Rather than romanticize his subjects, which had been the preferred style of the French Academy at the time, Gustave Courbet endeavored to create an honest and realistic portrayal, for which he became known as a leading figure of French Realist movement in the mid-19th Century. In Courbet’s 1864 The Source of the Loue, rather than present the pastoral splendor of the surrounding landscape, with its tall trees and lush foliage, Courbet zooms in toward the rocky cavern, focusing on the darkened interior and its jagged crags. As the literal “source” of his inspiration, the Loue river provided an endlessly fascinating subject for the artist, who felt compelled to return to its wellspring on several different occasions. Courbet often painted there, directly at the mouth of the Loue river, which flowed through his native village of Ornans. Despite its realistic portrayal, Courbet’s painting has been also interpreted allegorically, with the flowing waters of the Loue river symbolizing the creative juices that flowed within the artist himself, or alternatively, as a metaphor for female sexuality.
Exquisitely rendered upon a vast scale, Tansey’s figures go about their job in Source of the Loue, as brick by brick the enormous wall grows steadily taller. Toward the lower left, a soldier commands a giant crane that will lower more concrete onto the scene, while nearby, a man wearing army fatigues pauses to check his watch. Two men dressed in long trench coats survey the scene, as the workers continue their immense task. In the lower right, a figure clad in jeans and a sleeveless white tank is bathed in a pool of ethereal light, as he prepares to launch a bucket of materials with the help of a pulley. Tansey’s flawless execution renders the entire scene with photographic precision, though shrouded in rich variations upon a single hue--the deep turquoise that was his preferred palette at the time. Shrouded in mystery, the entire scene retains an archival quality of a black-and-white photograph, yet the otherworldly hue lends it a surreal, dreamlike essence. Like Tansey’s figures who pause to stop and watch the building of the wall, the viewer also faces the action at the center of the scene, puzzling over the strange tableau that Tansy creates.
Source of the Loue is the result of Tansey’s meticulous and time-consuming process that might take the artist weeks or months to reach completion. Drawing upon his immense archive of newspaper and magazine clippings, Tansey uses a copy machine to create a preliminary collage that will serve as a study for the final painting. Culled from magazines like National Geographic and Popular Mechanics, Tansey selects imagery that appeals to him, which he then recombines into new permutations that retain the authoritative “truth” of their original source. Since the photographs are often decades-old, the figures retain the clothing and appearance of the era in which they lived, resulting in their bygone look that harkens back to Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper's paintings. Their photographic depiction in Tansey’s large-scale canvas results from his painstaking process, in which he applies layers of gesso that is then washed, scraped and brushed into a smooth and flawless finish.
Having featured in Arthur C. Danto’s 1992 monograph and the 1994 retrospective of his work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Source of the Loue is an important painting that depicts a significant recurring motif, the subterranean cave, a common feature in a number of paintings from this era, most likely referring to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. So, too, does Source of the Loue wittily reference Courbet’s Realism and its associated allegorical interpretations. Tansey seems to question the very nature of realism itself, seeking to expose the obvious artifice of such long-held painterly assumptions. In Source of the Loue, Tansey posits the question, “What is realism, anyway?” What is it that makes Courbet’s Source of the Loue more “real” than any other depiction? Indeed, Tansey reminds the viewer that paintings are inherently false representations of a perceived “reality” that can never be truly captured with paint on canvas. They are essentially false facades, and in order to drive home this fact, Tansey creates a literal facade in his painting via an impenetrable brick wall. Truly, the magic of Tansey’s postmodern paintings is their ability to re-contextualize long-held beliefs regarding art theory and interpretation. In Source of the Loue, by isolating the subject of Courbet’s realism, then disguising it within a surreal dreamscape, Courbet’s image resurrects much of its original impact. In this way, Tansey’s paintings retain the aura of their source imagery while also transcending their historic implications, to finally break free into an entirely new realm.
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