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Gustave Courbet, Les Origine de Son Monde, directed by: Romain Goupil, 2007. (Also included: L’origine Du Monde, directed by Jean-Paul Fargier, 1996. and La Place du Mort, directed by Alain Jaubert, 1996.)

I’ll bet that most of you would rather chew off your own leg rather than be trapped watching a documentary on a dead 19th century French painter. But the leg would come out the winner on this one because it would still get to see Facets’ snappy DVD set of three docs about French artist Gustave Courbet. Facets bills this as Gustave Courbet, Les Origines de Son Monde but it also includes two more short docs, L’origine Du Monde, and La Place du Mort. All three are worth watching.

L’Origine du Realism

Courbet introduced realism, and he's making a comeback
Courbet introduced realism, and he’s making a comeback

I still sense some eye-rolling going on out there. “What interest,” you are asking yourself, “could I possibly have in Courbet?” Well, if we all stand on the shoulders of giants, Gustave Courbet is one of the main pillars of modern art, and that includes film. Indeed his brand of realism is pretty much what we today would understand as “realism.” It is hard to imagine that, until very recently, the idea of a “realistic” depiction of the world around you — that is without idealism — was not only unknown but antithetical to art itself. Courbet and his painting changed all that.

So why haven’t you heard of Courbet with the same monotonous drumbeat as, say Picasso? Perhaps it is because Picasso and mass media arrived on the scene at the same time. Or perhaps it is because Courbet’s work has always been too politically incorrect. And by PC, I mean in the true sense of, “incompatible with the current political environment,” in particular his affinity for poor people, the ordinary life and the particularly vulgar.

In his day Courbet was the baddest of the bad boys. Sure you may have your “2 Girls 1 Cup” internet romps today, but that kind of fluff is not shaking the art world to its foundations like Courbet’s anti-glamor paintings did. Consider his “L’origine du Monde,” a gynecological study in oils that was so radioactively radical and explicit that it remained hidden from all public view and unknown for 100 years. It’s interesting to note that porn (as we understand it today) and Courbet arrived at the same time. Larry Flynt and Bob Guccione, take note!

The Comeback Courbet

As I remember my art history classes, Courbet was usually mentioned briefly before passing quickly on to the real “meat” of the Impressionists. His work was represented by a huge allegorical painting set in his studio and depicting his life as an artist over the previous 10 years. It’s OK, but it’s also no wonder you wouldn’t take a second look at him.

More politically charged images like The Stone Breakers (destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden), his hunting scenes or any of his nudes are perhaps still too vulgar for Art History. The three docs contained in this DVD give the viewer an excellent and overdue introduction to Courbet’s work and place it in the context of his time. And like his paintings, we get him warts and all. The man was a shameless self promoter, but then too so was his contemporary Wagner. There must have been something in the air back then.

And even if you know nothing about European painting ( or especially if you know nothing about it ) these docs will show you how to see paintings as they were originally meant to be seen. Before there was Big Film, the presentation of a grand painting (especially one that might be 15 feet long and 10 feet high ) was an event of some note. Viewers and critics alike would try to parse out meanings and subtexts just as is done in the cinema today. These are things that have been lost to the public in later abstract painting but that doesn’t mean paintings from Courbet’s time can not be appreciated today.

And there may be a change in the air as Courbet’s work has been enjoying a recent comeback. There was a major show of his work in Paris and a lot of that collection is making its way to the US for an equally big show at the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. You’ll be hearing the name “Courbet” a lot in the coming year, so why not get up to speed on what all the fuss is about? This set of docs will be a great place the place to get started.

DVD Extras

There is a nifty little piece on what goes on behind the scenes at the museum when you move a canvas half the size of a tennis court.

Picture And Sound

All three docs are very good productions.

How To Use This DVD

This set is a doorway to the lost skill of art appreciation. And there is a nice bit of irony in applying the academic appreciation to this most revolutionary and unacademic of painters.