Offering neither historical, nor religious, nor literary escape, the female genitalia are framed full-frontal. No evasive manoeuvre for the viewer confronted with the question of their concupiscence. The refinement of the painter pulls the work back from pornographic imagery. She exhorts interpretation. For Philippe Sollers, the title evokes some powerful female demiurge, “as if the world, atoms, galaxies, oceans, deserts, flowers, rivers, cows, elephants, might come forth from this voluptuous woman’s trunk with neither head, nor hands, nor feet, from the overtly proffered and presented genitalia”1
Without face, this body could be attributed to any and all women. The genitalia do not name names. “Who is the model?”, enquires Sollers. “Is it Joanna Hiffernan, the explosive Irish redhead, mistress of Whistler and Courbet? No, the complexion doesn’t fit. So who? The pretty demi-mondaine Jeanne de Tourbey, whose salon was at that time frequented by all those of note in Paris? Perhaps. An unknown model? Why not. Is she a mother, a daughter, a prostitute, a woman of the world, a lover?”2 What makes it obscene to some is that this could be their mother, their daughter, or their lover.
In 2013 the scandal temporarily loses its bite when a collector claims to have the top of the canvas that would have been cut off. France Jaigu and Philip Metz mischievously wrote, regarding this event, that it wasn’t the guillotining that traumatised “the art ama-teurs, but rather the prospect of a head returning from the chopping block”.3 The Musée d’Orsay quickly denied that any chopping off had taken place. With a very classic format that rules out a disorderly cut, the painting diverges stylistically from that of the head that is supposed to adjoin to it. It was evidently created by Courbet just as it appears to us, as attested to by the first descriptions of the work by Gambetta who sees this “nude woman without feet and head” at the residence of its original owner, or by Maxime Du Camp who mentions in 1878 that “the neck and the head” are not depicted in this “rather difficult to describe portrait of a woman”.
The latest twist in the scandalous history of the painting earned it a place in legal precedent, allowing a French man to take legal action against Facebook. In 2011, the schoolteacher and family man published a photograph of the work on his page… and promptly saw his account suspended. Facebook had already, not long before, suspended the account of Danish artist Frode Steinicke for the same reason. Many advocacy groups were set up, a number of users even chose L’Origine du monde as their profile picture, thereby giving it their head! But Facebook remained intractable with our brave schoolteacher and this time refused to reactivate the account, arguing that their terms of service forbid all content of a pornographic nature. The user proceeded to prosecute for violation of freedom of expression, shocked by “this blind censorship which appears ad-dressed to a person who would be unworthy of consideration or would have morals or practices prohibited by the law.”4
At a time when pornography is everywhere, will L’Origine du monde become passé? Might she have lost her infernal attraction by entering the museum, offered to all, patrimonialised? Facebook’s censorship steps in for moral values, of course, but above all it signals something: to hide is, paradoxically, to show that there is something to hide, which is in fact the gaze that falls on this painting, a gaze captivated, eroticised. The fre-quent spasms of morality it gives rise to, like the appearances and disappearances that have marked its history, embody this blinking of the eye that signals something.
Thus the first owner of the painting, an Ottoman diplomat, aesthete and libertine, hid it away in his bathroom behind a green curtain – “the colour of Islam”, notes Sollers5 – only revealing it to a select few. It would later be hidden behind another of Courbet’s canvases, mounted on a pivoting panel. Its last private owner, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, had asked the painter André Masson to create a sliding cover to shroud it, but also to provide a hint, since the landscape entitled “Erotic Land” follows the contours of Courbet’s nude.
Is wanting L’Origine du monde to be incessantly on show –and thereby trivialized-, a way of participating in another kind of blindness, just as powerful as the blind morality? The blindness of those no longer regarded.
1. Sollers P., “L’origine du délire”, L’infini, n° 97, Winter 2006. First published 15 June 2006 in Le Nouvel Observateur with the title “Ce sexe qui dérange”, for the launch of the book by Thierry Savatier “L’Origine du monde: histoire d’un tableau de Gustave Courbet”. It is also available online, at: www.pileface.com.
3. op. cit. www.etremere.fr
4. According to his lawyer, the case was not judged on its merits, but the Paris Court of Appeal has confirmed the judgement of the High Court in considering as unjust the clause of the social network’s terms of service according to which any legal action against Facebook must be heard “exclusively before a US court of the Northern District of California or before a state court of San Mateo County.”
5. Sollers P., “L’origine du délire”, op. cit.