The Origin of the World and other dilemmas

If you end up reading this, I have somehow overcome my deep embarrassment at being moved to write it. This Saturday morning I slipped into the Musee d’Orsay fairly early and thus didn’t wait very long in line to have my bag checked. This is not the embarrassing part.

Usually when I go to the Orsay, I go through the Impressionist rooms on the fifth floor. You can’t do that too many times — or that is you can do that as many times as you like and still see stuff that makes you feel good. This year, for example, I have rediscovered a fondness for Fantin-Latour, with his group portraits of French artists, writers, and musicians, and his stunning portrait of Charlotte Dubourg. This day, though, I went to the Courbet room on the second floor. It is just beyond the photography room, so a natural spot for me to end up.

It is also the site of “l’Origine du Monde,” one of Courbet’s most famous paintings, at least since the Orsay acquired it in 1995. It seems to have been a private commission, and like so many European paintings, had a peripatetic life shuttled from one private owner to another in that era of world wars. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan owned it for several decades, and in fact rigged the painting so that there was another one on top of it in a kind of double frame. Interesting.

All right, some more background. I have spent much of my museum/gallery time this year inwardly railing at the male gaze in art. Oh, you think, how original, and how exhausting: that must be, like, every painting. Pretty much. But I’ve been hyperfocused on depictions of the female body, particularly nude bodies.

This is not the thing that will earn me a place in the feminist historiography of art, I do realize. I’m a bit late to the party. It’s just that this year, for me, has been a time of more extensive reflection on “all this.” For example, a visiting friend and I amused ourselves in late March noting how many women’s breasts were portrayed by male artists as doing physically impossible things. “Nope, they don’t do that,” we would comment. “Nope, it doesn’t work that way.” Ah, you think I am naive…that I believe that the artists’ primary intention was to depict the natural weight and fall of a woman’s breast. I’m not that naive. But that begs the question, doesn’t it? I mean, why not get it right? What artistic point is made by getting it wrong? (Or getting them wrong, I guess I should say.) I’ve been looking at paintings and sculptures from several millennia, and it’s fair to say that the older guys are a bit better at this than the more recent guys, because, well, that’s what they were supposed to do in those traditions. Then new varieties of assault on women-in-culture came along.

No, not all male artists’ female nudes, or female breasts, bug me. So I’ve spent some time trying to figure out which ones and why.

Of course, the “male gaze” in itself suggests an answer. Many male artists objectify women in the ways they have been enculturated to do this. In many western cultures, women have been there for men to look at, to touch, to frighten, to persuade or force to satisfy men’s sexual urges, and to make men’s lives easier. We know from the valiant work of feminist scholars and artists how incredibly difficult it has been to create alternative roles for women through male eyes.

Enough of this. It’s not important for me to recapitulate a feminist history of the world. They’re out there. Read them. They’re good.

i'origine du monde Courbet

Gustave Courbet, “l’Origine du Monde,” oil, 1866.

Back to this painting, “l’Origine du Monde” (the origin of the world). The painting is of a woman’s thighs and vulva viewed from between her legs. She has dark public hair. Her abdomen is naked, and we see one breast, or part of a breast — her chest is covered by a sheet. We do not see a face, or anything above her chest.

Here’s the embarrassing part. I find this 1866 painting by Gustave Courbet incredibly beautiful, fascinating, riveting even. I do not find it exploitative, “incorrect,” or insulting. Over the years, this painting  has been, as you can imagine, highly controversial and provocative. I have come to wonder if its offensiveness stems from its unique vision of a naked woman’s thighs and genitalia. Yes, it is graphic, or explicit, or whatever word you want to use here, and highly unusual — I don’t have the knowledge to say unprecedented — up to and during the 19th century in depicting a woman this way, from this perspective. It is too painterly to be photographic, and that is one of the aesthetically seductive dimensions of the painting. It  is also just right on in showing what happens when a woman lies on a bed in this position. That is what her breasts and belly do. That is what her bottom and thighs do. Courbet captured the model (rumored to be Joanna Hiffernan, who modeled for him several times) perfectly in those respects.

While saying that the painting stops short of pornography, the museum commentator writes that it “raises the troubling question of voyeurism.” I’m not sure what that means. I don’t want to just laugh and say that goes with the territory.  But these also feel like weasel words to cover and cover up our discomfort at being stimulated by this painting. If I were a braver person, I would spend more time in that room just watching people respond to the painting. It is not hard to spot. It is the centerpiece of the room — it is in fact the raison d’etre of the room. And I’m sure that each person has an individual reaction to the painting, but I also think those reactions can probably be roughly grouped according to gender identity and sexual orientation — more or less.

If I were even braver, I would spend more time in that room gazing at the painting itself. I see and experience it as a woman, a feminist, and a lesbian. Viewing the painting, I can feel the sensations of lying in that position,  the bed, the covers, and my flesh all offering sensory experiences I can imagine from the painting. As a lesbian, I find the painting exciting and beautiful. My hunch is, too, that that is a different set of feelings for me than it is for a male heterosexual viewer. Lesbian and gay male persons experience their lovers’ bodies differently than heterosexual people experience their lovers’ bodies. Oh, duh, you think, all this verbiage for this one rattlin’ good insight? But yes. This is one of the reasons that for some women in the 1970s and 1980s, being a so-called “political lesbian” seemed to be a good choice, at least for a moment or two – because while it added all sorts of scary dimensions to sexual behavior, it also removed some. It wasn’t just that a woman can find her way around a woman’s body — it was that we tended to meet on more equal grounds, and that gives a different flavor, so to speak, to sex.

I KNOW, I KNOW — butch and femme, dominant and submissive, stronger and weaker, taller and shorter, short haired and long haired, shaved and unshaven — there are  many identity roles and nuances out there among lesbians. But just give me at least part of my generalization, above. Woman to woman sex does simplify some things, just as man to man sex simplifies some things, only with the added piquancy and attraction of escaping, at least for an intimate moment or two, the oppressive weight of persistent patriarchy on all of us, man and woman, believer and unbeliever.

So I think two things (which is plenty for one day). I think that for pretty much all of us, this is a sexually stimulating and thus disturbing painting. Most of us don’t go to a museum expecting to be turned on by the art in that way. (Maybe we shouldn’t be so naive or skeptical.) In fact one reason I wanted to write this entry is to suggest that we  generally pretend we are NOT sexually moved by the art we view in public spaces and that changes and truncates our experience of that art. (I am not suggesting that we talk loudly or act out those responses, BTW.) And my second thought: I think that this painting escapes some of the distressing aspects of the “male gaze” because the painter allowed the model to lie on the bed in a relaxed  pose that was natural to her, and that the synecdoche of the painting, in which the woman’s most private “parts” stand in for  her whole self, is somehow more respectful than exploitative.

You are so welcome to disagree. In fact there is a school of thought that says somehow the model’s head got separated from the rest of the painting, and the head that these experts offer as the missing piece is rather starkly agonized and corpse-like in nature.


Here is an article that poses and challenges the notion that this is the lost top half of the origin of the world painting:

I’m not at all crazy about the idea that this is the “real” missing face of the painting, and fortunately, some experts join me in my incredulity. Ick. And that’s all she wrote, for today.

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