L'Origine du monde is an oil painting realized by Courbet in 1866. It may be the most controversial piece of art that the famous artist has ever presented. Consisting of a 46x55 centimeters close up on a woman's genitals, the picture makes all the conventions shatter and gets any audience uncomfortable.
This essay first explores the historical trajectory of L'Origine du monde, from its origins to its rediscovery since 1995. The painting results from Courbet's imaginary as well as a precise historical context: the era of the Second Empire was indeed characterized by its interest for nude and erotic painting, what encouraged Courbet to revitalize in his realistic manner this kind of practicing art. Considered as scandalous, the picture has remained hidden during almost one century until its being given to the Orsay Museum, which the piece of art enters on the 26th June 1995.
Turning to a more precise analysis of the painting, the essay then emphasizes its ambiguity: although the aim of the painter was to represent the reality of a woman body, trying to reach objectiveness, there is also a will to make the audience react, mind about his relation to nudity. Therefore, the paper leans upon the taxonomy of nudity vs. nakedness in order to understand the peculiar subject of this painting.
The last issue the paper deals with is the question of genders in L'Origine du monde. Lots of artists have included Courbet's painting in their artwork. A case in point of this broad reinterpretation is Orlan's photograph entitled War's Origin: Orlan took the same disposition up for its picture as Courbet's one but represented a man's genitals instead. By the play on words between both titles, she makes L'Origine du monde enter the gender debate, using nudity as a weapon and genitals as witnesses.
The gender debate highlights the difficulty to get over the biologics and give a social definition of woman. The status of women artists and broadly talking the relation between art and women are some quite good indicators of these difficulties. They help revealing the huge evolution which art has experienced over one century regarding the feminine gender.
Since feminist movements rose in modern societies during the seventies, it seems like women have tried to get rid of the taboos around their body. Although they were meant to protect decency, the sense of modesty has in fact prevented any social evolution of the status of woman and any changing in the social perception of her body.
Dealing with this issue one hundred years before it becomes one of the main topics of public debate, Courbet painted L'Origine du monde in 1866. Consisting of a 46x55 centimeters close up on a woman's genitals, the picture makes all the conventions shatter and gets any audience uncomfortable, what may explain the chaotic history of this piece of art. We may therefore wonder what Courbet's intents were by choosing to bring such a provocative picture to the fore. In which debate did he want his work to take part? What is the current role of L'Origine du monde in the gender show?
I. L'Origine du monde : a time bomb...
1. The painting genesis