Charmed Thirds, Fourth Comings, Perfect Fifths

Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker

Several months ago, E told me that I absolutely had to read this one young adult series–the Jessica Darling books by Megan McCafferty. Now for all but the three of you I’ve managed to convince that YA lit is not a complete waste of time, hold on a minute before you click that little x on your browser tab. This is not going to be a post about YA lit. I repeat: This is not going to be a post about YA lit. Just bear with me for the next two paragraphs and I promise that you’ll be rewarded with an art history lesson and one of those insane person rants that several of you seem to like so much.

Ahem, anyway, I did not read these books for a long time, because there are five of them and as we all know, I have crippling self-control issues. My prediction was well-founded, because after being announced as the March FYA Book Club pick, I pulled an all-nighter on a Saturday reading the first two books. This is extra sad because I can count the number of all-nighters I pulled for academic-related purposes in college on… probably no hands. I really like sleep y’all. And even more than I like sleep, I like procrastination. But I did neither of those things with Sloppy Firsts or Second Helpings, so I decided to hold off a couple weeks for the next three books, which I likewise read all in one sitting until an ungodly hour this morning. I haven’t done that with a book in a long time. But the driving force behind this series’ suspense is not children murdering each other or some sort of outer space gender war fought telepathically, it’s none other than one Marcus Flutie, fictional hottie, and the ever present question of “How will they get together in the end!??!”

Marcus Flutie was going to be my fictional boyfriend to end all fictional boyfriends. His hotness is so overpowering that I can overlook the fact that he starts out the series with red dreadlocks, and then for reasons I can only assume were designed by Megan McCafferty for my personal torment, gets red dreadlocks AGAIN, as well as an awful mountain man beard. AND HE IS STILL HOT. I mean, not specifically with that hairstyle, but you know the potential is there if only you, yes, you could be the lady to convince him to cut it all off again. But the reason Marcus Flutie could not *quite* dethrone the likes of All Time Fictional Boyfriends Mr. Darcy and Gilbert Blythe (it’s a tie!) is not his heinous hairdo. The dealbreaker came 75% of the way through the final book with what was probably an insignificant detail to McCafferty. To spoil as little as possible, just know that it is said to Marcus during a flashback about an ex-girlfriend:

You look like Gustave Courbet.

And that was it. The line in the sand was drawn. That was all it took to shatter the perfect image in my head. I put down my kindle in disgust and went to my computer to type out the following email to a fellow reader, edited to omit peripheral details:

I FUCKING HATE GUSTAVE COURBET. I cannot appropriately convey to you in the length of this short email how much I detest Gustave Courbet. The story of our relationship is as long and winding as that of Jessica and Marcus, though significantly less complicated because instead of that sexy love-hate thing they’ve got going, the only emotion I’ve ever felt about Courbet is pure, unadulterated revulsion that has only been reinforced by repeated encounters. I doubt Courbet thinks anything at all about me, not so much because he’s dead but because he was such a narcissistic asshat when he was alive that I doubt he had free brain cells to spare from his psychotic and all-encompassing love affair with himself. 

And here he is, showing up in my life again, insistent on ruining every fantasy I hold dear about Marcus Flutie.

Fuck you, Courbet. 

Of course, after that I went back and finished the book, but its ending was marred by my seething anger towards a man I hate so very much.
Gustave Courbet started stalking me in the Summer of 2004, when I went to New England to check out colleges with my dad. While there, we stopped at the MFA in Boston, where I commented on how much I hated this painting. 
Photography has not appropriately captured the nauseating shade of green that permeates this so-called artwork, but it is so green! So awful! That stupid deer! Everything about it repulsed me. There was a second, similar one to match that I hated equally. I thought little more about them as I passed them in the gallery, and again the next few times I was at the MFA during my first year of college.
And then in the Spring of 2006, Gustave Courbet, decided to announce his presence with gusto.  I went to LA over spring break and stopped at the Getty. We were greeted by this sign:

I didn’t yet know who Courbet was, but I had two initial thoughts upon seeing the painting featured in this advertisement:
  1. Those clouds are expertly painted.
  2. I might actually like this, if it didn’t remind me of those two heinous green atrocities in the MFA
And then I rounded a corner, AND THERE WERE THE TWO HEINOUS GREEN ATROCITIES FROM THE MFA. BECAUSE IT WAS AN ENTIRE EXHIBIT DEVOTED TO EVERY LANDSCAPE COURBET EVER PAINTED! All housed in one horrible place comprising my own personal hell. As we walked from gallery to gallery, I confirmed what I’d always known based on those two stupid green paintings: I hate anything and everything about Courbet.

But again, I foolishly left the gallery thinking that that was the end of that, and sure, while we might bump into each other in a gallery here or there, if I’d blissfully ignored him for 19 years, it couldn’t be hard to keep up the endeavor. What I didn’t realize then is that Gustave Courbet is my celebrity stalker.
A celebrity stalker is someone who is famous but not omnipresent enough for it to be normal that he or she keeps cropping up in your life. Brad Pitt cannot be your celebrity stalker. President Obama cannot be your celebrity stalker. Semi-celebrated douchebag artist of the mid 19th-century? Perfect celebrity stalker material.
So when I moved to Paris in the fall of 2007, you will hardly be surprised to hear that there was a special exhibit on Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker. And while yes, I could (and did) avoid going to the exhibit, I could not avoid seeing the advertisement featuring his stupid giant face in every metro station every day for the duration of the exhibit. Which lasted pretty much the entire year I was in Paris. This same stupid face that is compared to Marcus Flutie’s:
It only got worse when I signed up for an art history class on 19th century Parisian painting, a class that I accidentally took again the next semester, give or take twenty years of content on either end. As an unfortunate fixture of 19th century Parisian art, Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker was covered in the syllabus. Twice.
The good news: my professor hated Courbet almost as much as me. Perhaps the reason I loved my professor enough to take the class twice was our mutual distaste of Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker.  The more I learned about his work, the more I wanted to resurrect him, just so I could punch him in the face. Whereas before, my blind hatred was based on some sort of visceral loathing to his painting style and use of color, learning about the artist himself only reinforced my beliefs. 
For starters, that stupid deer? Turns out it was one of several taxidermied deer he had just laying around his studio that he put in his hideous green landscapes over and over again, because he didn’t even paint his landscapes outside. Look, I know that a lot of artists–almost all artists up to this point–did not paint their landscapes out en pleine air. Portable paint tubes had only recently been invented and before that, you had to mix all your paint by hand in a ridiculously complicated process that could only be done indoors. That is not what bothers me. What bothers me is that Courbet’s whole schtick was being anti-establishment, even going so far as to create his own exposition in response to being rejected by the Exposition Universelle next door. In his hideous green deer paintings, he was clearly emulating the new trend of artists hopping on a train, going out to the countryside and capturing a fleeting moment of nature for nature’s sake, with the help of those new-fangled tubes of paint. EXCEPT THAT HE DIDN’T BOTHER TO DO ANY OF THAT. Like the worst kind of hipster, he wore his metaphorical ironic tee that he bought for $35 at Urban Outfitters, whoring it up in his Parisian studio with some models and a couple of taxidermied deer. 
But nothing compares to his galloping case of narcissism. Never have I seen such a collection of self-masturbatory artwork. Take this one for example:

Let’s examine this steaming pile of shit for a second, shall we? This painting is entitled, Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet, and is intended to represent a moment when Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker, is out for solitary ramble in the countryside, presumably with his artist kit strapped to his back so he can capture nature in all its glory like the genius artist that he is (AS IF, M. Courbet! I know all about your taxidermied deer!!!) when he stumbles upon his Rich Patron, who is for some reason wearing a coat that I own in red, Patron’s dog, and Patron’s manservant. Now let’s overlook the obvious problem’s of Courbet’s pointy beard and puffy shirt for a moment and assess some deeper issues happening here.
  1. Patron is greeting Courbet like he is God’s gift to the art world. Which, regardless if Patron believed this in real life, how egotistical do you have to be to paint yourself as some sort of demi-God, revered by friends and their servants alike?
  2. Speaking of that servant, his deference is ludicrous. It’s like he thinks Courbet is actually Jesus. I’m going to go out on a limb here and posit that the servant couldn’t care less about Courbet as an artist and had more important things to worry about like whether the silver for tonight’s dinner has been adequately polished, or if Patron is wearing the right cufflinks, or if that pesky Turk Pamuk is ever going to stop being a plot point.
  3. Most concerning of all, why did Courbet paint himself like 8 feet tall? He looks like Goliath standing there next to his Patron (who, let’s remember is paying him to make this sorry-ass excuse for a painting). I realize Courbet is not like, the World’s Greatest Painter, but he’s by no means bad enough to accidentally screw up the perspective that much. No, for whatever reason he decided that he need to make himself two feet taller than everyone else in the painting.

Similarly awful is The Burial at Ornans:

The most important thing you need to know about this painting cannot be captured via your computer screen. This painting is HUGE. Like 10′ high by 22′ wide huge. The kind of huge usually reserved for grand paintings of religious or historic import, not a country interment. Now, some art historians will try to tell you that this is the funeral of an unknown villager in the town of Ornans, where Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker was born. And then they’ll try and tell you that this is an important piece in the Realism movement, because it starkly contrasts the traditional setting of a grand, religious or historical tableaux with the life of the Ordinary Man in the small village. I’m going to call bullshit on all that right now and tell you what’s really happening here: Courbet painted his own damn funeral.
This man was so narcissistic that he painted his own funeral in a scale that had previously been reserved for Jesus, Napoleon, and Things By Jacques-Louis David (which, in a lot of ways, are all one in the same). Please note the weeping women, the somber clerics. Even the dog looks sad. Besides their opposition to the subject matter, critics at the time also accused Courbet of willfully pursing ugliness in painting this. They were not wrong.

And finally, let’s have a pop quiz to see if you’ve been paying attention. What is wrong with this painting, titled The Artist’s Studio: A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life?


Answer: Everything.

Don’t even get me started on The Origin of the World. I’m not posting it here not because I’m prude (I totally am), but because it so obnoxiously screams “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME! I PAINTED A VAGINA!” that it makes me want to drown puppies as a new hobby.

After my stint in Paris, Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker laid low for a while. For the past four years, he’s been a mere footnote who only crops up while visiting the National Gallery with out of town guests. “And here is painting by my celebrity stalker, Gustave Courbet. Isn’t it awful?” (Yes. The answer is always yes.) For a brief, shining month, I thought he’d been replaced by a new celebrity stalker, Fabio. But this proved to be a false alarm. I should have known that he was lurking in the shadows this whole time, waiting to jump out when my guard was down. And boy did he succeed.

You look like Gustave Courbet.

To quote another fictional boyfriend, you know not how those words have tormented me, Megan McCafferty. But even though you might not have had the smallest idea of them being taken in such a way, after finishing your books, I think this outcome was exactly what you planned for all along. You wanted to humanize Marcus, bringing him down from teen-fantasy level Jake Ryan, whom we accept at face value is the paragon of teen hotness, to a more realistic and flawed level that is in some ways, more attractive. Because that’s the problem with the Mr. Darcys and the Gilbert Blythes of literature, they are very much Gary Stus, in that even their so-called flaws seem to reinforce their illusion of perfection. Whereas Marcus said it best himself:

We were perfect in our imperfection.

For some, it might be the red dreadlocks. For others, all that other plot that happens that I won’t talk about lest it spoil the books. But for me, it was Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker that made me finally accept how very, very flawed Marcus Flutie really is. And in most ways, this improves the books, making the relationship between the characters feel much more real and poignant and tangible. It also strips me of the unfettered, John Hughesian, girlish glee that comes with placing Marcus Flutie up on a mystical, teen-dream pedestal. I guess this is probably for the best as, like Jessica, I am still a grown-ass woman when I finish this book series. Gone are the pubescent fantasy days of Jake Ryans and Gilbert Blythes and Mr. Darcys.

Well, mostly. I guess that’s why I still read books for sixteen year olds.

Hmmm, and I promised you that this wouldn’t be a post about YA Lit. Oops! Tricked you. Now go read Jessica Darling.

4 thoughts on “Gustave Courbet, Celebrity Stalker

  1. I am glad you didn’t post The Origin of the World. What I’m less glad for is that I went and googled it. Seriously, wtf is that shit, was this guy the Terry Richardson of the Realist movement??

  2. This post is the BEST. I didn’t know who G.C. (so close to J.C. Coincidence? I think not) was before this, but I can now safely say I share your loathing of him. Also, I will not be googling The Origin of the World. Nope.

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