I suspect that many of us have experienced those quirky incidents where a hitherto unfamiliar subject is brought to our attention and then it suddenly seems to pop up everywhere. And I mean everywhere. We keep tripping over the now-familiar subject as if making up for lost time.
I first came across Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’origine du monde (Origin of the World) about a year ago when researching material for my upcoming artist residency in Paris. Let’s be frank; once you see this painting it’s hard to forget. I added it to my long list of must-see artworks, oblivious to the central role it would play in my life over the coming months.
The day after I arrived in Paris, a friend suggested a RDV (rendez-vous) at the Musée d’Orsay which boasts an extensive collection of Courbet’s most famous works. To make a long story short, this museum visit resulted in my spontaneous decision to base my residency work around L’origine du monde. I spent the next six weeks copying this painting and documenting the public’s reaction to it. But that is not where the story ends. My pas de deux with Courbet was just beginning.
At almost every social event I attended in Paris, people were eager to share their personal encounters with L’origine du monde. One could assume that an intimate relationship with this painting is a prerequisite for French citizenship! An exclusive art opening at a Montmartre apartment was no exception. Our formidable hostess Grace Teshima, an enthusiastic supporter of my project, unexpectedly whisked me away from the crowd into the labyrinth of her typical Parisian apartment. With a twinkle in her eye she flung open the door to her son’s bedroom to reveal Parisian-style wall décor: a version of Courbet's iconic painting, compliments of a young graffiti artist … Some subjects never get old!
A few days later, my landlady handed me a hefty catalogue she had just purchased at the current Elles exhibit on show at the Centre Pompidou. The museum’s website proudly heralds the show as “the first time in the world a museum will be displaying the feminine side of its own collections”. A quick browse through the catalogue confirmed that the exhibition was right up my alley, so to speak.
I headed off to Beaubourg without delay. Immediately upon entering the Elles exhibit it was clear that the leitmotiv was the female body. 500 works by more than 200 modern and contemporary female artists transformed the museum’s second floor into an orgy of assorted feminine parts. The works challenged the male monopoly over representation of the female body, and substituted the female gaze in place of the traditional male gaze. Not surprisingly, several of the wall texts referred to Courbet’s L’origine du monde as a major influence.
The majority of the participating artists were exposing their most intimate selves in the name of political and social revolution. As I tried to absorb the countless variations on Courbet’s original theme, I wondered what the artist himself would have made of this show. A fact often overlooked is Courbet’s lifelong commitment to political and social resistance. He was a prominent leader of the revolutionary Paris Commune, and was imprisoned in 1871 for his role in the destruction of the Vendôme Column, a contentious symbol of imperialism. Courbet eventually fled to Switzerland where he remained a troublemaker till his death in 1877.
Being the outspoken hothead that he was, I am sure Courbet would have thoroughly approved of this exhibiton. After all, he himself proclaimed that “it is fatal for art if it is forced into official respectability and condemned to sterile mediocrity.” ‘Respectable’ and ‘sterile’ are definitely not words one would use to describe the Elles exhibit! Visiting this exhibit put my own artistic exploration into a historic context and left me with a sense of kinship with the greater artistic community. As Louise Bourgeois pointed out, “I know I'm part of history, just a tiny stone in a very big wall.”
The most remarkable twist in my entwined tale with Courbet’s painting was waiting in store for me on my very last day as an official copiste at the Musée d’Orsay. It came in the form of an invitation to see a remarkable sight. Namely, a larger-than-life, pixilated version of L’origine du monde made of chocolate, cheese and bread! Add a dog named Yoyo, an artistic duo named Zoom and you have a story too fantastic to have made up. And I have the chocolate to prove it!
After seven incredible weeks in Paris It was time to go home and make sense of my extraordinary experiences. With my head literally filled to the brim with erotic female imagery, I settled into my seat on a Washington DC-bound flight with my latest edition of ARTNEWS magazine. Flipping to the section on recent New York gallery shows I could not believe my eyes. A half-page review praising a show entitled The Visible Vagina, and making reference to none other than - you guessed it - L’origine du monde!
Clearly, Courbet and I were not ready to part ways just yet.
This concludes Lilianne Milgrom’s six-part series for Bonjour Paris about her recent artistic adventures in Paris. She is currently developing an exhibition based on this work. More of Lilianne’s art can be seen on www.liliannemilgrom.com.