Courbet, Gustave: The Meeting (1854)

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"You are here", says the famous phrase on the city plan. And the information always sounds like a joke. Surely it's a statement of the obvious, for where else would you be, as you read these words, but here, at the place where they're written? (Well, true, you could be reading them through a telescope.)

Of course, you know what they mean. Their function is to orient you upon the map in front of you. The words have an arrow. You, at the place where you stand, are also here on this map, at the spot indicated.

But even that seems strange. How come a printed map knows exactly where its reader is in the world? This isn't sat-nav, after all, and you're not a statue. It's odd that a map should mark the place of something as mobile and provisional as a person. Everything else shown on it, the cathedral, the castle, the museum, the station, is a fixture, a landmark. You are not. You stand very briefly on this spot. You will soon be on your way. Yet here you are, and your temporary location is permanently marked on the plan.

All right, let's not be silly. The person reading the plan may be mobile, but the plan itself is not. It is attached to a board, stuck in the ground, it has a permanent position, and while somebody is standing in front of it, they share this position. The plan knows where its reader stands in the world, because it knows where it stands. The "here" in this case isn't an arbitrary and temporary stop. It's a fixed point on the surface of the earth, and can, therefore, be mapped.

Still, these signs that declare so fixedly that YOU ARE HERE, on this spot, remain funny. They can't help but make you think, on the contrary, about the utter contingency of here. Wherever you are, you are always here. You take your here with you. That's what here means. Here is anywhere. It's nowhere in particular, it's just somewhere somebody is.

Now think of art. A picture is a here. It is a location, somewhere in a real or fictional universe. It is a view, which frames a section of space, and covers a stretch of ground. It is a vicinity. A scene that can be entered and exited. A picture is a place.

Usually, a picture's here is a bit more specific than that. The picture's place is attached to a definite site in the world. The scene is laid in an established setting - a house, a courtyard, a bridge, a mountain, a wood, a well, a manger. There's some fixed landmark, some scheduled stop, which gives a reason for the picture to have settled at this particular point on the earth's surface.

There are pictures, though, that pitch their tents just anywhere. Their here is nowhere in particular. It's simply somewhere somebody is. Gustave Courbet's The Meeting shows three men doffing their hats on a country way. The man with the staff and the backpack is the artist himself. The man in front of him is his Montpellier patron, Alfred Bruyas, raising his arm in a stiff greeting. Behind Bruyas, bowing, stands his servant Calas. The Bruyas dog Breton is also present. The setting is a road outside Montpellier. In the distance, on the right-hand side, the coach that has dropped Courbet at this spot can be seen moving off.

When it was first exhibited, critics thought this a boastful work, a blatant self-advertisement. For what kind of subject is it? It shows a 35-year-old painter exchanging greetings with a provincial art collector.

Big deal. Yet it is painted like some great scene from history, even sacred history. Three monumental figures, viewed slightly from below, bestride the world. It might be a meeting of two monarchs. It might be Christ meeting the Apostles on the road to Emmaus. Who does this artist think he is? And so the picture was given a belittling nickname - "Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!" - which then became an alternative title for it.

And it is a boastful work. It is a great statement of artistic independence. It shows the artist as a free man pursuing his destiny on the open road. In shirtsleeves, with jutting beard, and carrying his own luggage (no servants needed), he stands there proudly and grandly in the foreground. He is the biggest figure, and it's the patron who seems to be paying court to him, Courbet, the self-sufficient artist-bohemian-worker-vagabond.

But what makes the picture especially boastful is its location - or rather, its lack of location. Imagine trying to find this place. There isn't a landmark in sight. It's the middle of nowhere. There's a foreground of grassy verge and a plateau of stony road. There is a background of fields, low hills and indistinct settlement. A full half of the picture is open sky. Yes, it is explicitly a picture that shows people out and about in the world. (It isn't a close-up portrait.) But where in the world? It could be anywhere. The here of the picture is nothing more than the spot where these three people happen to meet.

So, the picture says that the figures themselves, Courbet and his chums, are a sufficient location. They need no setting. They don't require the support and backing of the world, with its established landmarks, its fixtures and fittings, its conventional points of orientation. They are so important and independent that they can meet anywhere - and wherever they are becomes a scene. Their meeting in the middle of nowhere is an event worth painting. The place where they meet is a site worth seeing. They are their own point of orientation, their own landmarks. Here, Courbet declares, here is where I am.

'The Meeting' is on display in Rebels & Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the 19th Century, at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020-7747 2885), to 28 August

THE ARTIST

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a great Realist: he painted real life as if it were something great, epic. (He was a great egotist, too, who painted his own life in the same way.) He was the precursor of the real-life painting that triumphed in late-19th-century France. He asserted the artist as an independent freelance, and tried to break out of the salon system by financing his own exhibitions -not enough people bought tickets.

He was also a socialist and a republican, a friend of Pierre Joseph ("property is theft") Proudhon, and a leading figure in the Paris Commune of 1871, when he blew up the Napoleonic Vendôme Column.

Comments