Gustave Courbet, who was born on June 10, 1819, in Ornans in the Franche-Comté region of eastern France and died December 31, 1877, in La Tour-de-Peilz on Lake Geneva, counts among the most important forerunners of classic modernism. His self-confident demeanor, the emphasis he placed upon his individuality as an artist, his inclination towards provocation and breaking taboos, not to mention his revolutionary painting technique, were to set standards that have influenced generations of artists. The exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler is the first dedicated to Gustave Courbet in Switzerland for over fifteen years.
The show presents pioneering works from all phases of the artist’s career, including a number of paintings that have rarely been seen in public or which indeed for many decades were not publicly accessible at all. Greeting us at the very beginning are the early, complex self-portraits with which Courbet made his impressive debut on the Paris art scene and which have become icons of the nineteenth century. These are followed by scenes capturing the artist’s native countryside: pictures of secluded streams and springs, rock formations and grottoes that revolutionized landscape painting. With his representations of waves and his views of the sea, Courbet succeeds in conveying the beauty and dynamism of nature each time anew. His winterscapes prove him to be a virtuoso painter of the color white. Paint, the artist’s material, now becomes the actual subject of art: the significance of the motif wanes and the "how" becomes as important as the "what"—a fundamental development paving the way ultimately towards abstraction. At the heart of the exhibition are Courbet’s mysterious female nudes beside water and his famous picture The Origin of the World: the profound impact of this painted breach of taboo continues to be felt in art right up to the present day.
The exhibition was created by Ulf Küster, curator at the Fondation Beyeler, and is part of the "Courbet Season", a joint venture with the Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva, which is mounting a concurrent show in the Musée Rath that focuses upon Courbet’s years in Switzerland.