My Christmas Wish
Or at least my olfactory Christmas wish: a fragrance that would conjure up the inner world of French painter realist painter Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). At turns dreary and drunk with the establishment grandiosity of the Salon painters, Courbet embodied a revolutionary spirit which wrestled, albeit painfully, with subject-matter and technique. Dark landscapes, the hunter and hunted, dusky foliage, a conflicted relationship with the realm of woman – each of his themes hints at a deep, perhaps unconscious, wish to plumb previously hidden depths through what was essentially a bourgeois medium, the oil canvas. Courbet has appealed to me since my parents first took me on a day trip to the Metropolitan Museum in the early Eighties. On seeing his work that day I was frightened but intrigued, the way I felt when taken to a wake and beheld the familiar macabre tableau, the maquillage, the clutched cross. Unlike the other Gustave (Moreau), whose nacreous seductions gave instantaneous pleasures, Courbet’s subjects haunted my dreams, spurred my own meditations on sex and death, even when I lacked the vocabulary to discuss such things. His ideas, his women, his blackened abysms became the playthings of the angular, intellectual, if hardly sheltered, child I was. Nowadays I lack the key to many of the sensations his paintings gave rise to then. But it occurred to me today, ill in bed, that scent may be one way back into that shadowed loge of memories. I’m sure there are are many scents which would purport to offer such passage backward, but too often they are merely superficial attempts at forest undergrowth and musty libraries. Courbet’s would be a scent of flesh and blood and disappointment, the silent moldering ashes, the lamp oil spilled next to the open locket.
Image: G. Courbet, Grotto of Sarrazine near Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne, oil on canvas, 1864. Courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.