Davenport, Courbet, Balthus
In 1990, a monograph on my work was published by the University of Arkansas Press. This was a very exciting project to work on and was the brainchild of the poet, Miller Williams, who I had met at the American Academy in Rome. When the book was completed, I sent it to various critics and reviewers.
One of the most wonderful of the ensuing interchanges was with Guy Davenport. I knew the writer as the author of a remarkable work, A Balthus Notebook. This very singular book, something like a chapbook, was special and unlike any book I had read on an artist. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Davenport, primarily a literary critic and essayist, was known for his highly unusual ‘voice’ and musings/conjectures, especially in The Geography of the Imagination.
The first of our correspondences was extremely amazing. Even in a letter, Davenport’s prose jumped off the page, with remarkable ‘jumps’ and extraordinary leaps of the imagination. His comparison of my major painting, The Fulbright Triptych, to the epic poem, A, of Louis Zukofsky, demonstrated Davenport’s remarkable gift for links and analogies that, perhaps, few other writers possess.
My correspondence with Davenport lasted for 15 years, until his unfortunate passing in December of 2005. He was, indeed, a very wise man. When I sat down to write my letters to him, I had to have all of my thoughts and intuitions sharpened and in good stead. In a sense, I had to do a good deal of intellectual sit-ups, run around the block a few times and generally be in very good shape. In our present ‘email generation’ we become accustomed to distilling our thoughts and writing short ‘jottings’. Really fine letter-writing is sadly an activity that is fading away quite speedily. Davenport’s intelligence inspired me to present a correspondence that was the best possible representation of myself. See “A Balthus Notebook,” 1989, The Ecco Press, four excerpts.
I found myself thinking of Guy recently when I visited the striking exhibition of Gustave Courbet at the Metropolitan Museum. One of the themes in Davenport’s writing had to do with the way artists ‘correspond’ with each other. To put it another way, one artist might relate to another, say Balthus to Piero and there is a form of a dialogue set up between one and the other. So, certain aspects of Balthus, in a figurative composition, for example The Passage du Commerce-Saint-Andre (1952-1954), one could argue would be a startling ‘take’ on the early Renaissance work of Piero.
The Courbet show in New York was probably much different than the one that had been shown in Paris since two major paintings, The Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up a Seven Year theme of My Artistic Life (18550 and A Burial at Ornans (1849-50), were deemed too large and too valuable/vulnerable to travel. Nevertheless, this was a very interesting and in part, scintillating show. Courbet is a very gritty realist and his work has both a traditional feel and something very modern about it. I find the combination of these two directions to be quite dramatic and intense. To return to Davenport’s theory, it seemed that Courbet was at his most intriguing when his work showed the ‘correspondence’ with Balthus. To be even more direct, about 90 percent of the work that stood out to me for their bite, intensity and modernism, almost seemed as though Courbet could have been influenced by Balthus!
Courbet’s painting of his sister, Juliette Courbet (1840) made me think that he had seen Balthus’ Therese (1938) at the Metropolitan Museum. Courbet’s image of Proudhon (1853) can bring to mind Balthus’ depiction of children, especially The Blanchard Children (1837) or even Girl with a Cat (1937). Elements of Courbet’s landscape, with its particular craggy flatness made me think of Balthus’ The Mountain (1937), a huge and transformative painting in the Met’s collection. One could even argue that, in some cases, the physiognomy of these two men seem to merge with Balthus’ King of Cats (1935) and his Cathy Dressing (1933) veering close to Courbet’s The Cellist (1847 and The Wounded Man (1844-54) and The Man with the Leather Belt. (1845-56). Perhaps one of these artists was a ‘time traveler!
Finally, there are an extraordinary grouping of nudes by Courbet which bristle and crackle with energy and electric charge. Certainly these seem influenced or inflected by Balthus. One could easily imagine that the lush and totally sensual Reclining Nude (1862) of Courbet must surely draw its inspiration from Balthus’ The Victim (1939-46). And, Courbet’s sensational Origin of the World (1866) and his quite upending, Sleep (1866 ) surely meet somewhere in Balthus’ The Guitar Lesson (1934) and Alice (1933). This latter quartet shares a daring and provocative ‘pushing the limits’ in art. Curiously, these works, deemed ‘difficult,’ were and are, rarely shown. They reside within the realm of the fine arts but, in their own ways, lean very close to the pornographic. What saves them, in, say, Courbet, is the way his understanding and caressing of the female form combine with his sheer ability to manipulate paint. One is impressed by the singularity of these images and their transgressive, wild extremism. They feel both modern and very provocative.
A postscript to this argument comes in the form of an intriguing essay by Sebastian Smee on the painter Lucian Freud. Smee quotes Freud admiringly speaking of Courbet’s “shamelessness” and a painting such as Freud’s Naked Girl (1966) would surely bear this out. Guy Davenport’s conjecture strikes one as true and such a correspondence seems even stranger and stranger when it mysteriously comes from the future.
So, one could almost say, with humor, that the most striking images in Courbet’s exhibit showed that he had been looking at and giving a great deal of thought to the world of Balthus.