Portraits in Richmond

Gregory Gillespie, “Self-Portrait” (1975), oil on canvas. Courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Art.

About a month and a half ago I was invited to attend the vernissage for an exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, entitled Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! It was a gala affair to be sure. The museum director spoke, and then introduced the curators who also spoke, followed by a round of applause. Then came the various sponsors and patrons from the Richmond area who were invited to speak, accompanied by dignitaries from France, and there was more applause. Finally, the governor spoke, and the crowd roared with approval. To accompany these proceedings, tuxedoed waiters toting platters of spicy meatballs and jumbo shrimp, with napkins and glasses of wine, moved easily among the coteries. The exhibition had been organized under the auspices of a recently founded consortium of museums in France and the United States called FRAME (French Regional American Museum Exchange). The concept behind FRAME encourages the exchange of collections or special exhibitions originating in regional museums from both countries to be seen aboard.

Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! was FRAME’s premiere exhibition generated by the Musée Fabre in Montpellier. The title of the exhibition is also the title of a well-known painting completed by Courbet in 1854. It was sold to a collector named Alfred Bruyas from the region of Montpellier who eventually gave it (along with other important French paintings) to the Fabre in the years between 1868-76. Though superficially charming at first glance, the painting carries an edge of controversy. As if to disguise its message, “Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet!” depicts a simple genre scene in which three men encounter one another along a country road. However, Courbet’s intentions were subtler. The painting poses the collector Alfred Bruyas and his escort in the process of greeting the artist. Whereas Bruyas is shown in a humble way with downcast eyes, Courbet has given himself a fully confident gaze. The painter Courbet, who would refuse any association with the official Salon, claims the higher status. For more than two centuries the role of the collector in France was considered higher than that of the painter, but here the terms appear inverted. In 1854, such a representation constituted a form of social sacrilege. Yet, given the prudent masochism to which some collectors will resign themselves, Monsieur Bruyas came to adore the painting as he evidently adored the friendship and immense talent of this itinerant braggart, Courbet.

But there are problems with the exhibition as a whole. As with other art museum blockbusters in recent months, too much emphasis is given to the unimaginative conceptualizing of the artist’s work. In this case, Courbet is overly fetishized in order to make the case for the brilliant eye of his collector Bruyas. In fact, very few Courbet paintings were present in Richmond. Such blatant promotional tactics, underwritten by corporate donors and exemplified by conventional installations, were also evident in Manet/Velazquez at the Met and Manet and the Sea in Philadelphia. Following their lead, the display formula employed in the Courbet exhibition was heavily supplemented with prints and drawings, including lesser paintings by such box office accomplices as Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, Cabanel, and bronze horses, lions, and centaurs by the eminent Antoine-Louis Barye (arguably the French equivalent to America’s Frederick Remington).

In addition to Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet! there was a small satellite exhibition in Richmond worthy of note: a nine-painting exhibition entitled Van Gogh and Gauguin: An Artistic Dialogue in the South of France. In some ways, this exhibition was more directly to the point and thus retained a focus that the Courbet show did not. In addition to these French masters (and here, in this context, I include Van Gogh as French), there was a generous selection of works from the collection of Sydney and Frances Lewis—two of Richmond’s venerated benefactors whose artistic contribution to the Museum is undeniable. As I wandered through the various galleries of the Virginia Museum, I became aware of how the concept of portraiture seemed to function as a subtext in relation to the three exhibitions. Within each thematic grouping, I discovered at least one self-portrait that made me stand still and look and, in retrospect, to compare one with another: Courbet’s youthful “Self-Portrait (Man With a Pipe), from 1846-47, Van Gogh’s agonized “Self-Portrait” (1889), and finally Gregory Gillespie’s “Self-Portrait” (1975).

In reflecting on these paintings, I became interested in both the comparative differences and contrasting similarities. The Courbet and the Van Gogh were painted approximately forty years apart two centuries ago, while the Gillespie was painted nearly thirty years ago. In none of these self-portraits were photographs used.

Such auto-portraits suggest psychoanalytic speculation based on the available research and—as the Austrian artist Arnulf Rainer once suggested in relation to his own practice in the 1970s—”special insight.” The basic impulse that precedes an expression, as the instrumental philosopher John Dewey once ascertained, is often difficult to access. Here with each of the subjects, the expression has become the issue. To some extent there is a narcissistic core to their self-observations.

In spite of their stylistic and emotional separations, Courbet, painting in his late twenties, and Van Gogh, in his late thirties, have a connection that Gillespie does not share. In Courbet, we sense the artist’s self-possession, his narcissistic demeanor echoing confidence in his burgeoning talent. He is portrayed smoking—God knows what!—the slim porcelain stem of his pipe extending unobtrusively from his lower lip. In Van Gogh, we sense much the opposite: the proverbial torment that history has given to his image, the fracture of the self, as he makes every conceivable attempt to represent his flayed ego by positioning himself as the other.

The situation for Gillespie was true for neither Courbet nor Van Gogh. Gillespie’s status was different. At the time he painted his self-portrait in 1975, he had few collectors. At the time of his death, his work had attracted numerous admirers and, much like Pavel Tchelitchew, had a nearly cult-like following. Seeing this painting in Richmond brought back many memories. At the vernissage, one colleague remarked that the portrait was almost breathing. Indeed, it was—and there were reasons for this extraordinary likeness, this passage from reality into illusion and back into a kind of metaphysical presence. Having had a brief first-hand acquaintance with this painting nearly thirty years ago, I will chronicle the story as follows:

While living in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1975 with my companion, the painter Rebecca Gabriel, we received an invitation to attend a small dinner in the neighboring town of Easthampton. Rebecca had met a realist painter named Dorothy Gillespie who was married to another realist painter, Gregory Gillespie. As I recall, the Gillespies had a rambling Victorian-style house up on a hill with a smaller house, resembling a shack, across the street. The dinner was going to be held at the shack. We would later discover that the house was partially a living space, but primarily a shared studio space. They had one daughter who, at the time, was around eleven or twelve years old. The dinner included vegetables and fish—trout, I believe—with white wine, and plenty of smoking material. Those were the days when people smoked seriously both before and after dinner.

Once the meal had finished, we adjourned to the house on the nearby hill. Rebecca and the Gillespies had much in common as they talked voraciously about painting. Once in the studio, we spent some time looking at a portrait by Dorothy—a reclining figure—in which her young daughter had posed as the model. Then Gregory led us to his easel where he had been at work on a self-portrait for several months. He was uneasy about it. He confessed that at times his attention would wander to his palette in which he would see forms and faces, hallucinatory images, reminiscent of the Surrealist Dali’s “paranoid critical method.” But Gillespie kept returning to the portrait, trying to find a resolution. He had difficulty finding the right stasis, the instant of his subject’s gaze. The smoking material may have played a role, but his challenge was to fix the gaze of his subject—that is, himself—within time. After an engaging conversation incited by the painting, Rebecca and I left to go home. I remember the discussion in the car on the drive back to Northampton. She found both Dorothy and Gregory to be fascinating in their outlook about painting. Rebecca was taken by the commitment of these artists to intimate realism, by their isolation in coming to terms with a tactile image, by their self-willed estrangement from a social context. Both painters had a vision that propelled their memory through the force of maneuvering paint into a form of representation that was so intensely private, yet open to analysis, open to the experience of being wounded within an hallucinatory world—as if they were separately contained within a solitary translucent shell—where everyday life happened outside the limits of an internal reality made manifest through the fantasy of painting.

Back to Richmond….As I stood in front of this portrait nearly three decades later—the artist sadly no longer with us—Gillespie’s work remained convincingly conflicted. I could not distinguish what hair follicles he added or what modulation he made to alter the color of the skin. Somehow the pallor seems a bit darker than I remember. But the intensity of the gaze remains the same. Gillespie stares at himself—a full frontal view—as if amazed at the fact of his being in the world. He does not give us the dissolution of Artaud. He gives us an affirmation, a presence that transcends the ordinary by being too ordinary. Gillespie knew his propensity for the unreal, his interior demons; but to know the real is a kind of affirmation that the unreal also has a place in time, and that often the context of human events in history will make the penumbra between real and unreal tenuous through the artist’s process of sublimation, of bringing the conflicts of the world into the psyche, and of the artist’s struggle to make sense of them.

Gillespie’s fierce containment is different from Van Gogh’s outward expressionistic mannerism. By comparison, Van Gogh was more the stylist, the inventor of new forms. Whereas Gillespie’s “Self-Portrait” was built on a slow process of sublimation, Van Gogh’s was about repression—or rather, the exorcism of a repression too enormous to encapsulate within the conscious world of material things. As for the youthful Courbet, the world was ahead of him, at least for the time being. But his confidence could not predict the circumstances of the history that laid ahead—the struggles of the Paris Commune and his eventual excommunication. Yet within the realm of his youthful confidence, he was able to change the world for a period of time—enough so, that his portentous lights and obsessive darks pointed the way to what in the twentieth century the critics would call “modern.”

Contributor

Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.

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