“When I am dead, let this be said of me: ‘He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any regime except the regime of liberty.'”
The documentary Gustave Courbet directed by Romain Goupil is an interesting–albeit slightly superficial overview of the life of this 19th century French painter who was labeled as both an “innovator” and a “revolutionary.” Told mainly through voiceovers of Courbet’s letters to his family and various friends, the film also includes some background details and, of course, views of his gorgeous paintings.
The film begins with a letter written by Courbet in 1839 and continues through to his last letter written in 1877. Using his paintings, the film explains how he defied the conventions of the time. For the painting The Burial at Omans, for example, Courbet used as models the people who’d attended a funeral, and the painting in some sense suggests that its subjects are royalty (the film compares this painting to a tableaux of Napoleon). Courbet’s painting of the plebs rather upset the art critics who preferred to look at paintings of the ruling classes, but there was a great deal more to come. Coming under fire for not placing gloves on the hands of his females subjects, and–heavens above–allowing their petticoats to show, Courbet’s work was considered scandalous. Over time Courbet’s paintings became increasingly erotic, and critics were highly offended by his nudes, his partial nudes and his painting of female genitalia (The Origin of The World). At the time, the French art world was more or less a closed shop. Painters had to have their work approved by the Academie in order to be included in exhibitions. In opposition to the Universal exhibition of 1855, Courbet financed his own parallel exhibition. Subject to a great deal of criticism–and some of this was due to his radical politics–Courbet stated that when it came to art “I must be free even of governments.”
Sadly, there’s a distinct lack of personal details about Courbet’s life in the film. At one point, for example, a letter mentions that his wife of 14 years has remarried someone else, but the voiceover narrative hasn’t even mentioned a wife–let alone marital problems before that point. There’s also very little about his political beliefs. The film mentions, however that Courbet rejected the Legion of Honour from Napoleon III, and made the statement: “Honour lies neither in a medal or a ribbon.”
The film mentions that Courbet was a friend of Proudhon (in fact he painted Proudhon’s portrait), and that Courbet lived through the Paris Commune. The film explains Courbet’s involvement in the Commune; he was a delegate from the sixth arrondissement and later served as a member of the Conseil de la Commune. He served on the Commune’s committee for public education and worked to reorganize the museums and art schools. After the destruction of the Commune, he was held personally responsible for the destruction of the Vendome Column. Imprisoned for 6 months, he was then expected to pay for the column’s rebuilding, and he went into exile in Switzerland.
Ultimately, the film concentrates on Courbet’s art, and while there are many details regarding Courbet’s struggle with the ‘accepted’ art critics, there’s only a slight emphasis made on his personal life and his politics.