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The Mind-Body Problem: Courbet, Poussin and Contemporary Art

Nicolas Poussin,
Nicolas Poussin, "Apollo and Daphne," 1625. Oil on canvas, 16 3/4" by 2".

Two recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art give insight into our heritage from the tradition of European art. The first is Poussin and Nature: Arcadian Visions (February 12 – May 11) and the second is Courbet (February 27 – May 18). Incredibly, Arcadian Visions is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to Poussin’s landscape painting. Courbet is the artist’s first full retrospective in 30 years. Seen together, they are a voyage backward through three centuries of French painting, to the Italian tradition of which Poussin was a student. Tradition in today’s art world often seems a matter of choice and it is easy to lose track of its continuity. What I wish to emphasize is the inclusiveness of the tradition of which contemporary art is a part. It would be hard to imagine two more different artists than Courbet and Poussin, but they are necessary counterparts to one another. They show us the complete tradition of painting for what it is: a problem of the relationship of the human mind to the body.

Why is Cezánne always the door through which we must walk to understand painting? Was it Meyer Schapiro or Leo Steinberg who first convinced us it must be so? The mere fact that the walls of two such different exhibitions as Courbet and Arcadian Visions are papered with Cezánne’s words should be reason enough to convince us we’ve been had. The mention of Cezánne confers contemporary currency and curators never miss a chance to exploit it. But viewing Arcadian Visions, I did not see Cezánne; I saw Magritte. Poussin was gradually eliminating gods and men from his landscapes in favor of an undulating tapestry of nature in which the forms of the clouds echo those of the trees. Poussin is as interested in the story he can tell through the changeable attributes of paint as he is in the ostensible subject of his paintings: the mythology that was meant to explain human nature. Among his last paintings, “Landscape with Three Monks” (ca.1650) is a giant canvas almost entirely devoid of human presence and shrouded in darkness. Magritte’s masterwork, “Empire of Light II” (1950), seems derived from the atmosphere of “Three Monks,” so similar is Magritte’s sense of unearthly light to that of his predecessor. Magritte’s contrasting of unlikely objects appears straight out of Poussin’s eerie equation of leaves with clouds. He took what Poussin did and enhanced it, applying it to urban and interior spaces. Sure, Cezánne took a cue from Poussin. But others did too, in totally different and equally formidable ways.

For Poussin and Magritte, nature signifies transformation. In his own lifetime, Poussin was criticized for making the pastoral backgrounds of his Christian and mythological commissions more real and lively than the figures in his paintings. “Apollo and Daphne” (painted approximately 1625), though small, is a fine example. Poussin returned to this theme multiple times throughout his career and left his last and most impressive version incomplete at his death. The god Peneus, the story goes, transformed his daughter Daphne into a tree to protect her from Apollo’s inappropriate advances. In Poussin’s painting, Daphne raises her arms, already becoming branches, toward the sky and throws her head back in anguish. As her legs form a trunk, her dark blue mantle slips from her shoulders, the last remaining detail distinguishing her from the landscape. Apollo looks on, his own form all but dissolving into the light that bathes the scene. At his feet, Peneus reclines while a small, culpable putto rubs the trunk that once was Daphne’s thigh. The official line on this painting is of chastity’s triumph over physical love, but nature is also the victor here, absorbing the action of gods and men into the same stuff that makes its mountains and hills. How many times did Magritte employ these types of transformations in his paintings? What makes Cezánne’s claim on Poussin more legitimate?

The idea that certain artists are more representative of art history than others is a millstone around the neck of creativity. We envision art history as our tradition, but the former is simply a construct imposed on the latter. The misapprehension comes from a misidentification of tradition exacerbated in New York at a time when it seemed essential to legitimate abstraction as the essential expressive mode of modernism. Cezánne was central in this as the figure that united Cubism and the New York School with all preceding art history. Abstraction needed American defenders to make this argument and ensure it a place at history’s table (of course it already had one anyway, developing nicely in Europe in the hands of Kandinsky, Mondrian et al.). Among abstraction’s most successful advocates was Ad Reinhardt, a polemicist among polemicists, who set it down in clever koans like “Art is against art,” reinforcing the evolutionary, art historical narrative and placing abstraction at its cutting edge.

Of course, Reinhardt was a part of a group of painters temporarily excluded from the mainstream. But abstraction is both something less and something more than the justification these early theorists gave it. Poussin begets Courbet; Courbet begets the Impressionists who beget Cezánne who begets Matisse and Picasso who beget Pollock and so on and so forth. In fact, abstract artists possess a tradition that reaches back to the ancients, and it is the same as that of figurative artists. Abstraction was never the sine qua non of artistry any more than it was the black sheep, though passing tastes may have made it seem first one and then the other. We compose art history, like history itself, as a set of fractious teams rebelling against one another which tends to exclude consideration of what all art has in common.

Gustave Courbet,
Gustave Courbet, "The Desperate Man."

The view of art as antagonistic towards itself encourages judging art by the standards of other art. One might look at a painting by Catherine Murphy and say, “This reminds me of Courbet,” and go on to describe the former in terms of the latter. Relying on what we already know about past painters to assess contemporary painting is a symptom of our art historical conditioning. Ever since Heinrich Wölfflin, we’ve treated art history as a pseudo-science through which we can get to the bottom of things like an etymologist dissecting specimens. As if knowing exactly what a Courbet painting is (as if we could) would somehow tell us what a Cezánne painting is. This approach encourages blindness toward the object of inquiry itself. So, it appears that our art history is not the way to encourage creative or artistic thinking. Let us rename the tradition “The Mind-Body Problem.” This, I think, gets us a little closer to judging each work on its own merits and to assessing work in terms of what art has in common with other art: an exploration of what it is to be human, caught in a body with a mind.

I’d say Jeff Koons is a contemporary stop on the train linking Poussin with Magritte. Koons’s bizarre associations of objects­—a basketball and a fish tank; a vacuum cleaner and a museum vitrine—are what originally brought him attention as someone doing something different. Koons saw a way to bring the strangeness of Poussin and Magritte to contemporary sculpture by reinforcing the tradition. Today we have Color Field Surrealist paintings and Impressionist Dada. Artists mix and match styles like party favors. But simply combining styles once thought to be antithetical—proof of one’s art historical savvy and proof against the confines of bygone categories—is not adequate to the demands of art. This sort of all-inclusiveness (destructiveness you might say) is often associated with the Pop Art movement. Those who hated it hated it for precisely this reason: that it failed to differentiate between high and low forms in art, failed to adhere to tradition. I don’t believe such a thing is possible. As artists are already caught in the tradition, demonstration of one’s knowledge of the tradition is superfluous. Originality today can emerge only in the form of profoundly personal work.

It is often said of Poussin that his was an art of the mind. He might be considered the forefather of that side of the Mind-Body Problem in painting—the Cartesian side—which views the mind as the tool that constructs reality for us, providing a model for the body to navigate: I think, therefore I paint, and therefore I am. By comparison, Courbet seems the manic sensualist, rushing to grasp stimuli that just as quickly slip away. A self-proclaimed realist, he paints to pin things down and identify them for good. The result is often an unnatural quality in his painting—his animals somehow excerpted from the habitat that surrounds them, his landscapes over-determined in their forms and his figures sometimes caught in contrived poses. Did any great painter ever make a vase of flowers look more boring? Or a deer look more uncomfortable? He hit his stride with the nude and, thereafter, his painted grottoes and seas became pale reflections of that singular motif.

“Nothing but nudes!” Courbet declared for the Salon of 1853. By 1866, he had perfected his technique with “Sleep,” two women entwined in homage to sexuality. Everything seems right here—the tender absorption in the painting of the flesh and the relative roughness of the bedside and drapery: the violence that is the other side of sexual love. And then there is “The Origin of the World” (1866) a painting of diminutive scale, little different in some ways from much of the pornography of its day, given monumentality by its deft inscription in paint and its extraordinary title. At the Metropolitan, it is given its own side room in a seeming nod to the 19th-century mores that kept the painting concealed from view in the home of Courbet’s patrons. Here, it has been surrounded by examples of the sort of erotic imagery Courbet may have worked from as well as a few derivative works by other artists—a historicizing presentation that, unfortunately, takes some of the bite out of this still-radical work.

Had Courbet been born in Poussin’s generation, he surely would have relished the opportunity, afforded by mythology, to paint one swooning nude upon another. As it was, he invented his own pretext. Courbet’s interest in painting is physiological but it puts him behind the eight ball. The exhibition’s banner image, “The Desperate Man” (1844-45) says it all. Courbet depicts himself: eyes wide, hands agitatedly running through his thick black hair, his decidedly handsome, delicate, almost feminine features as inviting to contemplate as they are troubled. Here is a man possessed by what he feels and unable to express it, a man whose appetite clearly exceeds his means.

John Currin, who does an audio tour for Courbet, is often identified as an artist influenced by Courbet. Currin’s is a contrived approach: his realism imposes an ugly opinion about what is “real” onto the depiction of experience, thus negating altogether the notion of anything categorically real. For Currin, there’s nothing to be desperate about because his work acknowledges nothing larger than his deliberately skewed view of things. Paul McCarthy is a more legitimate heir to Courbet’s side of the Mind-Body Problem. His performances are absurdist descents into a scatological abyss. Descents, in short, into physicality. Like Courbet, McCarthy seems thwarted—the more madly he enacts his sickening physical scenarios, the more impossible it becomes for him to extricate himself from them. Physicality is like this. The mind, though unable to grasp reality without the aid of the senses, can provide a haven of contemplation from the barrage of experience. The body is forever at the mercy of stimuli—one cannot control what one feels. One can only understand it afterwards. We are time-bound creatures and, thus limited in our perspective, the closest we come to knowledge of what happens to us is by reenacting the processing of experience through art.

Jake Berthot,
Jake Berthot, "Testing Tree (Tyrant and Target) Stanley Kunitz," 2007. Oil on linen over panel. 46 1/4" x 52".

The two European branches of the Mind-Body Problem flow together into the completely American painting of Jake Berthot. Berthot is the aesthetic descendant of Ralph Albert Blakelock and Albert Pinkham Ryder, so much so that, if one is not careful, one might be tempted to dismiss his work as derivative. But it is only that Berthot’s painting is completely indifferent to the contrivance of art history. He is totally absorbed in his own history, insisting on the primary experience of nature in his paintings and a dialogue with the artists whom he loves. The impenetrable atmosphere and gnarled surfaces of Berthot’s art reflect the painter’s exploration of his own nature. The landscape is a screen against which he unsparingly examines himself, and his paintings are as much a product of this inward-probing eye as of his outward gaze. It is as though, in picking apart the facets of a tree or a passing haze, he might find some truth about himself: an uncomfortable vision of our faculties’ union in art.


Ben La Rocco


The Brooklyn Rail

JUN 2008

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