this? Examine the faces. We can spot Baudelaire, author of Les Fleurs de Mal at the bottom right. He’s absorbed in a book. The bearded figure standing towards the back, looking out at us is Proudhon, the anarchist who famously said ‘property is theft’. Seated on a stool is the scowling figure of Chamfleury, an art critic and close friend of the Honore de Balzac. These cameo appearances are instantly recognisable from earlier works by Courbet, to the extent that some of them would appear almost identical to their equivalent painted portraits. These are people from Courbet’s social circle, early supporters of his anti-academicism and drive towards painterly ‘realism’. One could go as far as to say this is Courbet’s ‘side’, the allies of his artistic career.
On the left side of the painting, we see a group of less handsome, less well-dressed individuals who would appear to represent everyday life. They are dressed in the common attire of beggars, farmers, undertakers, paperboys, carnies and other modes of plebian drudgery. In a time when the arts were growing increasingly political, Courbet’s manner of representing the peasant class had given many of the cultural nomenclatura pause for concern. The popular flavour of his paintings suggested something approximating the democratic, perhaps even the socialistic. However, upon closer inspection one can see that the peasants in Courbet’s Studio are not proles but in fact thinly disguised portraits of the ruling elite. Emperor Napoleon III, for example, is represented at the front, dressed as a poacher. He had seized power in an illegal coup and was in the process of running the country as a dictatorship where none were allowed to openly criticize the government bosses. Courbet never identified him as such, but it was easy enough to observe a likeness when the presses were constantly churning out his picture. Those attending the pavilion would also have no doubt arrived from seeing a dozen of his portraits at the Exposition Universelle across the road. Ministers, press barons and other loyalist figures are also represented here in their bespoke ironical costumes, like so many Gillray caricatures. Scattered around the emperors’ feet are a jumble of items including a lute and a dagger. Common motifs within the genres of salon painting at the time. They are the iconography of academicism.
At the centre of ‘The Painter’s Studio’ with his handsome ‘Assyrian’ profile, is Courbet himself, flanked by two mysterious figures who appear to be in his thrall. The nude woman on the right might be logically interpreted as a sort of classical muse, a feminine alter-ego or else an erotic or hierophantic symbol. Perhaps she represents ‘naked’ truth. It’s inconsequential. She is a stock property of Courbet’s paintings. The small boy to the left of the artist, who looks up at him (literally) with admiration is a little more ambiguous in his placement here. One hazards a guess that he might represent innocence, or the desire to ‘un-learn’ the rules of academicism. ‘Paint the truth’ is what Courbet habitually said. The artist himself sits at a curious angle, painting an easel depicting Ornans, the landscape he knew best and from which he originally hailed. It’s the single brightest area in the painting, a gleaming patch of outdoor light that illuminates everything else and through which Courbet appears to be almost half-emerging like a doorway. A doorway opening onto what exactly? The Future? Realism? Who knows.
It’s a curiously burlesque concept for a painting. In the conspiracy surrounding the artist there are only a few who could qualify for the sympathy of a searching consciousness. Both factions skulk in a Spanish half-darkness of awkward, accusing stares and circumspections. As kratophany, as a symbol of power made manifest, the group of aristocrats on the left are positively feckless. They’re not threatening figures at all. They’re wearing drag, which may as well be nothing at all, as far as an emperor is concerned. The bohemians on the right are likewise not very sympathetic. They come off as stony or distant. Some are scowling. Some are lost in their own thoughts. The only sign of reciprocity, of warmth is between the two lovers by the window whom very few critics or historians have been able to persuasively identify. The characters tread the edges of insolence, despondency or perhaps even tomfoolery. No one seems very much on board with what Courbet is doing. A mother sits nursing her baby directly beneath a half-crucified mannequin to the left of the central action. Is this symbolic? A white housecat paws at the female nude’s discarded vestments and directly to the left of Champfleury, a small monkey-faced boy crouches on all fours making what appears to be a drawing of the nude woman’s posterior. What the fuck is going on.
The painterly handling is also considerably new. It’s not smooth and varnished like a salon painting, but mottled and chunky. A painterly Christmas pudding of gleaming sticky factures, resistant to the eye and overt to touch. Absolutely shocking people said. It’s as if he’s painted it with a knife. And in fact, Courbet did paint with knives as much as brushes. This is the decadent beauty of strangeness, of recondite materialism. Dali once said that dead meat glistens like jewels. It could be unhealthy. Jewellery made from dead meat may spread disease. Like anything worthwhile in art, it begs the question: ‘Why?’ Was this Courbet’s attempt at painterly ‘panache’?’ Among his enemies a common opinion was that these were the mere provisions of a ‘man on the make’. And this much is true; Courbet was no technical virtuoso. Unlike his hero the baroque painter, Rembrandt, who was capable of painting a skull in five seconds flat with his eyes closed, Courbet couldn’t paint a skull to save his life. Nevertheless, his unabashedness of style, his urgent need to provoke his public and his audience gave rise to some truly odd painterly gambits. Some of the most daring and ‘bravura’ passages of technique in all of modern painting. If you squint you can see all of impressionism in there, straining to get out.
In ‘The Painter’s Studio’, as in most of Courbet’s typically weird early 1850s work, the sense of photographic unreality is palpable and distinct. See, for instance Courbet’s bizarre painting ‘The Meeting (Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet)’, in which he and the other figures stand against a landscape so comically flat it may as well be a painted backdrop in a theatre. No less disconcerting is Courbet’s choice to employ a virtual actual backdrop for his allegory of the studio, a representation within a representation that redoubles the atmosphere of artificiality. What different degrees or levels of unreality are intended by the juxtaposition of these insecure planes? What kind of space are we being invited to enter? Where do we stand? In ‘The Painter’s Studio’, the various figures are unconvincingly pinned to the ground and would otherwise seem to hover in mid-air like so many weightless unlocated floaters. They look to have been ‘photoshopped’ in, as it were, their gravity never quite in total accord with the surrounds.
Another typical quirk of Courbet’s style is the bottom edge. Hardly ever in Courbet does the bottom edge of a painting establish a ground plane on which we could imagine ourselves standing. The clumsy cut out forms and discords of direction create an effect both logical and absurd. Why did he fuck around so frequently with the rules of spacial recession? Why did he paint everything, including the background and foreground as if it were in the middle distance? He was by no means a sloppy or careless painter. We can clearly see that his compositions are, on the contrary, subtly and carefully constructed. This sense of weirdness, of inconsistency is a deliberate construction and it internalises and animates a continuity of forms across art history. Discussions of artifice, idealism and the ‘finish’ occur again and again on and within the literal surfaces of paintings across time. How best to create a space in which an idea might be made ‘real’? How best to convey the sense that everything in the picture has suddenly rushed in from offstage, or else wandered from out of its bounds?
Consider, for a moment, ‘The Virgin and Child’ by Lorenzo Costa. This is a masterpiece of what you might call spacial illusionism; of distance, interval and contact. The architecture, the modelling, the sense of a threshold extending into a kind of barrel-vaulted portico is technically perfect in its representation. And yet, the sense of space is very strange and beguiling. It’s a space that oscillates between different kinds of spaces, between near and far, between shallowness and depth, exterior, and interior, private and public. It’s a plausible space but a space that doesn’t quite belong to any normal world we inhabit. The strangeness of ‘The Painter’s Studio’ is of a similar nature, and in good company here. We are invited to imaginatively enter into a world that is decidedly uncanny. At his best, Courbet’s’ disjunctive, abbreviated style is right in kilter with this kind of weirdness, with the hyperrealism of these old masters.
So, what is the relation between Courbet’s style and his content (if we allow ourselves to accept such a distinction, and increasingly I find it to be an untenable distinction)? How is his painterly style brought to bear on his use of allegory and the various other imaginative and referential material he’s using? I would say that space is part of a paintings content, it’s ‘message’ so to speak. The way in which an artist invites the viewer to imaginatively enter the scene, to experience its sense of scale, internal organisation and distance is fundamental to painting’s illusionistic power. Courbet’s treatment of de-detachment, his refusal to create an illusion from a position safely outside of it, or safely superior to it; is equivocal and revelatory for later artists such as Edouard Manet. Courbet’s ‘Studio’ turns upon a polarisation of the figures outside and inside, around a compositional climax; the artist himself, who sits gazing coolly into a painting within a painting, myse en abyme, into the very ontology of illusion itself. Compare the image to Velasquez’s famous Surrender of Breda, which similarly hinges upon the disclosure of the figures looking out and looking in.
I would say, that like any artist worth his salt, Courbet is reacting to the art of his time, and to his immediate environment. He’s reacting to a society that was on the brink of absolute change but also to a system of art that existed to reinforce the status quo, the hegemony of the dominant classes. He didn’t have the luxury, as Cezanne would have much later, of turning his back on a professional career in the arts. Instead, he has to adopt the role of an entrepreneur; to exploit the official procedures and values of high Art and official culture. But to what end? And for whom? Was he a shock artist, attempting to titillate a private audience? Or an artist ‘of the people’, of bourgeois subversion? Many have claimed that Courbet was attempting to revive the exhausted forms of high art by providing it with a new source of imagery. Others have claimed his paintings were not addressed to the connoisseur but to a different, hidden public – that he was in fact attempting to revive popular art by exploiting the traditions of high art. This is an endlessly fascinating dyad and of course we will never know for certain which was real truth. But even now the efforts of ‘The Painter’s Studio’ are impossible to dismiss. This is history painting at its most astonishingly ambitious. His allegory is one of discord; of misshapen and conflicted significance on an immense scale. Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Is it the arrival of utopian optimism or the arrival of something terrifying? A moment of defeat such as in ‘The Surrender of Breda’? Or of apotheosis such as in the altarpiece by Costa? If I had to offer a plausible sounding explanation for what the ‘meaning’ of a Courbet would be, of its final form and content, I would say ‘of imposture’, and ‘the surprise move.’
Perhaps imposture and surprise tell the truth of modernity in general. That perhaps we are all Courbets now in our own way. In 2022 it’s as if personal experience and mass culture have taken on the same character of absolute truth. The private and the public sphere have become difficult to extricate from one another as social networks recommensurate the cultural landscape into a parade of increasingly mediated experiences. The studio represents a conflicted social space. A site of imaginative production under siege, wherein the artist attempts to locate his identity as an artist whilst under constant threat of being shot by both sides. The symbols of paintings intellectual and political history are incorporated into an elaborate decorative scheme at the threshold of a new cultural era of modernism. It is a grand allegory, perhaps the grandest allegory in the history of artists’ studios. But it is also perhaps a grand failure.
Studios are ideological things. Insofar as they represent the practice of art, they also represent art as something circumscribed, cast in the mold of an ideology of art. In short, an artist reproduces what is recognisable or else seeks to graft the new onto the given. The studio genre, like many of the genres of painting has a way of drawing limits, of finding edges, essay-like, of a way to work. And since Courbet’s time, the edge has shifted so dramatically that it has become very difficult to recover a lot of the painting’s detail, its themes and concepts. I’ve read essays by less assiduous viewers who have claimed that the painting is an allegory in the style of Michelangelo, with a (workerist) heaven on the left, and a (bourgeois) hell on the right. Other critics have derided the painting as form of black propaganda, or a monument to an acquisitive bloated ego- something complicit in the very systems it sets out to criticize. They argue that an artist can only contend with the politics of his or her own cultural field, which in turn reproduces and reflects the politics or ideology of the larger society. What else is Courbet but a hegemonic token posing as a radical? They never think to ask whether Courbet might have been aware of this contradiction. If nothing else, we should be able to find some analogy between Courbet’s ‘Studio’ and a courtroom. Is the artist not on trial?
Beyond a certain period, the allegory of ‘The Painter’s Studio’ becomes practically unreconstructable, nor even customarily identified as allegory. Instead, a great deal of reading becomes necessary to translate the image, which admittedly holds rich possibilities for art historians and social anthropologists but little reward for others. Perhaps this is why allegory and history painting are no longer popular or maybe even truly feasible in today’s artistic climate. Too often they fall afoul of modernism’s technical limitations and institutional abuses. Allegory ultimately is, or entails a form of temporal displacement. Its use of symbols; its rich patterns of referential and illustrative material develop according to a logic which progressively deforms the conceptual order to which they refer and relate. In short, the painting’s meaning, as it were, becomes challenged or displaced. But this displacement, in of itself, is a radical thing to consider. After all, If Courbet’s vision of being in some sort of different order is critically changed, what does this mean for own ideas of change in a transformational world? How does the painting continue to invite us into its imaginative space, to reflect upon the subjects of its maquette? Can what is included ever be truly conserved?
Courbet never truly succeeded in destroying the salon. Instead, rather ironically, we now have thousands of individual salons with their own institutional dogmas. But what Courbet does succeed in, is drawing our attention to the burgeoning discourses of modernism; to its conflicting requirements and stances. His art problematises the claim of ‘art for art’s sake ‘and rightly so I should think, for as much as I admire the slogan, I am unnerved by the habitual prurience of those who use it. Their over-wrought anxieties about art’s ‘prostitution’ and its relation to economy. I say ‘yes’ to art for art’s sake’ but struggle to accept it as some sort of moral good in of itself. Courbet was an individualist, as Satre said of Flaubert, but an individualist with a vengeance. He was not simply looking for a pretext to paint, or secure his name in the history books, but a for a way to wrong things as they were, as they had been.
The impressionists were very much taken with Courbet’s violent technique; his all-over brightness and chunky brushstrokes. What they weren’t so taken with was Courbet’s philosophizing and conceptual hi-jinks. it’s possible after all, to recoil from Courbet’s maniacal appetite, his vulgar, wrinkly materialism and nudge-wink showshanship. In this way Corot perhaps fared much better. In the end it would be the post-impressionists, those immaculate weirdos who would finally assassinate the Realist project, or at least, put the project on ice by burying it within a snowdrift of atmospheric painterly effects. Manet and Pissarro did their best to sustain it while they could. Monet struggled to integrate and finally abandoned the figure altogether in those late, great decorative paintings of swamps and willow trees. And Cezanne was so tormented by the conflicting requirements of realism and impressionism that he finally gave up on both. Only Courbet could fully dedicate himself to this unrealisable struggle, and ‘The Painter’s Studio’ is a fantastic representation of this large-scale struggle with both the material of his paint and with the social material that touched him. Even if we as viewers end up defeated by the ‘Studio’s’ political undertow and its host of phantoms and heroes, we can still sense something complicated and rich, a mind grappling and engaging with tangible, material things. What it finally offers us is a vision of the studio as a site of artistic production, a place where the artist can show what he thinks it’s really like to be in a society. It’s a place of philosophising, of self-reflection. A place where you can ask all kinds of uncomfortable, perhaps unfulfillable questions about art and its social institutions. It’s a place of possibility and of discovery, of strategies confronting one another in a fiction.
To live and work in a studio today is to effectively be a 19th century figure. We have a hundred million more galleries in the world than we used to, and they all require artists who can move around very fast, jetting around the world and throwing up installation art wherever they go. There becomes a very real pressure for artists to operate as quasi-curators and I realise that for some this isn’t a bad thing at all. But for me, the curator is a managerial figure, a postmodern figure of power and control. I believe there is a today there is a cultural necessity to return to the studio borne upon us by exigency rather than any taste for a rappel a l’ordre. 19th century realism may be untenable for today’s artists because of irony and the formal removal of pop, but Courbet’s mission was more importantly to put the mind back in control. To make the space of painting ‘weird’, and strong and to fix the artist as the axis of artistic production. Perhaps this is the ‘real’ moral of Courbet’s allegory. That artists aren’t here to be the policemen of meaning. They’re here to fuck shit up.
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