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New Left Review I/94, November-December 1975

Régis Debray

Image of the People

Each of Timothy Clark’s two books merits a separate study. Both are important works, especially fascinating for a French reader. But I shall confine myself here to Image of the People, [1] Timothy Clark, Image of the People, Thames and Hudson, London 1974, £4·50. A study of the painting of Gustave Courbet. since its field is narrower than that of The Absolute Bourgeois, [2] Timothy Clark, The Absolute Bourgeois, Thames and Hudson, London 1974, £4·50. A study of French painting in 1848, focusing in particular on Daumier and Millet. and for that very reason it is all the more conclusive. The choice of a single guiding thread (the formation of an individual style, an individual painter—Courbet) in fact makes it possible to pick up and amplify the meaning of even the most minute variations in a given work. The more visible the initial continuum, the more legible are the signs of any break from it. Courbet is treacherous ground precisely because of the openings which he offers to the Marxist critic: Clark traces a confident route through these difficulties, avoiding pitfalls and well-worn paths alike. He rejects from the start all ideological overloading, that whole mass of pious images and mechanical references which have finished up by making Courbet into a simple propaganda theme, the classic lecture topic for evening classes at the Université Populaire. Clark’s study is a real revelation in that it is first and foremost the work of a historian. Yet this history crammed with personalities, contemporary texts and factual information never lapses into mere anecdote. Its great merit is that it elucidates a number of crucial theoretical problems through the concrete analysis of a concrete situation. To the eternal—and false—question: ‘What is revolutionary in art?’, Clark gives as it were an oblique, implicit reply by substituting for it another, much more fertile question: ‘What were the effects of a particular Revolution upon contemporary pictorial practice?’ Specifically, in this book, he asks: ‘How did 1848 modify Courbet’s painting?’ This proves to be an excellent way of avoiding, from the outset, the danger which seems inherent in most Marxist ventures onto the terrain of aesthetics (think of Lukács, for instance, in the case of literature): the normative preconception, whereby camps are demarcated and prescriptions are laid down in the name of immediate political imperatives disguised as moral values. It is, therefore, more than refreshing, it is a real liberation to see at last the ‘forefather of socialist realism’ restored to his time and to the real world of his time. Yet, in fact, this monograph on Courbet might also be entitled: ‘The birth of realism’. For that is its true scope.

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