By Alan Dean Foster
I never tire of looking at art. Even bad art can be instructive, by showing that you can do better than those who are making millions hauling scrap from yards and calling it art. (What really differentiates so much modern “art” from what you see jumbled together at your neighbor’s yard sale?)
But sometimes, it’s just as entertaining and enlightening to look at people looking at art. I don’t mean folks muttering fraught pseudo-intellectual claptrap while gawking at a toilet installed in a bare white museum room. I’m referring to art that is, or was, seriously controversial. Unsettling, even, to its audience. The 20th, let alone the 21st, century did not invent disturbing art. Work that was truly groundbreaking likely goes back to some scribe surreptitiously scribbling something outrageous on the walls of the king’s new bedchamber, and then ducking out before it was discovered so he wouldn’t lose his head.
I just got back from Paris (I always wanted to be able to say that). Naturally I spent endless hours, accompanied by increasingly sore feet, exploring the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay and the Luxembourg museum, and others. I feasted upon works famous and less so, encountering the expected and the unfamiliar. It was while viewing the collection of the much smaller but still notable Petit Palais that I found myself sufficiently intrigued to spend some time observing other art-lovers and their diverse encounters with one particular controversial painting.
Gustave Courbet was the leader of the Realism movement in painting in the mid-nineteenth century. A superb technician, he and other Realists such as Daumier, Millet, and Corot rejected Romanticism in favor of painting what they actually saw. The movement was a consequence of the most recent French revolution and a deliberate rejection of the dreamy, idealized portraits of the human form that were previously in vogue.
In 1863, Manet scandalized the art world with his painting “Olympia,” which for the first time depicts a female nude in a straightforward, non-idealized pose. Prior to “Olympia,” western European art was replete with thousands of nudes rendered in often idealized perfection. This was considered perfectly acceptable so long as said nudes were depicted in scenes from mythology, or in religious tableaux. In contrast, “Olympia” shows us a Parisian courtesan reclining on a couch, staring directly back at the viewer. No references to Greek myths required or implied.
With his less well-known but famous “Le Sommeil,” Courbet takes such realism a step further. It says something that while “Olympia” no longer has the power to startle, “Le Sommeil” still does.
That’s why it’s so interesting to observe people encountering Courbet’s painting.
With all the considerable artistic and painterly skill at his command, Courbet presents us with a picture of two women who have just concluded a sojourn at play. They are completely nude. No cards are in evidence, no chessboard, no tennis rackets. But there is a stray comb, and a broken string of pearls, and much rumpling of expertly depicted bed linen. Their respective expressions tell you all you need to know about what has just transpired, and it was not a round of croquet. To say that the painting shocked even the art world of 1866 Paris, already exposed to “Olympia,” is an understatement. That it still has the power to unnerve viewers is fascinating.
The curving hall with its white walls in which “Le Sommeil” is hung, just one more painting among others, is wide enough to allow the observer to stand at a distance and note the encounters between painting and viewers. These are eternally instructive and sometimes amusing. Very few people approach “Le Sommeil” in the same fashion as they do the “Mona Lisa,” or Delacroix’s “Coronation of the Empress Josephine,” or Vermeer’s “The Lace Maker” (all in the Louvre).
Several people come near, perceive the subject matter, and accelerate, as if examining the painting in detail might somehow mark them. Two women pause and spend some time studying the work. Two men: one middle-aged and the other the perfect vision of a wizened, elderly elf straight out of Tolkien, halt to take in Courbet’s effort. The old man moves on with a slight smile on his face: an indication that while aged, he is far from dead.
Other male viewers seem more intimidated by the painting than do women. Upon encountering the painting men would continue to eye it, but while simultaneously edging away, as if it might bite them or somehow impugn their masculinity. Catching her initial glimpse of “Le Sommeil,” one elderly woman accelerates away from its proximity like a sprinter leaving the blocks. My favorite viewer had to be the single woman, perhaps in her late 30s, who saw the painting while walking down the middle of the hall and promptly made a beeline directly toward it. Whether the content spoke to her specifically or somehow exerted an actual measurable magnetic pull I do not know, but she spends some time examining it closely and carefully before moving on.
All these disparate reactions to a painting from 1866. And in our hubris, we think modern art invented the power to shock.
You can always Google “Le Sommeil” and decide about it for yourself. And you know you are going to.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.