Renegades In Art
We all love renegades, characters who buck the trend. They, with the benefit of hindsight, propel history forward and break down barriers, offering new ways of thinking, seeing and doing things.
Enter two – very different – artists who in the late 19th and early 20th century changed the discourse on visual culture by their shocking and anarchic take on the world.
Firstly, Gustave Courbet. Born into a wealthy farming family, Courbet is credited with being an important innovator of 19th Century painting and known as an artist willing to communicate bold statements through his painting scenes. He shunned the romanticist or neoclassical art movements of his time and instead carved his own style, later coined realism. Nowadays we would be forgiven for looking at his unassuming landscapes, seascapes and farm scenes with merely a romanticised notion of the late 19th century. But in fact his paintings at the time were seen as entirely inappropriate – Courbet was making an unpopular social statement about the unglamorous and hard life of rural workers and peasants. As his wealthy farming family had carved their own political anti-monarchical thinking about society, so Courbet followed this trend in his visual communication. He relentlessly continued to paint scenes deemed as distasteful, such as peasants, the bourgeois and poor working conditions of rural folk. These depictions of harsh life was seen as vulgar to the sensibilities of the high social circle and challenged the contemporary idea of what art was supposed to do. It didn’t win him many fans during his life.
Secondly, Paul Gauguin. He trained and worked as a trader for years until he quit the corporate world to become a painter, travelling to Tahiti in the Pacific where he produced some loose, expressive colourful works of native tribal people. Gauguin often painted scenes of nude young women, which was par for the course of many a painter at that time through life drawing in European cafes across the land. Yet Gauguin’s art is questionable with the benefit of time – these girls are especially young, and owing to their culture, rather naive unlike the streetwise models of the European zeitgeist. For this reason, Gauguin is either loved or loathed by art historian. With undertones of colonialist arrogance in his work, nevertheless his work catalogues a life and an age of a people that would otherwise would have been lost through the passage of time and the lack of documentation in the ‘backward’ Pacific islands. Essentially Gauguin’s work, however risqué and distasteful in motivation it might have been, has brought the other side of the world closer to us, from all that time ago.