Courbet and the Academy
In France in the nineteenth century, an elite group dictated art. The Academy, as it’s known in English, held strict ideas about art–all of them derived from the classical world, the Renaissance, and the baroque era. The men who ran the Academy dictated artistic tastes by preserving the past. New artists didn’t stand a chance if the Academy refused to exhibit their work.
Their power constituted a form of cultural totalitarianism–and few people challenged them. If you were an artist in the nineteenth century and you wanted them to consider your work, then you had to follow their rules. Paintings could only depict mythological, historic, or religious scenes or stories. Artists had to conceal brushstrokes. They couldn’t depict modernity. They could stage models or paint modern landscapes, but they had to present them as ancient or historic stories or allegories.
An artist violating these and other rules didn’t stand a chance with the Academy. And if the Academy rejected you, you’d probably never make it.
Sometime around the mid-nineteenth century, however, artists rejected the Academy and freed themselves from their shackles. The Impressionists struck a blow crippling the Academy’s hegemony, but a generation earlier, artists whose works chipped away at that hegemony emerged.
Manet, perhaps the most famous of the so-called rebels and anarchists, depicted the then-modern world, often using looser techniques than the Academy demanded.
Gustave Courbet was another giant who emerged from this period. Painting in a realistic style, he focused on the here on and now, on preserving people and moments in his time. For all time.
One of the consequences of the Academy’s iron-fisted adherence to century’s old rules resulted in a paucity of imagery depicting France in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Paintings of those periods existed, but they were usually patriotic or didactic, created long after the events had transpired.
The new artists–Manet and Courbet, the Impressionists and so-called Post Impressionists–wanted to capture the times and the moments as they happened. In doing so, they challenged and ultimately damaged, the institution itself.
Courbet and Modernity
For Courbet, modernity mattered. Every generation challenges the norms and conventions of previous generations. It’s a means of establishing a cultural identity distinct from that of their parents, a sort of cultural emancipation.
Courbet possessed a healthy ego–he’d brag that he was “the proudest and most arrogant man in France”–and following the lead of others, especially old masters long dead, probably didn’t appeal to him, or his healthy ego.
With a sense of self-worth as vast as Courbet’s, it’s reasonable to conclude that he wanted to distinguish himself from every then-living artist. And that’s exactly what he did.
Instead of painting historic scenes, he depicted life and the world around him. In his time. He also shunned mimesis, a means of representing people in idealized form, a concept dating back to the ancient Greeks. Instead, Courbet focused his craft of rendering realistic imagery. People in his paintings reflected people he encountered, warts and all.
Courbet’s realism did indeed distinguish him from the pack, especially the artists groveling for the approval of the Academy. But not even Courbet could break himself of the Academy’s allure. His art openly defied their edicts and yet he submitted piece after piece. If he was rejected, he’d rent a space and establish his own exhibition.
A man of great craftsmanship and arrogance, Courbet established a name for himself–and created controversy with nearly every image he produced. People expressed outrage, contempt, disgust for his work–while younger artists viewed them with awe and envy. What freedom!
L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World)
His most controversial painting remained little seen in his lifetime and in the decades following his death. To this day, L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), 1866, courts controversy whenever it’s exhibited–either in museums or on social media.
Commissioned by a Persian art collector, L’Origine du monde depicts a woman’s lower torso and thighs with her genitals prominent and crucial to the composition. The woman’s lying on a bed, legs spread. A sheet covers part of her chest, revealing only part of her right breast and nipple. The framing of the composition focuses on the vagina. The woman’s head and arms are altogether out of frame. It’s hard to overlook the eroticism intended by the composition.
On its surface, L’Origine du monde is a simple yet masterful piece: beautifully composed and executed. But its content shocked those who laid eyes on it a century and a half ago, and it continues to shock people today.
It’s an explicitly erotic work, challenging the conventions of the day. The art world in the nineteenth century accepted eroticism, even pornography, as long as the artist presented it in the context of historical settings. But the younger generation chose to attack convention by presenting nudity and eroticism as it was, stripping it of idealism or allegory. This was the human body and human nature in raw and uncompromising terms.
Manet created controversy in 1865 when he unveiled his painting, Olympia, which featured a full-bodied nude woman reclining on a chaise lounge. Manet withstood insults and attacks. Critics bashed his piece, largely because of its modern setting.
A nude woman reclining in Ancient Rome was acceptable to French art enthusiasts. But when Manet stripped his Olympia of her ancient settings and dropped her in a modern parlor, he upset the concept of art up to that point. No longer allegory, the reclining nude implied freedom, sexuality, individuality, even pathos.
She was human, all too human. No longer an ideal. And it shocked and outraged people. Yet when juxtaposed with L’Origine du monde, Manet’s Olympia seems inhibited, even naive. It was, by all accounts, a bold painting, but Manet held his punches, so to speak, and imbued his subject with a sense of grace, relegating eroticism to interpretations of its spectators.
Courbet, on the other hand, wiped the slate clean and featured the part of the female body that Manet’s Olympia covered with her hand. With his brush and oils, Courbet laid bare the female anatomy in stark terms. It’s erotic, pornographic to some, obscene to others. But it’s also human, far more human than anything Michelangelo painting on the Sistine Chapel. It’s part of the human anatomy, but it’s also the point at which every human being enters the world. In a sense, you could argue, the origin of the world–in a subjective sense–for every human being on earth is inextricably tied to this part of the female anatomy.
Yet people who’ve laid eyes on it express a variety of emotions–from outrage to disgust to discomfort. The painting itself, although influential, remained hidden, obscured, or in private collection for over a century–it didn’t make its debut at a museum in New York until 1988, well over a century after Courbet painted it.
In 1995, the Musée d’Orsay, acquired it as part of a tax settlement with its owner’s family–famed psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. It hangs there now and is among the museums most visited and controversial paintings.
It even courts controversy online. Social media sites–notably Facebook–frequently censor and remove it, claiming it violates their rules governing obscenity. But is the image obscene? A patch of pubic hair obscures the vagina itself. Only the lips running up into the pubic hair implies what’s beneath. The image is no more graphic than nudes produced in the centuries before Courbet.
Its controversy lies entirely in its composition. By choosing to frame the image as a detail instead of a representation of a full-bodied model, Courbet emphasized the vagina and all it entails.
Why does it continue to create controversy, even into the 21st century? Perhaps its ability to shock has less to do with Courbet’s composition and more to do with western repression.
By confronting parts of the human anatomy and, specifically, human desire and sexuality, you could argue that spectators experience the sensation of confronting their own conformity to absurd social norms and practices. And what’s more absurd than deeming parts of the human body obscene? Even in a world of internet porn and open sexuality, the dichotomy of reveling in sex and accepting the merits of its repression persists–and so does the shame of acting on such thoughts or impulses.
Deborah de Robertis and the Origin of Origins
On May 29, 2014, performance artist Deborah de Robertis strode into the Musée d’Orsay, sat on the floor in front of Courbet’s painting, spread her legs–she wasn’t wearing panties–and spread her lips, showing every detail of her vagina. She sat there for several minutes, in front of the painting, bearing her most intimate parts.
Her act created a frenzy. Police escorted her out and the museum later filed charges against her. The performance itself was as shocking–if not more so–than Courbet’s century and a half old painting.
“If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism,” she said in an interview with Luxemburger Wort, a German newspaper, ” but what I did was not an impulsive act. There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”
Although de Robertis displayed her vagina in all its detail to museum-goers that day, her act signified the shock of confronting and abolishing the norm. Courbet undoubtedly intended to imply eroticism with his piece, but de Robertis intended to show what Courbet’s piece lacked: the human body, as it is, devoid of eroticism. And she also exposed the absurdity of a culture simultaneously obsessed with sex and sexuality yet shamed–and even repulsed–by it.
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Daulton Dickey lives with his wife, kids, and pet human-lizard hybrid in a universe he created. He’s the author of Elegiac Machinations, Bastard Virtues, and Flesh Made World, Contact him at lostitfunhouse [at] gmail [dot] com