The Origin of the World (L’Origine du Monde)
By Association Co-founder Paul Woods
'The Origin of the World' (L’Origine du Monde), painted in 1866 by Gustave Courbet, hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. This beautiful painting in the 'Realist' style depicts a young woman, said to be Joanna Hiffernan, model and lover of James McNeil Whistler, lying on a white drape, or possibly a skirt pushed up, on her back with legs apart. The random nature of the rumpled drape exposes one breast but conceals the other and suggests that sexual activity has taken place or is indeed still in the act with the perpetrator taking a moment to stop and admire.
Courbet was a major exponent of Realist Art along with such names as Camille Corot, Jean-Francois Millet, Honore Daumier, Marie Rosalie Bonheur, John Singleton Copley, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet.
‘Realism’ in this sense of the word, as an art movement, does not mean real like a photograph. Courbet’s paint is freely applied and the drapery in particular is loose and painterly in its depiction, far too painterly to render the image ‘like a photograph’. Realism is the truthful and honest rendering of everyday life as it is and not beautified and idealised. The flesh tones of the skin are that of a real flesh and blood person with skin blemishes, blood vessels and muscle on bone. It is not the unreal pearlescent white of untainted flesh like that of a statue from antiquity which was the accepted academic norm and strict requirement at the time. This is flesh you could touch, caress and to feel the warmth of the body. It is the flesh of a living, earthly and ordinary being.
Realism was a reaction against the strict rules of academic painting of the day and the ideals of Neo-Classicism and Romantic subjectivism. Each subject had to be painted as an unblemished ideal. An imagined world of mythology where everything and everyone was an idealised beauty deprived of anything that might shock the bourgeois society. In the visual arts Realism was to breakaway from academia and depict the real observable world and contemporary life with truth. The radical new idea was that everyday life and ordinary people were a suitable subject for art. As artists began to expose the harsh and ugly realities of the lives of the ordinary people they shocked the bourgeoisie to an extent that makes today’s Brit Artists look like school boy pranksters, more irritating than shocking. In the process the Realist artists became a driving force for political and social reform.
In 'The Origin of the World' only the woman’s torso is shown, close cropped from just above the knee to just above the breasts. Though not unknown within early photography, this close cropping of a subject was a radical concept within painting. It was of course to become a common device within contemporary pornographic photography. Although Courbet made use of the media of photography, to aid and inform his art, it is true to say that most photography of the nude made at the time, apart from that created 'under the table', imitated the classical and neo classical arts. The legs are splayed in a natural unforced way suggesting a woman compliant in the sex act but the most disturbing shock caused by the Realist approach is the blatant depiction of the woman’s vagina in full view with a mass of dark pubic hair. This was not a vagina androgenised and hairless like polished marble or coyly covered by hand or drapes: a tantalising last layer before complete revelation. Such a manifest revealing of the female sex, blemished flesh and not idealised. In addition the free undisguised use of paint outraged French society. Even in todays supposedly more liberal age such an image is shocking to many. In April 2008 the Washington Post found the image too shocking to reproduce in a feature for a Courbet exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
To me Courbet was saying that this is the reality of a vagina, mature and hairy, take a close look, it may disturb or jolt your bourgeois sensibilities but it is the truth, it is real.
It is said that the Victorian art critic John Ruskin failed to consummate his marriage to his beautiful wife because he found the sight of pubic hair left him with a profound disgust of her body. His only knowledge of the female anatomy being that found on Greek statues and within classical paintings.
The harsh cropping in this painting depersonalises the subject so as to concentrate on her sex to such an extent that many still place this work of art firmly in the realms of ‘pornography’; an insult to women, stripping her of her identity and reducing her to a mere object of lustful sexuality. For many the knowledge that Origin of the World was originally commissioned as a work of erotica for the private collection of Khalil-Bey, a Turkish diplomat, supports this view. During its lifetime in private collections the painting was hidden behind curtains, locked away from view and at one time displayed with a sliding wooden panel to cover it, stopping this 'perverted' painting from reaching the attentions of those who believe they hold the moral high ground. Oddly this panel, painted by André Masson, was decorated with his version of the same painting and is a beautiful piece of art in its own right. Clearly this linear style of Masson was an attempt to render the image viewable once the realism of the original was reduced.
Another ‘shocking’ masterpiece is Édouard Manet’s 'Olympia', painted three years earlier in 1863, but, unlike Courbet’s fragmented painting, Manet’s 'Olympia' depicts a full length figure of a courtesan or prostitute, identified as such by small adornments such as the orchid in her hair, a bracelet and black ribbon choker. In contrast to Courbet's work, she is a woman with character and dignity and in many ways sexually empowered. Her hand covering her genatalia, her controlling look and confident pose say ‘I am in control’ and with her acquiescent maid, ‘In my world I am important and respected’. When exhibited in the Paris Salon this painting, too, was reviled and outraged the viewing public and critics alike.
Courbet, no stranger to controversy himself, would have seen this painting in the Paris Salon of 1865.
But is 'The Origin of the World' simply a painting to satisfy an erotic desire? Is it a painting with no higher purpose than to arouse a Turkish diplomat? For Khalil-Bey this may have been the case but was it for Courbet?
'Olympia' is a full figure nude that is representative of a particular woman from a specific occupation, that of a courtesan. She could be identified and named. On a higher plain this is a painting that opens up an unseemly world, shocking to an audience who would prefer this world to be kept firmly a secret, a world to be frequented and used by men but a world that should remain hidden from public scrutiny, and wives. It was ‘bad taste’ to see a nude and one so obviously a prostitute, depicted as real and not dressed up as a mythological figure from a biblical story with a ‘moral’ designed to ease the embarrassment or guilt for the viewer.
Courbet would have wanted to push Realism to its extremes, to see how far it could be taken. He would have known this painting was ‘explosive’, probably too explosive for public display at the Paris Salon and so, when the commission came in, it was an opportunity to make financial gain from a painting already created for higher principles and too risky to exhibit.
With 'The Origin of the World', Courbet creates a masterpiece of erotica shifting its meaning from the small and personal, a relationship between viewer and female genitalia which in itself encapsulates a wide range of emotions and passions from love, voyeurism and lust. This meaning also serves to create a monumental shift in scale from the universal to adoration of the female as a fertility goddess.
The title says it all, 'The Origin of the World': we are all born of woman, (Christ included) and this is a painting that celebrates and worships the power of the feminine as goddess. It is not a depersonalising of ‘a woman’ but instead holds women of all nationalities in reverance. It is a statement of the profound universal, a veneration of femininity, of life, birth and ultimately death. It has references to the curious and quite shocking (to some) Shiela-na-Gig stone carvings, fertility goddess symbols and the ‘Mother Goddess’, the Mother of all creation revered by many civilisations. All pre-date Christianity. Primarily a creation of polytheist belief systems Christianity, with its limited monotheist system, adapted earlier concepts of the Mother Goddess veneration to create Mary, Mother of Jesus. With monotheism women are no longer venerated goddesses but mortal, lower and unequal to men, a definite attempt to remove the power base away from the female. (God with all his supreme powers including the complexity of the Holy Trinity can only cope with being a male deity and not a man/woman deity.) Our one God system has removed one of our greatest objects of true veneration, that of Woman.
Erotic art is rarely exhibited in the great galleries of the world. Not because such images are too shocking or disturbing for people to accept but because, in most cases, they are just not good enough in execution nor are they produced with high enough ideals. They are too often limited in their breadth of implied or attributed meaning, often produced merely to shock or titillate. I feel that one of the greatest failings, in the production of erotic art today, is the artists unimaginative and unintelligent use of photographs as subject matter rather than drawing from life. Such methods will never create a quality piece of erotic art. Learn to draw from life and understand the reality of the subject.