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A few weeks ago, the Musée d’Orsay posted an image of a painting from its collection on its Instagram feed. The post received close to sixty thousand eyeballs and over twelve hundred comments within a matter of hours. The comments were pretty evenly divided between lovers and haters.
There are few paintings in the world that can elicit such a passionate response. If you guessed that the painting in question is Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), you’re right. It’s almost impossible to remain neutral to the sight of a woman’s realistically painted genitals–with the exclusion of the model’s face, arms and legs.
This is not the first time the painting has caused a kerfuffle on social media. It took eight years for Facebook to extricate itself from the maw of the French legal system after a French teacher slapped them with a lawsuit demanding compensation for the abrupt deactivation of his account after he posted an image of Courbet’s controversial painting. The lawsuit was finally settled ‘amicably’ last year. It’s a safe bet to say that the social media giant will be steering well away from L’Origine du monde in the future.
In this day and age, when erotic and pornographic imagery abound, it is curious that we are still not inured to the sight of a woman’s sex so openly and unapologetically depicted. It stirs in us a primal response. From the earliest dawning of Western religion, the Fall of Man has been attributed to the evil power of female seduction. In the Middle Ages, a woman’s vagina was considered the ‘yawning mouth of Hell’ and fast forward to the 20th century when Freud identified a woman’s genitals as the source of either castration anxiety or penis envy. The ongoing tug-of-war regarding jurisdiction over a woman’s rights to her own body is an extension of the historical, psycho-sexual, cultural and religious morass that surrounds a woman’s genitals.
The negative comments on the Orsay’s Instagram account saddened me. As the painting’s first authorized copyist at the Orsay Museum in 2010, I was thrust into the painting’s intimate orbit and spent six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. Engaging with museum visitors from all over the world, it quickly became apparent that the specter of a woman’s splayed vulva can invoke the entire gamut of feelings ranging from love, pride and excitement to disgust, shame and rage. During my stint at the museum, I came to admire the painting for its sheer beauty, its technical mastery, and its unequivocal homage to the power vested in each and every woman.
I was so inspired that I spent the next ten years immersed in tracing its extraordinary journey from private commission to the hands of a secretive band of eccentric collectors across continents and centuries. The result is my newly released novel L’Origine: The secret life of the world’s most erotic masterpiece’.
Gustave Courbet was a trailblazer and a maverick–not because he painted a lascivious painting, but because he insisted that what was truly abominable and reactionary was the way artists romanticized and sugar-coated Nature, and that included a hairy mons pubis. Courbet railed against hypocrisy and hyperbole at every turn. In 1870, when Napoleon III wanted to bestow the Legion of Honor upon him, he publicly refused, going so far as to print the reasons for his refusal in the newspaper. ‘When I am dead let this be said of me: He belonged to no school, to no church, to no institution, to no academy, least of all to any régime except the régime of liberty, his freedom and independence from any form of government.’
His hard-nosed realist principles did not win him many friends however, eventually landing him in prison and forcing him into exile and an untimely death. But the little vulvic portrait, originally commissioned by the Turkish diplomat Khalil Bey in 1866, continued on its own turbulent and clandestine odyssey, making its first public appearance at the Orsay Museum in 1997.
As one who has spent a good decade obsessing over the painting, I can assure you that there’s a hell of a lot more to this painting if you can just see past that unwaxed pubic bush…
Lead photo credit : Photo © Alexander Krivitskiy, Unsplash