It all boils down to those two little words…
Article for Art and Beyond by Lilianne Milgrom
Two years ago I spent six weeks at the d’Orsay Museum as the authorized copyist of Gustave Courbet’s infamous l’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World). This masterpiece is still considered the gold standard in erotic portraiture even though it was painted in 1866. About ten days into my stint as a copiste, I had an epiphany. L’origine du monde is not a painting of a nude woman; it is a painting of a naked woman. Not the same thing at all. This revelation might help explain the public’s intense and emotional reactions to this particular work of art.
The dictionary definition of nude is "completely unclothed, bare". The definition for naked is "completely unclothed, openly displayed and often threatening or disturbing". Nude is the vanilla version of naked. This differentiation is more than semantics. The word we subconsciously choose to describe a particular work of art defines how we view, process and place value judgments upon it. And this in turn reveals much about our cultural mores and social standards.
The d’Orsay museum abounds with paintings of unclothed men and women. In fact, Paris is notoriously awash with exposed skin, pointy breasted statues, well-endowed males with rippling marble torsos. So why all the brouhaha about Courbet’s 18 inch × 22 inch painting? Because its realism leaves no doubt that this is a naked woman, thoroughly exposed to our prying eyes. The word naked is laced with sexual innuendo, hinting at a reluctant vulnerability which can be exploited. It conjures up raunchy back alley strip joints whose pulsating neon signs announce "Naked Ladies" not "Nude models".
Within walking distance of the d’Orsay museum, a comparable work of art can be found in the magnificent Rodin Museum. Rodin’s bronze sculpture Iris, Messenger of the Gods is a headless female torso with legs spread wide, her genitals directed at eye level. Sound familiar? Created in 1890, two decades after Courbet painted L’origine du monde, the comparison is striking, and indeed on a recent visit to the Rodin museum my audio guide implied that Rodin had probably taken a peek at Courbet’s infamous work. Yet, this sculpture has not been subjected to the same public outcry or erotic critique as Courbet’s L’origine du monde.
Rodin’s Iris was elevated to the ranks of the great sculptural nudes. Just arty enough for audiences to see it as artistic expression rather than lewd in-your-face exhibitionism. In 2006, critic Brian Sewell pretty much called it like it is: "Did no one in Paris, already notorious for its output of pornographic photography, see what Rodin had portrayed?" Apparently not. Instead, his sculpture was praised for its asymmetry, balance, tension and power. Another chef d’oeuvre from the great master! Courbet’s model on the other hand, reclines on crumpled bed sheets, her legs spread, every pubic hair rendered in a manner all too-realistic for many people’s taste. This woman is more than nude. She is one naked lady.
Many visitors, particularly visitors from across the Atlantic, experience different levels of discomfort upon viewing Courbet’s painting. Quite possibly what is at play here is the perception of sexually charged nakedness compared to the more aesthetically acceptable nudity. This discomfort may well be rooted in the subconscious Judeo-Christian references to the Fall of Man, Eve’s loss of innocence and the subsequent awakened shame in her own nakedness.
L’origine du monde’s blatantly nakedness forces the viewer to confront his or her own vulnerability. Certainly these are highly charged and private thoughts to be contemplating in so public a setting. So take your pick. Naked or nude? Renowned English artist and critic John Berger has beautifully articulated the difference between these two ways of seeing: "Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display." Regardless of whichever way one chooses to look at the Courbet’s l’Origine or Rodin’s Iris, it is clear that they are both superb works celebrating the female body and challenging artistic and societal boundaries since their creation.