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An (art) historical research on Gustave Courbet, (2020)

Archival pigment print 118x90.5 cm, 2-channel video (loop), 1:38 min. and 2 min.

A work commissioned by Dilek Winchester for the exhibition "Futureless Memory" at Kunsthaus Hamburg curated by Katja Schroeder.


Gustave Courbet (1819, Ornans – 1877, La Tour-de-Peilz) painted many landscapes during his exile in Switzerland. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “We have done many landscapes, what else can one do in Switzerland.” He lived in La Tour-de-Peilz, a town on the Lake Geneva, close to its eastern end, facing the water and land border between Switzerland and France. Like many others, he painted the lake and the mountains, becoming tourist attractions already then, and the Chateau Chillon – a romantic landmark remembered in Lord Byron’s poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” which could be associated with Courbet’s own condition by potential buyers.

His house was on the lake, where he liked to swim. There is a police report of him swimming naked with a guest one night and reacting aggressively to the warnings of the police. It was also reported by his doctor that before he died, he said “if I could lay in the waters in the lake I would be saved. I am like a fish in the water.” He had made two paintings of a dead trout probably back in his hometown Ornans after his 6-month imprisonment in Paris for his participation in the Paris Commune. (The one in Kunsthaus Zurich is  inscribed with the phrase ‘‘made in captivity”, which might have enhanced its commercial value at that time.) Among his many paintings of Lake Geneva there are some depicting stormy weather. Some authors associate these with his melancholic state (as they are unlike most depictions of the lake). Yet the region has strong winds that storm the lake up. And they can be associated with the darkness in many of his paintings, his wave series, and his stormy character and life.

There are some traces of Courbet in the area. In Vevey, a sculpted portrait of a woman gazing at the lake with a seagull on her head – according to one interpretation telling her stories of her distant homeland – adorn medallions on two sides of a building. Close to his former lodging, in the square next to the municipality building is a fountain with the sculpture Liberty he donated to the town for their hospitality (and wanted to title Helvetia, but could not because it would be associated with his politics). Close to this monument is a stone marking the grave he was buried before his remains could be moved to Ornans in 1919.

Courbet went to exile in Switzerland in 1873 because of an ongoing trial about his participation in the Paris Commune. He was held responsible for the tearing down of the Vendome Column and attacked with a public campaign; his property was sequestered and he was prevented from showing his works in exhibitions. His trial ended during his exile and despite all his efforts he was sentenced to pay a sum of 323,000 franks for the rebuilding of the column. He died in 1877, one day before the first installment of the fine was due.

There is controversial evidence about his participation in the decision to tear down the column although it is known he was in favor of its dismantlement. He did enthusiastically work for the Commune as an elected delegate of the government and as the president of the Federation of Artists. The Federation, founded with the participation of hundreds of artists, architects and decorative artists envisioned solidarity and unity between equal members whose aim would be “The free expansion of art, free from all governmental supervision and from all privileges.” In their manifesto, read out loud by Eugene Pottier, who would later write the L’International, they proclaimed “... we will work cooperatively toward our regeneration, the birth of communal luxury, future splendors and the Universal Republic.”

After Courbet’s death, the imperial column was reconstructed by the republican government and stands there today. In her article “The De-Politicization of Gustave Courbet: Transformation and Rehabilitation under the Third Republic,” Linda Nochlin explains Courbet’s name was also reconstructed by republicans after his death, “when the artist becomes the object of history, so to speak, rather than an agent still acting upon it.” Nochlin writes, that for this rehabilitation to occur, firstly, Courbet’s name was “de-associated from his politics” – not from his republicanism and his “wholesome and sympathetic interest in the peasant and the popular subject,” but his participation in the Commune. Second, his sociopolitical works were separated from his other works including landscapes, hunting scenes, still lives and nudes, whereby a “natural” Courbet was invented. And finally, his name was inserted into the “uninterrupted tradition of great (French) art” and he was “like his predecessors, transformed into a kind of commodity – a French tourist attraction, as it were – and hero at once.”

References: James H. Rubin, Courbet, (London: Phaidon Press, 1997); Kristin Ross, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune (London: Verso, 2015); Laurence Madeline ed., Gustave Courbet: les années suisses, exh. cat. Geneva, Musée Rath, Genève, Musées d’art et d’histoire (Paris: Éditions Artlys, 2014); Linda Nochlin, “The De-Politiciza- tion of Gustave Courbet: Transformation and Rehabilitation under the Third Republic,” October Vol. 22 (Autumn, 1982), The MIT Press;

"Futureless Memory" at Kunsthaus Hamburg. Photographs by Hayo Heye 

The Futureless Memory 

19 September - 22 November 2020 extended until 10 January 2021 

Kunsthaus Hamburg

Francis Alÿs, Eda Aslan & Dilşad Aladağ, Khaled Barakeh, Hera Büyüktaşçıyan, Ergin Çavuşoğlu, Nadia Christidi, Balca Ergener, Michaela Melián, Judith Raum, Samara Sallam, Dilek Winchester

Remembering: Erich Auerbach, Otti Berger, Gustave Courbet, Traugott Fuchs, Alfred Heilbronn, Susanne Lachmann, Conlon Nancarrow, Kurt Schwitters, İvi Stangali

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