Mike Rowley reviews The impressionists (Channel 4)
This programme made a refreshing change from Channel Four's usual. It showed that it is possible to talk about art accessibly for two hours without becoming tedious. The most "political" of the four major figures considered was Gustave Courbet, the great precursor of Impressionism.
Born in 1819 in a rural area of France, Gustave Courbet moved to Paris in 1841, ostensibly to study law. Instead, he turned to painting and plunged into the bohemian revolutionary scene in Paris, which included many socialists and anarchists, including the anarchist writers Proudhon and Bakunin and, from 1843 to 1844, Karl Marx, who wrote his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts there.
Trotsky suggests in Literature and Revolution that writers and artists who are intellectually formed by revolt and revolution can often realise a truer artistic reflection of it than those who "convert" to a revolutionary point of view as mature artists. This was certainly the case with Courbet.
The revolutionary milieu of Paris in the 1840s brought middle-class socialists, including Marx and Courbet, into touch with the real ferment of the workers' movement. Courbet was always more comfortable artistically portraying rural workers in the landscape of his childhood, but his identification with the urban proletariat was no less real.
Courbet rebelled against the official "Salon art" of his time. The Salon, held at the Louvre, was a great annual exhibition with "judges" and "juries" appointed by the government. It promoted glossy neo-classical or naive pastoral art reminiscent of Poussin and Watteau and deliberately avoided any comment on the social realities of the contemporary world. If peasants were portrayed at all, they were shown as comic groptesques in rigidly hierarchical settings.
By contrast, Courbet painted workers and ordinary people realistically and on an heroic scale (some of his paintings are two by three metres or even larger). No-one is obviously in charge, each person, whatever their social class, is depicted as a human individual. Courbet's painting technique seemed "rough" by contrast with the shiny productions of the salon, but it reflected real life rather than an elaborate theatrical setting.
Turned down by the Salon, Courbet mounted his own exhibition, the "Pavillion of the Real", outside it in 1855. The centerpiece of the Pavillion was Courbet's huge painting "The Artist's Studio", an allegory of the social position of the artist. To one side are thinly disguised caricatures of Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, then dictator and self-declared "emperor" of France, and his ministers; on the other are some of the artist's bohemian left acquaintances, including Proudhon; and in the centre is Courbet himself at his easel (he wasn't modest).
The Bonapartist regime was not sympathetic to artistic free expression. As the dictatorship stabilised its grip on the country Courbet and other artists were forced to hide their politics. Courbet and the "Realist" school of painting which he had founded produced nature paintings, nudes and other ostensibly "neutral" works; but the political aspect of their movement had not disappeared.
In 1870, in the midst of the disastrous Franco-German war, Bonaparte was overthrown, and early the following year the workers seized control of Paris and set up the world's first workers' democratic state, the Paris Commune. Courbet supported the Commune and was elected its Commissioner for Art.
In this capacity he swept away the machinery of official art, abolishing the "judges" and "juries" of the Salon and throwing open the Louvre as a free public treasure. It was also almost certainly Courbet who gave the order to blow up the original Napoleon's column in the Place Vendome - a symbol of right-wing military dictatorship hated by the left.
After the bloody suppression of the Commune the right-wing government used the destruction of the column as an excuse to persecute Courbet, prosecuting him twice when they were not satisfied with the first sentence and forcing him into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1877.
Gustave Courbet helped change art forever. Courbet gave birth to Impressionism. Along with others, he helped found modern art. He was not himself an Impressionist. Those artists who followed him developed their own styles. What those styles had in common, though, was a rational response to the reality of their time. Without such a response it is impossible to produce great art.