My Mother and Gustave Courbet

courbet.jpgThe press representative agreed to let me into the Courbet retrospective a day before the preview. My mother and I were in New York for a couple of days before heading up to Westport, Connecticut to attend a memorial service for her sister, my aunt Judy.  Our visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art would be our own private memorial.  Judy used to drive into the city whenever I came out from Los Angeles and she relished taking me to lunch at the Trustees dining room. She had three sons and none of them were interested in art so she considered me her daughter once removed, the only member of the family, other than herself, who thought time in a museum was well spent. This time, I took mother. As the February snow drifted across the overhead windows of the dining room, warmed by cheese soufflé and crab cakes, we raised a glass to Judy.

And then it was time to meet the gracious woman bearing a catalogue and press kit. The preparators were still hanging a few pictures in the first gallery and curator Gary Tinterow was walking about making last minute adjustments. The press representative touched my arm and quietly let me know that mother could not come through the show with me. Security precautions. I was only allowed to come through as a working critic. Mother was not crest-fallen. She didn’t know anything about Courbet. She had been to Giverny the previous summer and seen Monet’s house and thought she would visit the Impressionist galleries.

courbet2.jpgI concentrated on the first gallery of self-portraits, Gustave Courbet portraying himself over the passing years as a rebel, a thug, a poetic genius. In short, a 19th century model for Damien Hirst and the countless bad boys who came before him. Yet, what incendiary capability. Whether painting landscapes, seascapes or portraits, his pictures are moody, obscure, mysterious and daring. Really daring. I walked into the gallery hung with enormous paintings of nude women, some entwined in Sapphic bliss.

Discretely placed behind a temporary wall was the notorious The Origin of the World. In an age of digital porn, 142 years after it was painted, this portrait of a woman’s sex at the very center of the composition still stuns. Similar photographs from the same period add fresh perspective on Courbet’s technique. Well, I thought, how nice that the woman from the press department saved my 82 year old mother that embarrassment. A day doesn’t go by without my mother offering her biting opinion of teenagers parading around the shopping mall with exposed midriffs and breasts. Courbet’s chubby beauties would not have gone unscathed.

courbetapples.jpgPerhaps it was that impending memorial service but the most moving pictures, for me, were small still lives of bruised apples. They are on view in the last galleries, at the end of the show and near end of his life. Courbet painted them while in prison for his part in the destruction of the Vendôme column, after joining the Paris Commune of 1871. Poignant, they display a unique sense of vulnerability. He died in Switzerland in 1873.

Mother looked fatigued as she sat waiting for me at the entrance to the exhibition. Instead of the Impressionists, she had made a bolt for the gift shop. Unable to find the elevator, she walked down, and then up, the enormous marble staircase. She was winded. We gathered our coats but before we headed out to the snow, we looked back at the lobby and said, “Good bye Judy.”

Gustave Courbet is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18, 2008.


Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of  Georgia O'Keeffe, thanks her aunt and her mother, powerful women descended  from the Hunter side of the family.