Saturday, 8 January 2011

Un conte d'un con et de M Lacan, part four

Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde was painted to commission, for Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat and gambler with a taste for paintings of unclothed women. He also suffered from some kind of eye ailment and so wore blue spectacles, a fact much commented on by gossip columnists. He was a big figure in Second Empire Paris, big enough, in fact, to rate a passing mention in Stephen Frears' recent film, Chéri, from Colette's novel about an ageing courtesan - which is set nearly half a century after Bey's heyday.

It's possible that Bey and Courbet met at the funeral of Proudhon - the first man to call himself an anarchist and who came up with the phrase 'property is theft'. (Well, of course, what he actually said was: La propriété, c'est le vol!) Courbet was a social radical, set on depicting life beyond 'bourgeois' propriety and reinvigorating French painting. Along with Manet, he was the first shapers of our modern visual world. He painted giant, life-sized paintings of workers and peasants and naked women.

It was his impulsive politics that was finally to undo him, though, rather than his pictures. At the height of the Commune, set up by radical Parisians in the wake of France's collapse in the face of Prussia's 1971 invasion, Courbet was the main advocate of the column in the Place Vendôme which commemorated Napoleon I's achievements. For which, in the counter-revolutionary aftermath of the Commune, Courbet was sentenced to six months and fined 500,000 francs (500, according to Wikipedia). So he fled to Switzerland where he died, of the drink, aged 58.

I’ve no idea how much that was in 2011 euros but, by way of comparison, I’ve seen the price Bey paid Courbet for L’Origine quoted as 25,000 francs It was far from his only purchase. Bey was a major collector — and inspirer — of contemporary artists, many of whom would lay the foundation for Paris’s emergence as the world centre of art for the next half-century at least.

Over three years or so, he bought 124 paintings, including six by Delacroix. He also commissioned Ingres' Bain Turc and Courbet's Le Sommeil (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris) - in which Jo Hiffernan is also supposed to be one of the two sleeping women, the dark-haired one on the left.

According to his - excitable - obituary in the London World, he also pressed tea sets on women he met - 47 in that three-year stretch. A seduction technique, I assume. It must have worked sometimes. His mistress, Jeanne de Tourbey was previously mistress of Prince Napoleon. (I assume the similarity of his and her surnames — Bey/Tourbey — was coincidence, though possibly remarked upon by gossips.) When people talk of the courtesans of late 19th century Paris, it’s her they mostly have in mind.

She is generally described as 'the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate waitress' - which sounds like the title of a Danny Kaye song and makes me, at least, wonder how you might distinguish between legitimate and non-legitimate waitressing.

Napoleon arranged for her to be given a polish of education by his friend Sainte-Beuve, a leading literary critic, who is also said to have been responsible for introducing Bey to Courbet. Thus polished, she married a comte, becoming comtesse de Loynes. Once free of the comte, she set up a literary salon, the model for Madame Swann's in Proust's big, big book - which I haven't read, of course. Later in life, she became a fervid reactionary, a leading anti-Dreyfussard and a major funder of Action Francaise — in time, a major backer of the Vichy regime. There is a painting of her in the D'Orsay. She looks trouble.

The first recorded reference to Courbet’s painting as L'origine du Monde is late, very late — 1935, in a piece by a Courbet scholar It’s generally said, though, that the title was Bey's idea - as was, perhaps, the small size of the canvas, quite unlike Courbet's usual giant paintings. All the better to conceal it.

PS My Occitanian correspondent Richard pointed out that there was a typo in the heading for the last couple of Courbet postings. I actually meant to write ‘conte’ — story or tale, in French. In fact, I typed ‘comte’ — French for count.

And . . . well, and here is a sentence from my book, Filthy English. ‘It is claimed that English counts were renamed earls because of their titles’ homophonic closeness to the word.’ The word, of course, was cunt.

Next up What a Turk hides in his toilet

Friday, 7 January 2011

Une comte d'un con et de M Lacan, le troisième

It's often said that the model for Courbet’s painting was Joanna Hiffernan. The lover of James Whistler (and others), Jo was an Irishwoman with long, flaming red hair - which, yes, does conflict with the colour and texture of the hair we see in the painting. She is, though, certainly the woman in both Courbet's La belle Irlandaise (Portrait of Jo) - which is in the Met in New York - and in Whistler's Symphony in White, No 1: The White Girl - in the National Gallery, Washington.

But in truth, given the evidence before your eyes, Jo is an unlikely candidate. An improbable one, in fact. Rather, the painting's extreme, 19th century realism - hyper-realism before its time, even - is not just an extension of Courbet's general pursuit of the real and everyday. It's clearly photographic in composition, tone, colour balance, size even - it's far, far smaller than Courbet's usual giant canvases.

More than that, there's a photograph that is a more-than-fair candidate for its, well, origin. It's by one of the first photographers of pornography - or, at least, of naked female bodies, with the aim of awakening male (and perhaps female) imaginations. Though he traded under the name Billon, he was in fact the Auguste Belloc, the great, innovatory photographer of mid-19th century Paris. He photographed the great and good of the Second Empire. He invented the wet collodion process - which Sally Mann has recently re-put to good purpose photographing her children naked.

(The reason we know Billon and Belloc were the same man, by the was, is because the forward-looking but statist French state had decided that photographs should have the same copyright status as paintings etc. So photographers established their rights by sending copy prints to a national agency - which held them in store, whether they were of great men's bearded faces or young women's unshaven vulvas. Oh, and there is no link at all between Auguste Belloc and his near namesake and fellow photographer of unclothed women, EJ Bellocq who captured the pre-First World War New Orleans brothel world that gave us jazz, probably, and Jelly Roll Morton, certainly.)

The particular image that Courbet most likely used as a basis was one of a series of hand-coloured stereoscopes. There is the same pale-skinned, generously haired young woman, the same headlessness and rumpled white linen and a very similar pose. It's true, though, that Courbet removed the stockings and added breasts — well, an edge of one.

It was the mid-1860s, photography had only been around a few years and already there was both colour and 3D. (I'd have put an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence if I didn't have a lifelong aversion to their, inevitably cheap, excitement.) The first photograph of a (clothed) human was taken in 1838. In 1860, a police raid on Belloc's stock netted 4,000 erotic images. As so often, the desire to satisfy human desire is a motor for invention. Now, if only we could find a way to monetise it sexually, the solution to global warming would be round the corner.

Next up A Turkish gentleman makes a proposition to a French painter.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Une comte d'un con et de M Lacan, part deux

First a recap. This is the second in a series of blogs about - or, at least, occasioned by - a painting by Courbet, L'Origine du Monde. I've been planning - or, perhaps, threatening - to write about it ever since I learned that the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had been the painting's last private owner.

I can't remember when I first indicated I was intending to write something but it was long enough ago that the material I accumulated to the point where I realised it was not so much a potential blog as the basis for something more - though quite what I still don't know, which is why I'm blogging it now. C

It was certainly long enough ago that my Anglo-French correspondent Paul jogged my typing elbows by sending me his Christmas greetings on a card featuring the painting. It's the second biggest seller at the giftshop in its current home, the Musee D'Orsay. (The biggest is Renoir's Bal du Moulin de la Galette, I think.)

How big has it got? Well, looking at what I’ve written so far, it’s far, far longer than a couple of blogs. I’ll break it up and post one new section a day over the next week or so. It could be as many as ten postings, I reckon. A whole of blogging, I know, and the final posting will, I guess, be about why so much writing.

If you want to read the whole first part, it's here. If not, you might like to know that my thoughts about the Courbet were rejogged by the comments of a Greek art critic who referenced the painting in his comments on a gynaecologically inclined photographic portrait, entitled My British Wife, which is currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery.

So . . . (this is where it originally — ha, ha — started) . . .

I can't remember where and when I first saw Courbet's L'Origine du Monde. But I can remember what I thought. And I think most people thought the same kind of things.

One I was struck by the wit of the title - not at all what you expect of a French painter.

Two I thought it was a modern painting - perhaps a work by a late 1970s American or German hyper-realist.

Three When I saw the name Courbet on it*, I decided I must have seen it before, that it was part of the established canon of western nudes. Only it isn't - or rather wasn't when I first saw it. I was quite wrong about that. Though now on display at the Musée d'Orsay, in the same room as another picture that shocked 19th century Paris, Manet's Le Déjeuner sur L'Herbe, it's only been there since 1995. Most of its life it's been cloistered away — which is mostly

Four It was a really odd painting, poised between realism and pornography - deliberately, I guess. And then, of course, there was its subject matter . . .

Five Its title is, I guessed, was related to the Latin saying, inter faeces et urinam nascimur.

* On the label, not on the painting itself. It is unsigned and undated.

Next up In time, a return to Freud (and, in Hamlet’s phrase) country matters. But first, a return to 1860s Paris.