Contemporary art marks a return to figuration. This painting of the real, which has earned its letters of nobility throughout history, was abandoned in the 20th century for abstract art. Today, many contemporary artists are taking up its codes and forms, neglecting an abstract representation of the world to return to a more “classical” inspiration. Sophia Fassi, a painter born in 1992, produces works with undeniably classical features. Emulating artists such as Titian and Poussin, she paints expressive human portraits and scenes of everyday life. l’Enterrement à Limerick is undoubtedly inspired by Gustave Courbet’s famous L’Enterrement à Ornans.
Enterrement à Limerick is, like Gustave Courbet’s work, a large oil on canvas (195 cm x 130 cm). The gigantic proportions of Enterrement à Ornans (315.45 × 668 cm) were justified by the painter’s artistic approach to the context of the time. Indeed, when this painting was created in 1849-1850, the very large format was reserved for Grand Genre painting. Gustave Courbet, as a precursor of realism, broke away from this artistic convention by painting everyday scenes, popular and ugly, on a model reserved for the painting elite, which advocated beauty and nobility. It is worth pointing out that in the twenty-first century, formats have freed themselves from this noble question and that a painting such as Sophia Fassi’s marks this tradition while at the same time breaking away from it.
Whatever the period, there is one subject that is and always will be imaged: death. The representation of death through the ceremony, religious or profane, of burial is the main subject of the two paintings we are linking today. Over the centuries, death has taken on many guises in the artistic compositions of past masters: epic in the great battle scenes of David or Poussin, gaunt in the Baroque, or cold and ugly in the realism of Courbet. Sophia Fassi takes up this factual and current representation of death almost line by line. She does not show the body, but rather the coffin that is being taken from the funeral parlour and loaded into the hearse, while the mourners look on. L’Enterrement à Ornans does not represent this part of the ceremony, but rather the burial itself. The homage is, however, obvious when one observes the composition. It is divided into three parts in both paintings. The first part shows the coffin carried by several men in black and white. The second is the crowd, and the third is the destination of the coffin. In Sophia Fassi’s case, the musicians frame the hearse, in Courbet’s case the priest and the gravedigger border the freshly dug grave. The paintings also feature strong horizontal lines, marked by the heads of the guests and the countryside in the background, recalling the shape and destination of the coffin, which is lying for eternity. Finally, Sophia Fassi uses Courbet’s monochromatic colours, showing a dominance of blacks and whites. These colours represent death and mourning, while allowing for a clear composition.
Like Sophia Fassi, Yan Pei-Ming was inspired by Gustave Courbet and his famous painting to deliver his work A Funeral in Shanghai (L’Adieu), exhibited in 2019 at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. His inspiration is, unlike Sophia Fassi, assumed to the millimetre in its format. He also abandons colour in favour of his large black and white brushstrokes. However, the homage is obvious and absolutely contemporary as it illustrates the funeral of the artist’s own mother. Sophia Fassi, like Gustave Courbet, shows an anonymous funeral, while Yan Pei-Ming draws on his inspirations to translate his mother’s last ceremony.
Sophia Fassi’s Enterrement à Limerick thus takes on more than the codes of a classic nineteenth-century painting. She appropriates the image of death as it is present today, and shows the tradition inherited from earlier rites. Her painting is even more relevant as it speaks of a secular and icy depth that has been imposed on artists for generations, as can be seen in the paintings of Yan Pei-Ming. It shows our intimate proximity to the dead of yesterday and today, in death as in life.