July 31, 2007

Courbet biography: Dirty laundry is the emperor’s new clothes

“The Most Arrogant Man in France: Gustave Courbet and the Nineteenth-Century Media Culture” (Princeton; $45), by Petra ten-Doesschate Chu

Peter Schjeldahl's review in the New Yorker: "Gustave Courbet relished scandal as a shortcut to prominence at a time when, for artists, official honors and patronage were losing cachet to notoriety in the popular press and success in the commercial markets....The book advances a present tendency among art historians to reconsider the Old Masters with reference to the art worlds that allocated wealth and prestige in their times. This emphasis is a sign of our own times, when money and celebrity—proliferating fairs and biennials, roaring auctions, around-the-clock Web journals and blogs—exalt the grandstand plays of a Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, or Matthew Barney. Chu’s treatment of Courbet isn’t cynical, exactly; it acknowledges his artistic talent. But, by highlighting every possible instance of manipulation, Chu gives a puppetlike cast to the behavior of the artist and his contemporaries. That’s timely, too; some days in Chelsea galleries it’s hard not to feel like a laboratory animal, grubbing for cheese in a scientifically engineered maze." Read more.

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