Optic Nerve by María Gainza (Translated by Thomas Bunstead):
The Salon, the annual or biennial art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, acted as a filter for countless works of art. The walls would be crammed with pictures; what could an artist do to catch the public’s eye? It was at this time that Courbet discovered newspapers. He was the first painter to realize that controversy might not damage your profile: a bad reputation could be good publicity. He’d make friends with anyone if he saw some advantage in it, including Proudhon, Berlioz, and Baudelaire, none of whom were that moved by his work, though they couldn’t help but respect his tenacity. In the years leading up to the 1848 Revolution, Courbet helped establish Realism, a movement second only in importance to Romanticism, though far more nebulous.
He turned his eye to beggars, vagabonds, washerwomen, and miners. His ragged country peasants were part of an honest attempt to render the truths of the world. But it wasn’t so much his themes as his methods that attracted criticism: when his subject was a stone breaker, he turned him into an object as crude as the stone he was breaking. And the same with the sea. The acute level of observation he brought to bear on his landscapes, combined with the rough energy of his brush, not only reaches back to forebears like Turner, and to the Dutch painters of the eighteenth century, but anticipates everything to come in painting from 1870 onward. The Stormy Sea, while clinging fast to the line of the horizon, comprises a formal interrogation of water, thereby leading directly on to the work of later abstract artists.
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