Controversies on the canvas

Some who agree with the stunt have expressed that the choice of artwork to vandalise was appropriate, as we cannot see the face of the person the famous painted vulva belongs to.
Controversies on the canvas

CHENNAI : L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), an 1866 oil painting by Gustave Courbet, is a masterpiece that has enthralled many, and repulsed many too. It depicts a nude in detail: thighs open, bedsheet lifted up and one breast visible, the vulva front and centre. That vulva is not a stylised depiction, as seen in numerous ancient sculptural forms from around the world that predate this work (from European sheela na gigs to Indian yonis), nor is it an insinuation. It is realistic: flesh and skin, lush pubic hair, shocking and glorious. It has been displayed at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay since 1995, finding its way there after feminist art historian Linda Nochlin managed to trace and display it in the USA in 1988.

Earlier this month, the performance artist Deborah de Robertis deployed two people to spray-paint the phrase “MeToo” in red on the painting, which had been on loan to the Pompidou-Metz. de Robertis named the performance On ne sépare pas la femme de l’artiste (“You don’t separate the woman from the artist”). In 2014, she had posed nude beneath the same painting. The stunt — which also comprised of other, under-reported acts of despoiling as well as an alleged theft — is a comment on the misogyny of the art world. Some who agree with the stunt have expressed that the choice of artwork to vandalise was appropriate, as we cannot see the face of the person the famous painted vulva belongs to.

Except, the model in the painting was not exactly anonymous. Historians have cited correspondence that strongly suggests that she was Constance Adolphine Quéniaux, a courtesan who was romantically involved with Khalil Sherif Pasha, who was a diplomat from the Ottoman Empire and the collector who had commissioned L’Origine du Monde. There were other theories that she was another of his lovers, Marie-Anne Detourbay, or else Joanna Hieffernan, a lover of Courbet’s. Detourbay was also a courtesan; Hieffernan was an artist herself — but relegated to the role of muse by both James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Gustave Courbet.

There is a lot of feminist activism required in the arts, but not every protest is equal in intentionality or impact. On ne sépare pas la femme de l’artiste is a weak prank attacking a work that is celebratory and profound, and far from objectifying. Provocation, both in the arts and in politics, is necessary and energising, but this is just puerile. Funnily, detractors of the painting often say the same.

I saw L’Origine du Monde once, over a decade ago, during a brief and blazingly beautiful visit to Paris. After I had been to the Musée d’Orsay, my dear and much older woman friend asked me if I had seen this painting.

I remember this question because I remember her expression, her smile and especially how her eyes had glimmered when she asked the next question, after I had nodded to the first: “Isn’t it magnificent?”

Yes — yes, it is. It is a moving work, more than erotic. To gaze at it is to understand its title. Here’s hoping that restorers can salvage it, so that many more generations can feel its power.

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