Goosebumps: Frisson from Art
Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate. 1871-2. Gustave Courbet
at the National Gallery London
I've often wondered, how or why this rather dingy picture gave me goosebumps, every time I go to London I visit it, but no goosebumps since, just the once when I was 17 or 18. Obviously it's surrounded by many other masterpieces, Goya's haunting portrait of The Duke of Wellington, comes to mind but no goosebumps for me from that picture.
I had every reason to completely ignore this still-life, I was, after all, an art student at the time and felt forced to draw and paint what I thought was the pretty mindless subject of rotting apples on a regular basis. On the same day that this picture got to me I could have just come from seeing my first full blown show of Robert Rauschenburg's work at the Whitechapel, Feb - March 1964, which also stays firmly planted in my mind (though no goosebumps), or the best survey show I've ever seen, Painting & Sculpture of a Decade 54 64 organised by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation at the Tate April - June 1964.
Before writing this I Googled "Goosebumps from Art" and learned a bit, not much actually talking about visual art but mostly about music's ability to cause goosebumps. Amusingly, to distinguish between normal goosebumps caused by coldness, the French word "Frisson" (a sudden shiver or thrill) became a popular name for the phenomena.............of course someone had to bump up the heat a bit and cheapen it by calling it "Skin Orgasms"!
Over the years I've loaded this humble picture up with all sorts of heavy interpretations, like, here's Courbet's way of expressing what it's like to be in prison, the apples represent the rotting people huddled together etc etc, and the two standing on their own are really having a bad time of it....enough, enough already. Anthropomorphising apples is just going too far.
But really, the answer to why Mr Courbet got me that day is amazingly simple, it was most likely the split second when I was introduced to all those things art didn't always need, like big pronouncements, heavy meaningful subjects, huge inventions, grandeur or even intentional expression.
It has probably led me to prefer the quiet artists like Alberto Giacometti and Giorgio Morandi.
There is a lot to be said for that once compulsory raft of art school studies, you know the kinds of thing, still-lives, figures, heads, interiors and landscapes.