I am fifty years old and I have always lived in freedom; let me end my life free; 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 régime except the régime of liberty.
Those are the words of an artist I can appreciate. Gustave Courbet, subject of an Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until May, entitled “The Born Rebel Artist,” uttered those words and was one of the forces behind the end of Romanticism in the mid 1800s. He was inspired by the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt, who he said “painted the world as it was around them.” None too modest, he declared that his painting “The Burial at Omans” was really the burial of Romanticism.
Courbet is more famous for two other things. One involves a giant phallus and the other is a portrait of a punani. Both have amusing tales behind them, so bear with me while you get a dose of Culture with a Capital C, you Philistine. This’ll be good for you, but tasty, like deep fried broccoli cheese bites.
First, the punani! His most notorious work is deliciously entitled The Origin of the World, and portrays a nude model asleep in bed, from thighs to breasts. Far from being merely pornographic, it’s quite erotic and the positioning emphasizes this. If you click on the link or the dummy at work, you are a fucking idiot. Holy shit, remember blink tags? Yeah, don’t click on this at work.
The story behind The Origin of the World is that he used his favorite model, Joanna Hiffernan, known as Jo. She was also the lover of his student James McNeill Whistler, you know, the Whistler’s Mother guy. Let’s just say after that, Whistler and Courbet weren’t on speaking terms. Even though Jo was a redhead, and the curtains in the painting don’t match her drapes, it is believed to be her. Courbet either had the decency to change the color of her bush, or did so for artistic reasons (after all, most are black) or maybe she just dyed her hair. Either way, the lessons here are don’t paint your buddy’s girl’s punani, and art is all about the pussy. Another work of his from his later period is The Sleepers, of two nude women in bed. Around teexs time he formed the Federation of Artists, along with Manet and others, to promote the uncensored expansion of art. How much this had to do with his exploration of erotica during the latter end of his career, I’ll let you decide.
As you could tell from the quote about liberty and being beholden to nothing, Courbet wasn’t a big fan of Napoleon III‘s government. He refused the Medal of the Legion of Honor from France’s last monarch, and after the disastrous war with Prussia, he was a member of the Paris Commune during their short-lived takeover of the government. During that time Courbet was put in control of protecting the museums of art. He wanted to move the Vendôme Column, a monument to Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, but it was dismantled instead. After the Paris Commune fell from power, he was jailed for desecrating this phallic elegy and eventually billed for 300,000 francs to rebuild it, at 10,000 a year. This would have ruined him, if he hadn’t died a day before the first payment was due.
It’s said he died of liver disease from a life of heavy drinking, but I like to think his death was one final act of defiance. Let’s face it, the man had balls. I bet he met up with his buddy Charles Baudelaire, and got crazy drunk laughing about it in hell.