Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, the whole madness of painting seems to pass in front of your eyes. It felt that way to me in New York this spring, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where two great exhibitions – one exploring Nicolas Poussin’s role in the invention of the genre we call ‘landscape’, the other an endless, stupendous retrospective of Gustave Courbet – are happening a few corridors apart. I stumbled to and fro between them day after day, elated and disoriented. They sum up so much – too much – of what painting in Europe was capable of, and they embed that achievement so palpably in a certain history. Behind the glistening meadows and the huntsmen in the snow one catches the smell of autocracy and public burnings, of permanent warfare and bankers with impeccable taste.
I have found over the years that looking at Courbet and Poussin leads a viewer in contrary directions. Sometimes it matters intensely, and seems to be the key to these paintings’ mysteries, that they were made for Lyon silk merchants or left-leaning notables from the Franche-Comté, and that the Fronde or the Commune are just off-stage. (Breton put it this way in Nadja: ‘The magnificent light in Courbet’s pictures is for me the same as that in the Place Vendôme at the moment the column fell.’) But these are also objects that speak to their makers’ deep, naive absorption in the material practice of painting. They live in the confines of oil on canvas, delighting in procedure, hiding there from principalities and powers. Wildly different as the two men were temperamentally, their art shares an expository tone. They are both concerned to spell out the true nature and proper province of their craft. Therefore the impossible question ‘What is painting?’ tends to occur in front of the work they have left us.
more form the LRB here.