L’Origine du monde is an oil painting realized by Courbet in 1866. It may be the most controversial piece of art that the famous artist has ever presented. Consisting of a 46×55 centimeters close up on a woman’s genitals, the picture makes all the conventions shatter and gets any audience uncomfortable. This essay first explores the historical trajectory of L’Origine du monde, from its origins to its rediscovery since 1995.
The painting results from Courbet’s imaginary as well as a precise historical context: the era of the Second Empire was indeed characterized by its interest for nude and erotic painting, what encouraged Courbet to revitalize in his realistic manner this kind of practicing art.
Considered as scandalous, the picture has remained hidden during almost one century until its being given to the Orsay Museum, which the piece of art enters on the 26th June 1995.
Turning to a more precise analysis of the painting, the essay then emphasizes its ambiguity: although the aim of the painter was to represent the reality of a woman body, trying to reach objectiveness, there is also a will to make the audience react, mind about his relation to nudity.
Therefore, the paper leans upon the taxonomy of nudity vs. nakedness in order to understand the peculiar subject of this painting. The last issue the paper deals with is the question of genders in L’Origine du monde. Lots of artists have included Courbet’s painting in their artwork.
A case in point of this broad reinterpretation is Orlan’s photograph entitled War’s Origin: Orlan took the same disposition up for its picture as Courbet’s one but represented a man’s genitals instead. By the play on words between both titles, she makes L’Origine du monde enter the gender debate, using nudity as a weapon and genitals as witnesses. Introduction The gender debate highlights the difficulty to get over the biologics and give a social definition of woman. The status of women artists and broadly talking the relation between art and women are some quite good indicators of these difficulties.
They help revealing the huge evolution which art has experienced over one century regarding the feminine gender. Since feminist movements rose in modern societies during the seventies, it seems like women have tried to get rid of the taboos around their body. Although they were meant to protect decency, the sense of modesty has in fact prevented any social evolution of the status of woman and any changing in the social perception of her body. Dealing with this issue one hundred years before it becomes one of the main topics of public debate, Courbet painted L’Origine du monde in 1866.
Consisting of a 46×55 centimeters close up on a woman’s genitals, the picture makes all the conventions shatter and gets any audience uncomfortable, what may explain the chaotic history of this piece of art. We may therefore wonder what Courbet’s intents were by choosing to bring such a provocative picture to the fore. In which debate did he want his work to take part? What is the current role of L’Origine du monde in the gender show? L’Origine du monde : a time bomb… The painting genesis How did Courbet come to this piece of art?
This has been the big questioning since Courbet has painted it in secret in the 1860s. Several previous pictures had yet announced the tone of what would be named much later L’Origine du monde. A case in point is the painting Paresse et Luxure, also dated from 1866, where the artist stages two women making love. We could also quote Les Baigneuses painted in 1853 that shows a naked fat woman coming out of the water, with all her rolls of fat and her smudged feet. Courbet has a real fascination for woman’s body which he aim at representing with no effect, in his natural – and to him beautiful – state.
To realize its close up, the painter surely got inspirited from pornographic photographs which were becoming more and more numerous at that time. He also brought his imaginative world in: Courbet spent his whole childhood in the mountains of the Jura, and L’Origine du monde presents a troubling likeness with a drawing he had realized in his youth of the entry of La Dame verte cave. The same disposition, close colors, all these factors contribute to make woman’s genitals become fascinating and schemer, like this cave that used to fill Courbet’s dreams in. The historical context
At the time Courbet painted L’Origine du Monde, nudity was a fashionable topic. The audience was keen of “vaguely erotic pieces of art provided they were idealized, […] almost immaterial. ” Thus many artists who represented nudity and exhibited their paintings at the Salon des representations became famous and obtained a great recognition for their work. Among these, considered nowadays as academic or even classical, let’s quote Alexandre Cabanel and his painting entitled La Naissance de Venus. It represents a naked woman surrendered by a few putti who is having an orgasm.
Though, due to the mythological topic, this piece of art has not been considered as scandalous at the time it has been presented, in 1863. This is precisely what Courbet rejects. To his mind, this way of painting women’s body is hypocritical. His ultimate goal is to get as close as possible from reality, and not to conform to the classic rules. The way he paints fleshes is therefore interesting: he gives them a crude consistency and bright colors. The exile until 1995 In 1864, Venus et Psyche a previous painting from Courbet was refused at the Salon because of its “indecency”.
This do show that the audience could not have appreciated L’Origine du monde: people would have simply rejected it without trying to understand its message. That’s why Courbet kept his work hidden until his death. Concealed behind a green tapestry, he showed it to some rare and privileged visitors, which he considered as able to understand the artistic intents behind genitals. The piece of art has ever since had a chaotic story: going from owner to owner, the painting remains reserved to a restricted circle of initiates. A roman has even been published that tells the whole story of the piece of art: Le roman de l’Origine by Bernard Teyssedre.
It ends with the entry of L’Origine du monde, in Orsay museum on the 26th, June 1995. In a nutshell, the painting has experienced a long exile from its being realized in secret to its being revealed to the world in 1995. One century off the spotlights: here is the price of Courbet’s brilliant audacity. …which asks the question of nudity. 1. Construction of the painting L’Origine du monde is an oil painting that offers an unconventional and pornographic framing of a woman’s body. In the center of the picture, she presents her pubis topped by an imposing hairiness contrasting with the pervasive flesh.
She also shows generously proportioned hips and belly. We can even make a breast out, which is partly hidden by the white woolen surrounding the painting’s subject. In both bottom corners, there are wide thighs, which emphasize the pinkish crack in the foreground that is like a knife wound in the picture. 2. A naked woman Courbet was issued from the realist movement. That is to say that he contemplated to draw things as he saw them, trying to reach what he considered as objectiveness. That’s partly what he did by painting L’Origine du monde. What is it? A naked woman, nothing more, nothing less.
There is no fig-leaf to hide what conventions would condemn. There is nothing else than the woman on the picture: her body is the only thing represented, what means that it has an interest in itself. Nakedness becomes the subject of the painting. But nakedness does not imply aesthetics. Courbet painted each roll of fat, each stretch mark, each hair that constitutes this dark and schemer hole in the middle of the picture. He wanted to draw a woman, not the woman as men were used to idealizing her, because even if the first is only part of the diversity of women in the world, the second one is linked with fantasy rather than with reality.
That’s what John Berger described as nakedness: “to be naked is to be oneself” he said. Who then could be more naked than the model of L’Origine du monde? A nude woman However, shall we deny any longer that there is something more than description in this picture? No we don’t! The first sign which shows that Courbet did not content himself with painting what he saw is the position of the model’s legs. They make a right angle: quite an uncomfortable position which has nothing natural! He did not paint a sleeping woman; he painted a woman voluntarily and deliberately exhibiting her genitals.
This painting seems to be aggressive; even if this woman has no head, she looks at the audience and encourages viewers to examine her pubis. They cannot look elsewhere; whatever they do, the picture wins: Courbet shows what should not be visible what cause any viewer to become a voyeur who must face his own relationship to nudity. This way, the model is nude rather than naked. According to John Berger and the famous taxonomy we have already dealt with, to be nude is “to be seen naked by others. […] Nudity is placed on display. ” Here we are! L’Origine du monde carries a message to the viewer.
Its shocking nature is no goal, but a mean to make us mind about our relation to nudity. An ode to woman 1. Unveiling the sacred Religions are bound to regulate relations between what is sacred and what is on Earth. Sense of modesty has been enforced by the Christianity in the Middle-age. It is thus a product of religion that tells us which corporal behavior is acceptable and which is not. Religion has become the intermediate between us and our body, above all as far as woman’s body is concerned. Christianity established rules to interact with nudity. Nudity must not be public, naked body should never be seen.
Courbet parodies this narrow-minded way of thinking with L’Origine du monde. First, the circumlocution that constitutes the title is revealing: endowing the woman’s genitals with the power of creation, he gives to his work a universal dimension, a solemnity that contrasts with the effective subject of the painting. This should never be seen? Well Courbet dedicated a whole painting where he tried to be as accurate as he was able to. A single detail misses: the model seems to have no clitoris. Maybe another way Courbet found to give his work a more serious tone to mock the Christian vision of nudity.
Another case in point is the white woolen under the model, which almost gives a mythological atmosphere to the painting. In a nutshell, Courbet displays contempt towards classical vision of nudity by unveiling what should never be seen. But this distancing with classical vision goes further: he aims to put woman social status in question. L’Origine du Monde vs. L’Origine de la guerre In 1989, a French artist, Orlan, realized L’Origine de la guerre, which is actually a rerun of Courbet’s painting. It is a photograph of a man’s tumid genitals, where the disposition is scrupulously the same as in L’Origine du monde.
The style is also meant to match perfectly with the realism of her model: Orlan chose photography – a proof of Courbet’s talent to draw reality. She even has imitated the baroque frame of L’Origine du monde so as to make the parallel between her work and Courbet’s one get striking. Why did she so? In fact, Orlan had understood the polemical impact of L’Origine du monde behind the struggle on decency issue. She had foreseen that the painting dealt with woman rather than with nudity. As a consequence, she wanted it to enter the gender debate and that’s what she did by exhibiting her piece of art entitled L’Origine de la guerre.
The play on words between both titles is the starting point of her message. Man is violent, dominant, what may be emphasized by the fact the penis has been represented in erection. Sexuality is a mean for man to settle his domination, whereas woman’s genitals represent life and peace. By putting the blame on man, Orlan speaks in favor of woman. By rerunning Courbet’s work, she allows for a better understanding of its message. Woman’s status in question We saw that Courbet, through his painting, puts the stress on our relation to nudity and by the way on the status of woman in modern societies.
L’Origine du monde is a reflection on woman’s misleading status as well as a cure to remedy it. He makes every taboo about woman body shatter since he seems to be thinking this is the way woman will get their social emancipation. Sense of modesty is in fact a way to keep woman prisoner of society. This prevents any changing in the established order that could jostle male domination on woman. Looking at what should never be seen compels any audience to come to the conclusion that decency is arbitrary. Sense of modesty has nothing natural and one can easily outstrip such a moral rule.