NSFW – Courbet’s Origin and Romantic Engagement

The Origin of the World. Now before I go further I will apologize to the fainter of heart reader that may find this image unsettling. I did try to warn you with the title of the post. I’m not opening with this image to shock you or anger you, but I do hope to make a point, and that will be made clearer as we go. If you look past the blatant visual objectification of female “private parts” I believe this painting to be a radical exploration of a new way of seeing. I can hear you now…”cha-yeah, riiiight!” For the moment let’s leave the cultural concerns about this image to one side and concentrate on how the image is composed. There is absolutely nothing like it, there isn’t a composition similar to it in the painting lexicon at the time it was painted. This is Courbet’s open challenge to the WAY painters approached the composition of a figure painting. Sure there were tons of nude figures decorating the public and private salons of Paris, but none shook the visual hierarchies of academic compositional foundations like this. Not just because of the so-called prurient nature of the image, but because the composition radically alters the viewer’s engagement, position and perspective with the image itself. This very well may have started out as a lens based image of some kind – it is realistically painted. It certainly is cropped the way a camera would crop an image. But the revolutionary move it makes in the history of painting is to be seen in the way it abstracts and presents a kind of physical, tactile portraiture.

The Thing in the Field

Composition in painting had remained relatively static since the 15th Century. Even today Renaissance composition is still alive and well even in the most abstract of images. Now this compositional tactic was derived from the geometries of forms – triangles, circles and squares. They were used in figurative algorithms to create pleasing arrangements of things in scenes. Much later these geometric arrangements became the mathematical structures for many abstract paintings (rediscovery is painting’s strength). But it’s the viewing of these things, the way that we are meant to see these kinds of compositions that I find interesting. We’ve all heard about, and most of us have used, the old “looking-through-a-window” trope. This basically places the viewer at a fixed safe distance in order to create optimal visual contemplation of an image or scene. When this kind of composition is engaged directly it can and does create a form of intellectual desire in the viewer – desire for knowledge, desire for the experience of understanding through vision. One is led and moved from point to point in the scene in order to put together the narrative. This is basic visual thinking 101. Thus we get the portrait, the mythical or literary scene, or the documentation of a moment like a wedding or a devotion. This kind of viewing is sedate, contemplative, and allows for a certain kind of intellectual distance and physical coolness. There are literally thousands of these kinds of images in the history of art (and maybe millions more of them in the recent history of product advertising.) What we are talking about is a classic, dogmatic compositional decision – straightforward, specific and matter-of-fact.

There are many pleasures to be had when seeing in this way and it’s probably through this kind of composition that we arrived at the classic idea of beauty – the Golden Mean. By this I mean that this kind of composition relays an intellectual beauty, a mathematical beauty. The thing in the field exists strictly for our contemplation, and it exists almost in a Platonic form as an embodiment of thought. From the absolute airless beauty of Botticelli’s Venus all the way to Don Judd’s gleaming boxes, the thing in the field is something other, something inhuman if you like. We are not involved IN the vision but we are given the means to contemplate the scene wholly, unobtrusively. In this way we are given myths, godheads and perfections stacked to the rafters in pleasing groupings of three. We arrive at an appreciation and understanding of that rising subject simply by looking at it, engaging in its proportions and unfolding its meaning without actually being involved. This is akin to a stage production where the proscenium, the fourth wall are all at work. But what if the painter, the artist wants to make things less “theatrical” or “geometric”? How do we reinterpret and close the distance?

Changing Visual Relationships

Caravaggio revolutionized painting composition at the end of the 16th and at the beginning of the early 17th century. He actually broke down the polite distance between viewer and scene. This is an exciting, direct space that puts a different spin on the relationship of the viewer to the scene. Even though this relocation of the viewer is still tethered to the idea of someone looking at a thing in a field, our visual relationship to the reality of the scene has changed. We are now witnesses rather than voyeurs and this change in our understanding shifts our temporal involvement in the scene. We don’t have the luxury of a kind of visual timelessness, we don’t float over the scene any longer. Instead we are in time and involved in what is going on. I make this distinction for a purpose. The voyeur is unknown, apart from the scene. The witness is included, and in fact, is needed in order to complete the composition. Caravaggio keeps us at a slight distance. We are just across the room. We’re not quite so dispassionate, not quite so separated from the rising subject. What was instantly different in this composition of St Matthew was the unexpected emotional focus on the physicality of the rising subjects in the image. The illusions of space and light actually brings us, the viewers, into the scene in order to complete this unfolding action. The difficulty for the painter when attempting this kind of temporal compositional adjustment is making the understanding of that completion visually convincing, making it seem “real”. This doesn’t mean literally that we must be fooled by what we are looking at, only that we must be convinced of a kind of “reality” in the image itself. You’ve all heard of or maybe even have said about a painting at one time or other – “it works.” It works because the internal visual logic of the composition is strong enough to engage you, to pull you in, so to speak. It works because you understand and readily accept how that visual logic works.

Let’s take this a bit further. What happens to the image and the space it creates when we are IN the painted scene is similar to the way a lens crops an image of reality. The canvas only stretches so far after all, and the artist is pushing, visually, for a moment, a very specific moment in that “space”. Unlike the optical and temporal specificity inherent in lens cropping, visual painting involves our other senses unfolding over and through time. Normally when we see something in the flesh, our peripheral sight plays into our unconscious thought processes (which is why POV video games are so fucking annoying). We don’t engage these boundaries directly, we more often than not, FEEL the edges of our sight – it is an unconscious experience. That’s why we “know” something is behind us or to the side of us before we actually see the subject rising into view. What I am saying is that we feel space as well as see it. On the canvas not everything we see fits into that direct space provided by the stretcher. Things can and do begin to appear, have to appear, in places that we don’t expect and that don’t always make “real-world” sense. These “exaggerations” of temporality are direct choices made by the painter in order to compensate for the truncation of our visual peripheries. The painting must actually FEEL bigger than what we are seeing, as if that compositional “reality” is much fuller and larger than the physical world around us and the painted world we are looking at. We are breaking down the fourth wall, the imagined distance between the painted space and our own. If the composition can do this the artist is able to engage our peripheries, and once that happens, we gain access to a kind of simulation of our feeling vision enlarging the painted scene. The image seems to push at the edges of the canvas creating the feeling that the painted “reality” is encompassing our physical space. If the logic of the image is truly convincing, if one accepts the composition, the painting will also heighten one’s physical connection to what one is experiencing in the image. Colors, light, space, form, etc. will have “presence”, and suddenly, one’s own visual memories can and will engage directly into that painted reality. One knows how the cloth feels, knows how the room smells, one can taste the air in the light. The scene, the image, the painting, begins to make sense in one’s body as well as one’s eyes and mind. I am not talking about the processes of realism, naturalism or illusion designed to “fool the eye” though these are joyful visual experiences. I’m talking about accessing a physical emotional element in the work through the visual logic of the composition itself. Caravaggio managed this by readjusting Mannerist compositional theatricality with their kind of “billboard” collaged spaces into a seamless, continual temporal space. In doing so he pushed out the edges of his images, overlapping that visual logic onto our experienced reality. His work taps directly into our own memories, putting us into the scene and making us actually feel what we are seeing.

Modernist Vision

By the 19th Century the academy had fallen into a revival of high Renaissance compositional devices and classic storytelling techniques in order to produce very slick, theatrical history painting. However, there were things occurring in the avant garde that would revive the exploration of a more involving visual kind of composition. The first rediscovery was the Impressionists’ reinterpretation of color and light through revamped drawing and painting techniques. Painters began to re-think how to make a painting, how painterly techniques could affect the eye. The second was a new emphasis placed on dynamic compositional devices in order to optimize the visual effects of these rediscovered techniques. This new emphasis on compositional structures was developed through both the assimilation of Japanese prints (new and dynamic to the eyes of Western painters) and the beginning proliferation of lens based imagery. There are direct similarities between the way a camera works and the way a Japanese print works. Both flatten and frame in ways not seen in Western Art before, and painters were hooked from the start. For our purposes we’ll concentrate on the compositional framing that’s natural to the lens and the camera. It quickly became a tool used by many of the Impressionists to radically alter viewing perspectives and figure ground relationships in their paintings. The lens completely revamped one’s compositional choices quickly, efficiently and undeniably. This new composition also brought back Caravaggio’s radical pictorial logic and involving physical spaces. I would normally go for Manet at this point, but instead, I’ll use an example of another of my favorite paintings – Caillebotte’s Scrapers.

Calleboitte’s camera allowed the painter to re-discover a Baroque physical vision. We’re in the room with these floor scrapers, standing at the back. The composition has a similar feel to the way Caravaggio directed his works – in fact there are many qualities in this painting that harken back to his innovations – the temporal naturalism, the importance of light and surface, the tight defining spaces between the figures and encompassing ground. Now there are many Impressionist technical innovations still at work here, but in this painting our focus is not outside, not the landscape, but instead, the interior, the living space. In this slightly off kilter room the composition allows our eyes to “hear” the blades pushing across the surface of that wooden floor, the sound of metal on wood. You can see the oppressive heat on the sweating backs of those craftsmen. And in a very Baroque plot twist, you can also see something else – the window is shut – the workers are trapped to their tasks and though the light fills the room, it must also heat it up. We are witnessing the inevitable way things get done; difficult, exacting, backbreaking. Hard men stripped to the waste, stripping the hard floor, getting beneath the surface of things in order to resurface, begin anew (apologies, I like the metaphor). The grouping of the figures on the right – contained, chatting about something – is balanced and impacted by the left hand figure’s move to grab a sharp tool – there’s the threat of deliberate violence in this movement. (To my mind this painting brings up memories of another matter of fact scraping – Marsyas by Titian.) This figure’s reach leads us back into the conversation of the other two workers, pulls us across the room into that particular moment making it both real and alive. It’s similar to the way Caravaggio composed his inevitable moments of violence using a look or an outstretched arm to send us careening across the space of the scene. But we as viewers are still not totally a part of this moment – not voyeurs, but witnesses or overseers. We are still not totally implicated in the vision.

Radical Viewing

So what of Courbet’s Beginning? When you walk into Courbet’s room in the d’Orsay you’ll discover straight away that this painting really does project a kind of visual intimacy unlike anything else around it. Even among Courbet’s work it’s different. With Origin, we are not only in the scene, we are physically involved with the subject of that very image. This sort of compositional physicality in painting was unknown and unexplored at the time (1866 – eleven years before Caillebotte’s Scrapers). We are literally sitting between this woman’s leg’s. In fact we are so close to the image that we can not see all of it. The figure moves beyond the edges of the canvas, out of the field entirely, turning the figure into a landscape. The composition pushes at the peripheries of our vision just as it does the edges of the canvas. It activates our sense memories in a direct way, accentuating touch and emotion. We don’t have the luxury of a disconnected contemplation, the vision is immediate and brutal. Courbet’s realism further pushes us to form physical visual contact with the figure. There’s a pulse, a warmth to the skin, a sense of heat and closeness in the air.

Gustav has abstracted our reality through the way the subject is presented in the composition itself. He has broken the space and logic of the figure, made it sharp and thorough like Picasso and Braque would later do in Cubism. They explored temporal viewing from all points, through space. Gustav is not temporally disembodied in that way, but his composition goes straight through the space and pushes into ours. It’s raw just as Picasso’s space is raw. There is none of the wholeness or understanding of the thing in the field, there is only the rising subject and the emotional involvement of close viewing. We don’t know what else is about, we are concentrated on this particular moment of contact. We do not know who this image is of, we are not given a typical portrait. However we are implicated in knowing and understanding her physicality. We, the viewers, are needed to complete the composition because it is absurd and unexpected, a Black Swan. There is no backing away from the subject once you’ve seen it. Its encompassing visual logic has you as you look. Yes it’s sex, it’s basic, raw and unattenuated. It may even be pornographic, but the reality of its form and composition pushing the boundaries of the painted ground makes no apologies. It has you straight away and it demands your involvement. The composition says if you want to see, if you really want to see, then you must feel. You must get into this space, you must get right up to the reality of vision no matter what. We are not witnesses, we are not voyeurs, we are Courbet, we are with this woman. And again this for me is what Romanticism does best – it involves you totally, physically, emotionally. It rocks you on your heels.

Today the lens is ubiquitous and our understanding of and interaction in the world are funneled through its magic boundaries. Courbet’s Beginning is familiar to us in ways that he could never have seen in his own time. The lens was a new re-discovery, a formerly Secret Knowledge that was used to alter our perceptions and expectations in painting. I believe a radical understanding of our visual moment must begin with just such a painting as this one.

Here we are a decade into a new and exciting century and there hasn’t been a serious challenge to the Fin de Siecle Postmodern orthodoxy. Sure there are a number of artists taking that orthodoxy to the “next level”, but there are very few artists indeed that are proposing a different viewpoint, a change of composition, on our times. I think we must “aim Large”, go all out for something different, something that might makes us a bit uncomfortable, unstable. So we’ve begun with Courbet and we’ll continue to hone this Romantic critique, to move beyond both Modernism & Postmodernism in our next post.

10 thoughts on “NSFW – Courbet’s Origin and Romantic Engagement”

  1. tremendous post

    ‘intimacy’ is the key issue here and you’ve explicated this in a most convincing way

    bravo signore

  2. Beautiful post, for which I was perfectly primed. I click the “Henri” link in my favorites, left the room, poured some wine, played with a cat. When I returned I had no idea what page I was on. I looked at my screen and was truly startled that I had somehow downloaded some porn.

  3. Thanks P. The next post on Romantic vision will take us more explicitly from witness to participant, which I hope will open us up for a different kind of visual involvement.

  4. Thanks C – Glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you weren’t too startled. There’s nothing subtle about that painting. But “in vino veritas” usually loosens ones’ bullets…

  5. The Origin of the World – what does he mean ?

    The sexual desire ?

    Temptation ?

    The adoration ?

    The visual joy ?

    The power of the Vulva ?

    The commitment of the artist to break any rules ?

    Subtle, yes, the handling of the hair and the masterly composition of volumes. The cold-warm contrasts.

    The viewer in a double role as a possible intruder and the original human born from his mothers womb.

    This work by Courbet seems to be an example for the many different relationships an image can have with the outer world researched in the Semiotics




  6. Pingback: “Artists who write write for a purpose” / artcritical

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