Art Throb #1: L'Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet

I hummed and ahhhed about whether to post it here, or whether to post a link to it instead. In the end I've done both (not least because of the amusing link to the 'full entry' on the Musee d'Orsay site). But this painting had to be the first Art Throb - there was no other choice as far as I was concerned. If you're offended by it, you're offended by life.

If ever a painting retains its capacity to shock, though, it's this one. I saw the original in the Musee d'Orsay in 1998 before I'd ever heard of it, and it stopped me in my tracks. Like the Mona Lisa (not displayed in the Musee d'Orsay), it's smaller than I expected, although only because it is possibly life-size. Back in 1998, I knew nothing about it, who painted it or what it was called. I never thought I'd see it again, but once you start reading about art, it crops up regularly as an object of fascination: is it anatomy, pornography, or a comment on traditional representations of the female figure? As female nudes go, this close-up of a woman’s exposed genitalia, which are surrounded by dishevelled white sheets, implicitly post-coital, self-consciously breaks with the tradition of the portrayal of the vagina in art - tastefully angled in soft focus, hairless, sex-less, and often obscured with a hand or muslin drapery. Unambiguously displaying visible pubic hair, this vulva acts as a centrifugal vortex, gorging our gaze like a black hole. Presented squarely within one’s full vision, it is a focal point around which everything is arranged. A celebration of female sexuality, its close-up framing in effect ‘amputates’ the woman’s arms and legs (recalling vandalised Greek and Roman statues), thereby at once objectifying the vulva and investing it with a powerful erotic charge.

Is it pornography, though? The fact it has no arms or legs means it could just as well be a segment torn from a magazine centrefold. The art historian Linda Nochlin suggested that "It is, perhaps, most accurately described as a beautifully-painted “beaver shot”, produced with an accuracy that borders on that of the medical illustration." Its title, however, suggests that it is something more. For what it's worth, I think that the lack of opportunity to meet the gaze of the woman whose vulva this belongs to means that L'Origine du Monde is not pornography. In as much as the vulva/ vagina is the gateway to life, the place from which life enters the world - the site of original creation - L'Origine du Monde is as much about art as it is about anything else.


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