Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Fons Et Origo

Eakins’s painting [William Rush Carving His Allegorical Figure Of The Schuylkill River] is not the only instance of a meaningful discrepancy between a model and its ostensible object. Twenty years before, Gustave Courbet’s Painter’s Studio had marked a much more startling difference between the standing nude and the work of art in progress. In a brilliant reading, to which this whole line of discussion is indebted, Michael Fried responds to the assumption that the nude is not, after all, in the painting by insisting that, in fact, she is. Once seen, it is impossible to miss the relationship between the river water, issuing from the grotto in Courbet’s painting, and the cloth falling down the model’s body and, as we must say, cascading into the pool of her dress. As Fried notes, the flow is not necessarily in one direction. It works as well moving from painting to model to drapery, and perhaps spilling out from the whole picture space into the lap of the beholder. But equally it is possible to paddle one’s gaze upstream, fighting the current, into the heart of the painting’s painting, toward the dark, rocky crevice at its center.

All this becomes more compelling when set against Courbet’s passion for anthropomorphic landscape. In the 1860s he painted a series of views of water-caves, all sited in his native region of the Franche-Comté. At the center of each is a dark opening from which the waters of the river Loue or the Puits Noir flow back and forth. And it doesn’t take a feverishly Freudian imagination to see them as vaginal orifices in the face of the rock, especially when, at about the same time, Courbet also produced at least one explicit painting of female pudenda, for the Turkish collector of erotica Khalil Bey. The artist gave it the title of The Origin Of The World. And if we are indeed meant to think of the water-caves of the Franche-Comté as a site of native origins—geological and prehistoric—it may be said that Courbet was indeed returning very far upstream.

Is this where we have arrived, then, in the middle of the industrial-imperial century, back in the Renaissance river grottoes, the dimly glowing fons et origo, where the secret of creation was promised in a fusion of wisdom and love?

Simon Schama
Landscape and Memory

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