WIthout realizing it, Peter Schjeldahl describes French painter Gustave Courbet as a conceptual innovator in his recent New Yorker review of Petra Chu’s biography, “The Most Arrogant Man in France.”
Among Courbet’s characteristics that are typical of conceptual innovators:
- Conceiving of pictures by predicting the shock they would create, rather than as an attempt to capture the essence of the world around him.
- Basing paintings on theories about painting, such as his 1855 “Realist Manifesto.” It declared his intention “to translate the customs, the ideas, the aspect of my time as I conceive of them.” Further: “Hardly objective, Courbet’s realist works are fictive and rhetorical to the core—‘conceptual rather than perceptual,’ Chu affirms.”
- Finding inspiration beyond the natural world. “The art historian Linda Nochlin, in her seminal book “Realism” (1971), characterized the movement’s idealism with an apt quote from Hegel: ‘Art digs an abyss between the appearance and illusion of this bad and perishable world, on the one hand, and the true content of events on the other, to reclothe these events and phenomena with a higher reality, born of the mind.’ ”
Courbet became a painter at age 20 and produced his most frequently reproduced work, “The Studio of the Artist” (pictured), in 1855 at age 36 – relatively late for a conceptual innovator. Not long after that, he faded, as conceptual innovators typically do. As Schjeldaht writes:
“Already he had lost his edge. Already, in 1863, ‘Olympia,’ by his younger and smarter contemporary Édouard Manet [another conceptual innovator], had dramatized the female nude in ways, both realist and poetic, that beggared Courbet. (It was shown, to legendary furor, in the Salon of 1865.) Meanwhile, the Impressionists were making Courbet’s eclectic chiaroscuro styles—later ridiculed by the American Impressionist Childe Hassam as ‘molasses and bitumen’—look abruptly obsolete.”
Schjeldahl even compares conceptual Courbet to a conceptual innovator from the present – Bob Dylan. “Showily enigmatic, ‘The Studio of the Painter’ affected its immediate audiences with inchoate excitements—vaguely political, indistinctly visionary, unfathomably ironic—somewhat like those which attended the early hits of Bob Dylan in another epoch that violently revamped public roles and values in the arts.”