The Walters canonizes the forgery

By CONNOR LARR | September 29, 2006

Few exhibits, if any, ever focus on the forgeries and copies of famous artists. Most allow an interested museum patron to look at and appreciate the art of Monet, Van Gogh or Renoir. However, at the Walters Art Museum, a small exhibit, Courbet/Not Courbet, focuses not only on the works of Gustave Courbet but also the works of his students, followers and forgers.

Courbet/Not Courbet is a small exhibit of 11 paintings on the fourth floor of The Walters Museum of Art. This museum provides a very intimate atmosphere for viewing the many works of art it houses, from ancient Egyptian works to those of the impressionistic greats. The Walters has halls filled from floor to ceiling with paintings and furniture which can only be seen in few places. One hall is replete with rare moths and crustaceans; another with medieval and Ottoman arms and armor.

Coming to The Walters Oct. 15, 2006 is the exhibit Courbet and the Modern Landscape. However, running now and concurrently with that exhibit is Courbet/Not Courbet -- and The Walters is the only museum to feature this related focus show, running until March 11, 2007.

The exhibit encompasses a medium-sized hall right ahead the elevator on the fourth floor. Two large posters introduce the patrons to Courbet, and the focus of the exhibit. Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was one of the innovators of realism, and focused on the pursuit of truth, depicting on canvas what he really saw.

After the Paris Commune, Courbet was indicted as a ringleader who had arranged the dismantling of the Vendôme Column. He then found himself in immense debt. Forced into exile in Switzerland, Courbet began to churn out variations of his most famous paintings. He also began to delegate the painting of his works to his students in his studio. This bred a generation of copiers and forgers.

The collection in Courbet/Not Courbet is drawn mostly from local collections of the artwork, and of the 11 presented, six are rejected as forgeries or copies. Only four are actually attributed to Courbet. The remaining one is a "mystery painting," which opens the investigation to the patrons. Guests are invited to write down what they believe, based upon pretext introduced at the beginning of the exhibit. This engages the guests and immerses them in the world of Courbet.

Courbet dealt primarily in landscape art, which comes through in the forgeries just as well as the originals. However, when comparing Courbet's works to that of his students (or forgers), one can distinguish among them by the overall quality of the work. The true Courbets are wide and involved landscapes, made interesting with the use of palate brushes. Wide, thick swatches of paint, along with detailed brush strokes give an incredibly realistic view of a great valley, or the rushing water of a large waterfall.

Forgeries or copies of Courbet can be spotted by a few minute details. Initially, the signatures on copies are often stuffier and more precisely penned than on true Courbets. Also, upon close inspection, the dark underground of the canvas can be seen when Courbet's palate brush is used. However, the students' works and copies of Courbet are often precisely painted, and the canvas is covered entirely in paint.

Even though Courbet's works reveal imperfections, when viewed as a whole, the work comes together, complete with detailed and convincing reflections. The palate brush strokes lay a foundation upon which more color may be added to lend realism to skies, woods and water. Trees, leaves and buildings are rendered by fine brush strokes and miniscule elements.

By observing all the works, guests of the museum can now, after ingesting the rudiments of Courbet, try their best to compile an argument regarding the "mystery" painting Landscape. Is it Courbet, or is it someone else? The author of the most persuasive argument wins a framed Walters' Courbet poster. Definitely a good deal, as the Courbets are truly beautiful.

Courbet/Not Courbet is unlike any art exhibit in recent memory. It analyzes the work of the master himself, and appreciates as well as criticizes the works of copiers, forgers and students. Furthermore, The Walters Museum is a work of art itself, as it contains some very rare and equally fascinating collections of art and unusual items, animals and furniture. Courbet/Not Courbet will be running until March 11, 2007 and preludes the full Courbet and the Modern Landscape show, which opens Oct. 15, and runs until Jan. 7, 2007. Although Courbet/Not Courbet is a small show, it is an interesting and engaging exhibit, which is definitely worth the trip. (And, The Walters is free to Hopkins students!)

Courbet/Not Courbet runs at the Walters Art Museum on 600 N. Charles Street through March 11, 2007, Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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