Curator Gary Tinterow visits the New York studio of the painter John Currin to discuss the special exhibition Gustave Courbet.
Gary Tinterow: Hello, I'm Gary Tinterow. I'm curator of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary art and one of the curators of the Gustave Courbet exhibition, which is currently at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And I have the great fortune of being in the studio of the New York painter John Currin, who has admired Courbet's work for a long time and makes reference to it in his own painting. And we're here having a discussion about Courbet and what's meaningful about his work to him.
John, I've read that the Courbet exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art had a big impact on you when you saw that exhibition. Can you say something about what that experience was like for you?
John Currin: Well, I'd been told to see it by my friend Carl Ostendarp, an abstract painter. But he was a Courbet freak from when we were in school together. I had been kind of flailing around with a kind of joke-y version of figuration, after having been a kind of New York School-type artist and painter in art school. I'd been feeling that I was moving toward figuration. And kind of yearning to throw away the kind of, what I thought of as progressive abstract style. Seeing the—the show was so weird and so strange and so kind of serious, yet utterly bombastic and. . . . In a way he has no sense of humor, which is kind of the cool thing. They're the funniest paintings, the weirdest paintings by kind of a humorless person. And normally, if someone had said that to me, I'd say "I'm not going to like this artist." But it's his—his seriousness is kind of the weirdest thing about them. Also, the idea of painting things that already look like paint, you know, like snow and soil and flesh, as if it's just a sort of simple translation into paint. And also the crazy palette knife work and the closeness of some aspects of the paintings to what we think of as like thrift-store painting, Bob Ross or, you know, just crummy views of Montmartre. There's actually a loud echo in Courbet's work of what we think of as schlock painting. And that—that was kind of my insecurity and inhibition about figurative painting in the first place. So to see it full bore in Courbet was a huge experience for me.
Gary Tinterow: Well, you're talking a bit about his technique and his use of palette knife and rags and his fingers, et cetera, in order to make illusionistic passages in his paintings. When you say "schlock art," I assume you're talking about some of those landscapes. As you know, he produced many landscapes, some of those with assistants, et cetera. But when you look at the figure paintings, it's hard to use the word "schlock."
John Currin: Well, you know, I mean, I say that with the most awe, you know, and. . . there's a tastelessness to them, I guess is what I mean, at least to our eyes. There's a kind of vulgarity that I found totally refreshing and freed me up to make—you know, a lot of the problem with being a figurative artist now is the automatic badness that's so easy to achieve right off the bat. You know, the kitsch aspect. And whether or not you're going to sort of, you know, go down those rapids or not, and either do it ironically or avoid it altogether and become a kind of classicist, or become a realist . . . you know, Courbet is like—he's like the worst defender, in a way, and also the greatest exponent of, like, a modern realist approach to painting.
Gary Tinterow: Well, many people think that Courbet was one of the first modern artists. People have been looking for who that figure was. Was it David? Was it Manet? Many people vote for Courbet. What aspect of his art would you identify as modern, especially since, when you look at the exhibition, and you visit it, you see a lot of dark paintings, and he seems very Old Masterly, Rembrandt-like, seventeenth-century Spanish painting. I think when, you know, you have the concept of modern art and you come at the beginning of the exhibition, you think, "Whoa, this feels like an Old Master exhibition." But many artists such as you really identify with his work and see this modern element. So how would you characterize that?
John Currin: Well, I always felt there was an alternate route to contemporary life and art via Courbet, rather than Cézanne and the kind of progressive flattening . . . I wouldn't say that actually about Cézanne, but you know what I mean. A kind of progression through Impressionism to Cézanne to Picasso to, you know, the sort of death of painting and rise of sculpture. And so, I always felt like you could sort of see the nuttiness of Dada and of Neue Sachlichkeit, of, really of most of Surrealism and Dada, and actually Duchamp, latent in Courbet.
Gary Tinterow: You said he was humorless, and I think part of what you mean is there's not evident irony in his pictures. But he was constantly in the face of the arts administration. He was trying to rile up the public, develop controversy, and as you know, he was challenging conventional mores and taste with, say, the sexual aspect of some of his pictures. Although the sexiest images in the exhibition were meant for private consumption only and were not ever publicly exhibited during his lifetime, not until the twentieth century. You have a series that you're working on here in the studio of images with pornography. How does Courbet's approach to that subject or aspect of human sexuality inform your work?
John Currin: I always found it curious that Courbet was described as a realist. First of all, the drawing is absolutely nutty and there's a lack of academic polish and a self-taught aspect, which is another reason why I was drawn to it. Because I sort of feel like everyone's in the same beginning position as Courbet was. Although Courbet himself, you know, had way better training than any of us would have now. But compared to his peers, it was substandard. Which is a blessing, because he—and this gets me to my point about the bodies—is that there's a kind of weird, eyes-closed, made-up, and naïve aspect to his anatomy, notwithstanding this incredible ass coming out of the water and the sort of . . . there's a combination of accuracy and just complete, kind of, naïve thrift-store anatomy and physiognomy in his work that's just . . . which I was sort of trying to think of as a way of approaching pornographic images. You know, half made-up, partly using the accuracy and the kind of authority of the photograph, but then going off into this—there's a kind of inept, imaginative aspect to his figures that I guess I'm trying to emulate.
Gary Tinterow: We have in the exhibition a number of pornographic images—photographs—several of which were found in Courbet's studio, so we know he had them and he used them, and he used them as visual aids, just like artists like yourself are using. Do you find any kinship with his use of photographic images and then the result that you see in the painting?
John Currin: I found that totally shocking, that nineteenth-century artists used photographs. Of course, I was completely heartened. Because it's one of my big, you know—at least for me, there's always a background of guilt if you use any photographic material. I don't know why, but it's just like, you can't draw, and it's a kind of relief to find that artists who could draw also used them.
Gary Tinterow: Well, you know, it's interesting, the photographs often replicate the poses. I mean, we can find a number of poses in famous paintings by Courbet in contemporary photography and especially in pornographic photography contemporary to him. But what you don't get in that photography, especially because many of them are small, is the illusion of the flesh, is his painting of body hair. And that is what is so extraordinary about Courbet's work, is that extraordinary facility he obtained.
John Currin: And that's the aspect that is absolutely not naïve, and not inept, and not thrift-store, and not—is . . . the rendering of surfaces and of textures is absolutely uncanny and that's where his paintings really rise to the level of any of the Old Masters.
Gary Tinterow: In a number of your works, you've actually quoted from Courbet. Like in your painting called The Gardeners, you replicate the poses of The Stonebreakers.
John Currin: It wasn't intentional. Believe it or not, it wasn't intentional. People have much more photographic memories than they're aware of. I think I do have a much more accurate memory than it seems like I do. Especially visually, obviously not verbally. But by the time I was halfway through the painting, I realized, "Oh my God, it's the guy from The Stonebreakers." But actually the picture came from a little advertisement that I found. But I think in the back of my mind, the reason I picked that little advertisement out was because it reminded me of The Stonebreakers. I just wasn't aware of it. Little things like that lodge in your brain, and I think you—and especially when it's unconscious, there's no inhibition about completely ripping it off and using it.
Gary Tinterow: Have you learned anything from his use of glazes, for example, in addition to his some of his scumbling and other things?
John Currin: Well, I don't think he has a systematic approach. And I'm not sure he made underpaintings, like the sort of, you know, a cold, a dead color underpainting. I think they're kind of opaque. So in that sense they're not really glazed, not in a systematic way.
Gary Tinterow: No, but I think when he's finishing a figure, especially a female figure, a lot of the shadows are laid in with glazes. But he's using those, you know, mixing a lot of lead white into his flesh tones.
John Currin: I think you're right about the shadows. The shadows, I think, are painted cold. They're painted in black and white. And then, I think, actually, those are glazed. And then there's a lot of opaque. You know, but they're weird. And that's been a constant . . . you know, I've been trying to learn how to do it, and just sort of what his approach is. He's the only artist that really glazes heavily over thick paint, which normally would mean the painting is going to crack apart, but for some reason it doesn't in his case. Which also leads me to the idea that you can kind of do anything you want in painting as long as you mean it. And then somehow the paint doesn't crack, I don't know. But I've been trying to understand how he sort of . . . what his rationale is for, like, when he paints thick, when he paints thin. And I don't think there is any rationale. I think it's just sort of when it looked good was when it was done.
Gary Tinterow: You know, Courbet cultivated notoriety and was, as we discussed, challenging conventions and sending . . . you know, nudity, but in a way that was un-idealized . . . there was a lot of nudity, a lot of sex, in the annual Salon in Paris, but usually they were clothed in mythology, and there was a polite agreement among all the visitors that yes, we can look at this titillating nude, but she's really Venus in the waves. What Courbet brought to this was a new sensibility which was showing the body hair, showing dirty feet, saying "This isn't a Venus, this is a real naked woman in a house much like your own." And that added, of course, to the eroticism of those pictures, certainly to the viewers. They were shocking to a lot of sensibilities. You're doing pornography paintings now that are very explicit. Do you feel any kinship with Courbet's method of garnering attention and using notoriety to bring attention to his own art?
John Currin: No. I don't know what that felt like to see the Courbet after being . . . there's a leftover shocking aspect, but I think that's more the way they're painted. In doing pornography, it's almost the opposite. It's such an inevitable image. It's like the default image. First of all, virtually all advertising has pornographic entrails, and, you know, so that sort of, I guess it informs how I make them, but I don't think I set out to shock anybody. If I second-guess anything, it's the eye-rolling aspect of, "Oh, somebody's doing porno for the 50,000th time." So I don't think it's the same. In a way, it's the exact opposite of what Courbet maybe was doing.
You know, in a way, it's . . . the eye, for instance, in Women on the Banks of the Seine—it's really uncanny how pornographic that eye is. But also, the line around the face, in this deep red-black, it's . . . you have a vague feeling that you ought not to be this close to it, or you shouldn't be looking at it. It feels naughty and you can't figure out why.
Narrator: Gustave Courbet will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18, 2008.
The exhibition is made possible by The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation and the Janice H. Levin Fund.
It was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux and the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Communauté d'agglomération de Montpellier/Musée Fabre, Montpellier.
The exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
This has been an Antenna Audio production.