• The Cello in Art (12) – Courbet

In his many self-portraits, Gustave Courbet (1819-77) gives himself the air of a wild man.  They vibrate with a visceral energy that reminds me of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610).  But I would rather trust Caravaggio than Courbet with the faithful representation of musicians and how musical instruments are held or played.

These two youthful self-portraits – above, The Cellist (1848), now in the National Museum in Stockholm, and, below, the earlier The Violoncellist (1847), now in the Portland Art Museum – are fascinating for a number of reasons.

Courbet wasn’t musical and didn’t play any instrument.  He’s also playing left-handed, which is very rare.  There’s no evidence that he was left-handed as a painter.  Was he looking in a mirror?

The way in which Courbet is ‘playing’ the cello is a joke.  For starters, he’s wearing it far too off-the-shoulder, like a louche model giving the come-on.  In fact, while his left arm gives the impression of playing, his right hand is doing nothing, just resting on the neck where it meets the body of the instrument.  His extremely long fingers, vividly painted, are in no position to stop a string for the bow to resonate.  So it’s merely a painterly pose, with no genuine attempt to portray the act of cello playing.  Commentators have remarked that the bow is a metaphor for his paint brush.  If so, then we might equally see the position of his right hand as if holding his painter’s palette.

That’s all fine and dandy, but to suggest that these paintings are a metaphor for the act of painting ignores the fact that the musical side of the equation is inadequate, not to say unreal.  Does that not have an impact on the other side of the equation, implying that his art is sloppily thought through?  That clearly is absurd.  But anyone with a knowledge of music and its performance is bound to be puzzled and dismayed by Courbet’s cavalier attitude to musical practicality or accuracy.  He might just as well have painted himself with a brush and palette, and have done with it, because the musical parallels are so deficient.  The modern equivalent is the miming on film and TV which purports to show a singer or player in the act of genuine performance when this is patently not the case.  Non-musicians often aren’t in the least bothered by such fakery, not understanding or caring how musical performance works.  Courbet shared this attitude.  Realism had its limits.

There is, however, a uniquely strange aspect to one of these self-portraits.  The earlier one, immediately above, has been vandalised.  This remains one of the most extraordinary acts in the history of pre-twentieth-century art.  For reasons which remain a mystery, Courbet cut out the blank top right quarter of the picture and substituted a new piece of canvas with an image of multiple layers of printed music on a stand.  The music is irrelevant to the main image, however, except as a prop on the side, because Courbet’s eyes are totally fixed on the viewer (or on himself, the poser/poseur, in the mirror).

If it wasn’t apparent at first glance, it quickly transpires that the musical deficiencies of this pair of paintings, and the cut-and-paste of the Portland version, are irrelevant.  Courbet has set out to disturb and disquiet, ensuring that the only reality is his own ego: that face and those hands.  Nothing else matters, as if provocatively suggesting that the viewer can get lost (or any one of numerous other rude rejoinders) if he or she doesn’t like it.  Yet we come back for more.  That’s the power of his personality.


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