I’m not easily shocked, but when I stood in front of the painting “l’Origine du Monde” at the Orsay Museum in Paris,
I could feel an ever so subtle blush creeping up my neck. Now, we’re all quite used to female nudity in museums, but this is of a different order. It’s all there on full display (Google the picture if you want to see the details…)
So what did Gustave Courbet, the artist who painted this work in 1866 , have in mind ? Was this a spectacular publicity stunt à la Paris Hilton, meant to shock the audience and bring fame to the painter ? Or was this just a bit of good old pornography, disguised as art ?
Apparently, the painting was commissioned by a Turkish collector of erotic art. But Courbet was also a bit of a rebel, who liked to step on society’s tender toes with his artwork, so there’s that.
It’s no surprise that the authorities back in the 19th century didn’t really jump with joy over this tableau. They even went as far as covering the painting with a tiny pair of curtains, only to be opened on special request.
Remarkably, the realistic depiction of the place we’ve all come from still has plenty of shock value today.
A French teacher, who posted an image of the painting on Facebook, saw his account suspended for five years.
You can just imagine the outrage of the French cultural elite at this disgrace (“Ah, les Américains, quels barbares…!”)
The legal battle that followed lasted for eight years. It was one of the factors that forced Facebook to allow nudity in images of art on the platform.
One way to deal with uncomfortable feelings is to use humor to soften the blow. Look at the version the boys and girls of Sesame Street made of this work of art. Ernie, is that a banana in your ear, or are you just pleased to see me ?
Another way to bypass society’s censorship is to use a visual metaphore.
Very famous are the so-called “Vagina Flowers” painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. It was really her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (the one with the marketing brain, clearly) who stressed the erotic symbolism in the flower paintings. The feminists in the seventies rediscovered O’Keefe’s work and were understandably very keen to embrace the vagina likeness as well. Girrrrl Power, yeah !
(“Music, Pink and Blue #2”, ©Whitney Museum of American Art, NY)
But O’Keeffe herself has always denied this vagina business, saying her works were about nature and abstraction, full stop. She was down to earth like that.
She also claimed she hated flowers, but painted them because they were so much cheaper than models (and so much better at sitting still).
But back to innocent, safe metaphores. I have painted one of my own. Why ?
If I’m a rebel, then I’m a much more careful one than Courbet. And I’m not nearly as down to earth as dear Georgia. But I’m most certainly a feminist !
Here it is :
Daring, you say ? Provocative ? Why Sir, it’s just a shell ! If you listen very carefully, you might even hear the sea…
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