The Continual Homecoming

Willibald Sauerländer, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer

Camille Corot: Natur und Traum [Camille Corot: Nature and Dream]

an exhibition at the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, Germany, September 29, 2012–January 6, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition by Michael Clarke, Alexander Eiling, Maike Hohn, Rena M. Hoisington, Nathalie Michel-Szelechowska, Norbert Miller, Ulrich Mosch, Astrid Reuter, Dorit Schäfer, Arlette Sérullaz, Margret Stuffmann, Kerstin Thomas, and Gérard de Wallens
Heidelberg: Kehrer, 487 pp., €45.00 (paper)
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot: Solitude, Recollection of Vigen, Limousin, 1866

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989–1990, the cultural climate of Western Europe has undergone a considerable change. Nowhere is the drop in temperature more noticeable than in the relationship between France and Germany. The aesthetic and social fascination that French literature, art, cinema—indeed, the whole French way of life—exerted upon the western half of divided Germany during the postwar years has faded. As for the French, their reunited, more Central European, more nationalistic neighbor occasionally seems to them like some threatening revenant.

All the more reason to celebrate any cultural event in Germany that reawakens the blissful dream of the old France. The city of Karlsruhe is so close to the border, so near to the charming town of Wissembourg and within easy reach of Strasbourg, that you could almost call it a suburb of Alsace. The court of the margrave who presided in Karlsruhe was already collecting French paintings in the eighteenth century with a confident taste that had no need of aristocratic histrionics; the Staatliche Kunsthalle’s collection of still lifes by Chardin bears witness to that good taste. Its entire collection, in fact, is a smorgasbord of French painting: Poussin and Monet are there, as is Manet—represented not by one of his large, provocative pictures, but by an almost diffident portrait of a boy.

And now the Karlsruhe Kunsthalle has mounted a scrupulously planned exhibition (one is tempted to compare it to a piece of chamber music) that reminds us of one of the purest and most soulful voices in the polyphonic concert of French painting from Delacroix to Cézanne: for the first time in Germany we have a comprehensive show of the work of Camille Corot in all its facets. The catalog lists 203 works. Most are paintings, but the artist’s seldom-exhibited drawings and experiments with printmaking are also on display in cabinets of their own, as well as a few pictures by Corot’s artistic forebears—his teachers Achille Etna Michallon (1796–1822) and Jean-Victor Bertin (1767–1842)—and by such spiritual descendants as Odilon Redon. There is no playing to the gallery in this exhibition, no pedantic tutorials in art history. In a dozen or so moderately-sized rooms, the pictures are hung against white walls and allowed to speak for themselves. The tone is set by evocation of submerged moods tinged with memory and melancholy.

In 1826, the thirty-year-old Corot wrote to a friend that he precluded any sort of marital bond for himself: “I have only one goal in life, which I intend to follow steadily: painting landscapes.” It was a long life—from 1796 to 1875—but without much that would make for an absorbing biography. In Corot’s work there are hardly any traces of the political and social upheavals that shook France from the Consulate of Napoleon I to the…

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