Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The story of Courbet’s Origin of the World, part seven

I finally found a picture of the man who commissioned and paid for Courbet’s Origin. There’s no date on it but it looks like it was taken around the time of the picture. There’s no photographer’s name on it, either, so it probably wasn’t by Auguste Belloc, who took the picture that Courbet based his painting on.

It’s not the original image, I’m fairly sure. I also have a very grainy photocopy of a far grainier original — in which Bey’s hand is on the left. So it’s probably been flipped. The curtain has been moved, too — and retouched to green. Which is the colour of the curtain with which, it’s said, he concealed his painting. The colour of Islam, of course. Théophile Gautier described Bey’s collection as ‘the first ever to be formed by a child of Islam’.

So we have a Muslim — in contradiction to his religion’s eternal ban on representational art — collecting the most modern versions of representation. ‘A magnificent gallery of pictures despite the law of the Prophet which forbids the representation of figures,’ L’Artiste magazine commented in January 1868 — when Bey’s collection came to auction, with the introduction to the catalogue written by Gautier.

In particular, of course, Bey’s magnificent gallery contained one image which represented something which had never before been represented in a public form — well, semi-public. Then he hid that representation with an abstract representation of his own religion — which notably sought (seeks, come to that) to forbid it.

One could read that symbolic act as a deliberate irony: the curtain itself as an enactment of Islam’s censorship of the human (or godly) form. An irony which was, in turn, compounded by the picture’s title, itself a challenge not just to Islam but to all religions — all of which, in my experience, posit far less visceral origins of the world.

If that makes Bey sound like a conscious radical, he was — certainly in his politics. ‘While in Paris he had been planning the extreme liberal reforms which he felt had to be put in effect if the Ottoman Empire was to be preserved . . . a constitution and an egalitarian regime,’ according to the fullest account I’ve found of Bey and his art, a 1982 piece by Francis Haskell in the Oxford Art Journal.

In Paris, by the way, Bey lived near the new Opera. He would, though, have departed the city — to become the Ottoman ambassador in Vienna — before the ink was spilt on the La Danse sculpture (then expended on it by newspapers). He rented rooms from Lord Hertford whose own gallery of paintings became the Wallace Collection — housed in the former family town home in Manchester Square, London W1.

Actually, it’s more complicated that that . . .

Next up A break from Courbet and a one-shot return to alleys etc

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