Thursday, 13 January 2011

Courbet’s Origin of the World, sixth part

Not that we can be at all certain about where Bey kept Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde - or if it's true, as is generally said, that he kept it hidden behind a green velvet curtain. In fact, we only know anything about the painting's early existence because of a couple of passing references in contemporary accounts. Which does, of course, confirm one thing - that it was hidden, elided, shielded from public view.

If such prudishness seems surprising for the supposedly licentious 19th century Paris of our understandings, that's a reflection of our lack of understanding. It's true that this was the first heyday of the can-can - then a working-class dance of sexual directness, legs lifted high in a pre-knickers world.

Yet Napoleon III's Second Empire was not a liberal place. (That and some of the other facts above and below come from Rupert Christiansen's Tales from The New Babylon: Paris 1869-75.) The Marseillaise was banned - yes, that one, the one they sing in Casablanca. It had been outlawed for fifteen years or so and wouldn't be unbanned for a couple of years more.

When La Danse, a sculpture of naked women was put up outside the new Opera house, outraged attackers sprayed it with ink — and railway companies offered special, cut-price return tickets to suburbanites anxious to see for themselves the terrible, terrible havoc ink can wreak on naked young female flesh (well, stone).

The tensions that were pulling French society in two directions were there in one of the two near-contemporary accounts of Courbet's painting. On the one hand, there was Ludovic Halévy in his memoirs. 'A nude woman, without feet and without a head. After dinner, there we were, looking and admiring . . . We finally ran out of enthusiastic comments . . . This lasted for ten minutes. Courbet, he never had enough of it.'

On the other hand, there were the less-enthusiastic comments made in a late 1870s attack on the Commune by right-wing journalist Maxine du Camp. This is what he wrote . . .

'To please a Moslem who paid for his whims in gold, and who, for a time, enjoyed a certain notoriety in Paris because of his prodigalities, Courbet, this same man whose avowed intention was to renew French painting, painted a portrait of a woman which is difficult to describe. In the dressing-room of this personage, one sees a small picture hidden under a green veil. When one draws aside the veil, one remains stupefied to perceive a woman, life-size, seen from the front, moved and convulsed, remarkably executed, reproduced con amore, as the Italians say, providing the last word in realism. But, by some inconceivable forgetfulness, the artist who copied his model from nature, had neglected to represent the feet, the legs, the thighs, the stomach, the hips, the chest, the hands, the arms, the shoulders, the neck and the head.'

It’s not that accurate a description of the picture, though, is it? It’s true that there are no legs, feet or head in it. But there are certainly thighs, hips, stomach and a touch of chest. My guess is either du Camp never actually saw the picture and so was relying on a second-hand account or when he did see the picture he couldn’t, so to speak, see the wood for the bosky grove. Maybe he was shocked into only being able to see one thing. Maybe he was only interested in one thing.

By the by, I see no visual evidence in the picture of the orgasm that he alludes to either. Then, according to Rupert Christiansen's book, mid-19th century (male) France was stupefiedly fascinated by its new-found discovery, the female orgasm - to the point of cataloguing its supposedly different manifestations in thin and fat women.

Next up The Turk loses his chemise . . . and his femme sans culottes

No comments: