Saturday, 8 January 2011

Un conte d'un con et de M Lacan, part four

Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde was painted to commission, for Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat and gambler with a taste for paintings of unclothed women. He also suffered from some kind of eye ailment and so wore blue spectacles, a fact much commented on by gossip columnists. He was a big figure in Second Empire Paris, big enough, in fact, to rate a passing mention in Stephen Frears' recent film, Chéri, from Colette's novel about an ageing courtesan - which is set nearly half a century after Bey's heyday.

It's possible that Bey and Courbet met at the funeral of Proudhon - the first man to call himself an anarchist and who came up with the phrase 'property is theft'. (Well, of course, what he actually said was: La propriété, c'est le vol!) Courbet was a social radical, set on depicting life beyond 'bourgeois' propriety and reinvigorating French painting. Along with Manet, he was the first shapers of our modern visual world. He painted giant, life-sized paintings of workers and peasants and naked women.

It was his impulsive politics that was finally to undo him, though, rather than his pictures. At the height of the Commune, set up by radical Parisians in the wake of France's collapse in the face of Prussia's 1971 invasion, Courbet was the main advocate of the column in the Place Vendôme which commemorated Napoleon I's achievements. For which, in the counter-revolutionary aftermath of the Commune, Courbet was sentenced to six months and fined 500,000 francs (500, according to Wikipedia). So he fled to Switzerland where he died, of the drink, aged 58.

I’ve no idea how much that was in 2011 euros but, by way of comparison, I’ve seen the price Bey paid Courbet for L’Origine quoted as 25,000 francs It was far from his only purchase. Bey was a major collector — and inspirer — of contemporary artists, many of whom would lay the foundation for Paris’s emergence as the world centre of art for the next half-century at least.

Over three years or so, he bought 124 paintings, including six by Delacroix. He also commissioned Ingres' Bain Turc and Courbet's Le Sommeil (Musée du Petit Palais, Paris) - in which Jo Hiffernan is also supposed to be one of the two sleeping women, the dark-haired one on the left.

According to his - excitable - obituary in the London World, he also pressed tea sets on women he met - 47 in that three-year stretch. A seduction technique, I assume. It must have worked sometimes. His mistress, Jeanne de Tourbey was previously mistress of Prince Napoleon. (I assume the similarity of his and her surnames — Bey/Tourbey — was coincidence, though possibly remarked upon by gossips.) When people talk of the courtesans of late 19th century Paris, it’s her they mostly have in mind.

She is generally described as 'the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate waitress' - which sounds like the title of a Danny Kaye song and makes me, at least, wonder how you might distinguish between legitimate and non-legitimate waitressing.

Napoleon arranged for her to be given a polish of education by his friend Sainte-Beuve, a leading literary critic, who is also said to have been responsible for introducing Bey to Courbet. Thus polished, she married a comte, becoming comtesse de Loynes. Once free of the comte, she set up a literary salon, the model for Madame Swann's in Proust's big, big book - which I haven't read, of course. Later in life, she became a fervid reactionary, a leading anti-Dreyfussard and a major funder of Action Francaise — in time, a major backer of the Vichy regime. There is a painting of her in the D'Orsay. She looks trouble.

The first recorded reference to Courbet’s painting as L'origine du Monde is late, very late — 1935, in a piece by a Courbet scholar It’s generally said, though, that the title was Bey's idea - as was, perhaps, the small size of the canvas, quite unlike Courbet's usual giant paintings. All the better to conceal it.

PS My Occitanian correspondent Richard pointed out that there was a typo in the heading for the last couple of Courbet postings. I actually meant to write ‘conte’ — story or tale, in French. In fact, I typed ‘comte’ — French for count.

And . . . well, and here is a sentence from my book, Filthy English. ‘It is claimed that English counts were renamed earls because of their titles’ homophonic closeness to the word.’ The word, of course, was cunt.

Next up What a Turk hides in his toilet

4 comments:

Lo Jardinier said...

Names, names: the Countess of Loins? You wonder sometimes if people are paid by gossip columnists to make good copy. It's a terrific tale with your usual curiosity about side issues.
Thinking about the word 'con', I reached from the sofa for your book: yes, masculine for 'idiot' meaning and also masculine for 'female sex', deriving from the Latin 'cunnus', triangle. I wondered at how a feature of language such as gender lasts over thousands of years. But hang on, what about 'vagin'? Yep, masculine in French. This commandeering of a woman's sex into the masculine terrain is not news to feminist critics, but it bears on the point of your story, and the naming of 'L'origine du monde'. As my old boss and Jungian analyst Fernando Arroyave first pointed out to me,men are jealous of women's ability to create new life: Con envy.

Peter Silverton said...

i'm not a linguistics expert but i do know that the gender thing in language is not really what it seems from an english perspective . . . the problem is that we call them masculine, feminine etc when they don't really or necessarily have anything to do with sex . . . some languages have a dozen genders but i doubt if their speakers have a corresponding number of sexes . . . there is nothing inherently sex-based in language gender . . . french la table, german neuter mädchen (young girl) . . . the reason vagin is masculine is because the word it came from is 'masculine' . . . as i discovered writing the book, the word for penis is 'feminine' in some languages . . . having grown up speaking a language without genders, we probably find it hard to get past the words 'masculine' and 'feminine' for genders but really they confuse us

PS i mourn the loss of sex-separated nouns in english - sometimes anyway - i quite like 'chair', though not 'chair person' - i like 'mankind' (though not necessarily mankind) - but i really don't like actor for both sexes of performers - i miss both the slight raciness of actress and the pretension of actor (male only) . . . oh, and a competition . . . as far as i can figure out, there is only one gendered adjective in english - what is it?

Lo Jardinier said...

I think vagin is a tranny word - it came from a feminine Latin root then became a masculine French word - late on, as your book points out. But why? Where is a cunning linguist when you want one?
As for the competition, we've thought of two candidates here: blond/blonde and gamin/gamine. Over to the chairman for a ruling.
Of course there are also 'buxom' (female) and 'fat' (male); 'concentrating' (female), 'deaf' (male), etc etc etc

Peter Silverton said...

blond/e is the one i had in mind - gamin/e i'd never known as an adjective, just a noun - i looked it up in the latest oed online and there it is, added in 1993 - so, yes, that one, too

there should be a prize but you got the right answer before i could think of one - so just consider yourself the smartest and sharpest of my readers