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

Monday, 10 January 2011

Wonders of the modern world, six . . . Cheese and its link to international terrorism

An Israeli cousin, a young woman, who had just spent a couple of weeks with us, flew back the other day. My wife gave her some cheddar to take back for her parents. For some reason, she packed the cheese in a board game she'd bought here, War on Terror. 'Stunning satire,' said the Guardian — not the kind of comment I've ever seen on, say, Cluedo. My wife warned her against the putting the cheese there. 'They might think it's explosives on the x-ray,' she said.

At the Heathrow check-in desk, the young cousin found her luggage was a little overweight. So she removed the board game and took it with her in her hand-luggage. At security, they stopped her. Of course they did. They were worried the cheese was explosives. They didn't like the board game, either. They decided it would worry other travellers. They might think she was a terrorist herself.

Oh, yes. Your average mad bomber spends his last flight playing War on Terror — which comes with black balaclava masks, with the word 'Evil' on them. (It's so hard to play, by the way, that if George W and Osama BL had started it on 9/11, they still wouldn't be finished.)

So security took the game from her and put it on the hold. For free. So now we all know how to get free extra baggage allowance. Put everything in a bag marked Terrorist or somesuch.

Next up Back to the story of a blue-glassed Turk, a column-smashing French painter and a headless young woman. Bottomless, too. Well, not literally but in the sense of reverse toplessness. On the other hand, I guess you could say she was bottomless in a metaphorical sense, too. That is kind of the point of the painting.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Un conte d'un con et de M Lacan, épisode cinq

By all accounts, Bey kept his Origine hidden in a secret cabinet - or back room or bathroom/toilet. My guess is that it’s the last. Though I’ve not found the French original text, my guess is that the word used is cabinet — short for cabinet de toilette. Which phrase was shorted to cabinet in French — and to toilet in English.

Which was? Not a toilet in the English sense, nor a cabinet in the English sense, nor what we think of today as a bathroom etc. It was a room where you made your toilette — washing, getting ready etc. That is, an equivalent of an English dressing room, with a washbasin — and a bidet, I guess.

Cabinets could be quite grand. This one, in a painting by Lobre, has a fireplace and a decent-sized art collection.

(There's a lot more to the picture, by the way, including a young girl leaving the room. But for some reason I can't manage to upload the whole image.)

This one is Louis XVI’s.

This one, by Bonnard, has a woman in slippers, a day bed and the usual spectacular Bonnard wallpaper.

(Bonnard really liked painting in the cabinet/toilet. He even did a naked self-portrait sitting at his sink, facing his mirror. You do find yourself wondering where he put the easel and paint pots.)

And here is the one used by Napoleon III’s wife, Princess Eugénie, in the 1850s. I should imagine Bey’s cabinet was at least as lavish — if not as, to re-turn a phrase of Alfie’s, poncified.

Next up A quick break from Courbet for a true story about the wonders of modern airline security checks.