Female nudity and its place in art history- an essay on Courbet and Trockel

In February 2011, the Copenhagen based artist Frode Steinicke posted a photograph of Courbet’s 1866 painting ‘L’origine du monde’ on his Facebook page and was shocked to find that it was quickly removed. A huge controversy ensued; some claiming that the painting was an art historical masterpiece, others claiming it was a French national treasure. Thousands of users expressed their horror at the censorship. (Milgrom, 2013) More recently, performance artist Deborah de Robertis sat down in front of the Courbet painting at the musee de Orsay and spread her legs, revealing her genitals, recreating the infamous piece in the flesh. She was removed from the premises by security guards and fined by the museum. (Sutton, 2014) Consequently, the question can be asked: Where does this piece stand in the context of art history? What did female nudity mean in the context of Courbets art and what does it mean in art today?

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Gustav Courbet, L’Origine du monde, 1866

“Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, 46 cm x 55 cm” (Wikipedia, 2015) is an oil painting on canvas, and depicts the close up, uncovered body of a female, legs spread, lying on a bed. It shows her torso, pubic hair and genital aria, as well as one uncovered breast. Painted in the style of realism in 1866, the image looks almost photographic. It was commissioned by a Turkish diplomat living in Paris, Kahlil Bey, who had a frivolous lifestyle and was the owner of an extensive collection of erotic art. The diplomat hid this piece away from public view behind a veil, only showing it to select male visitors. ( Milgrom, 2013) Although this is one of Courbet’s most controversial and well known works today, at the time it was painted, it was a very private commission. There has been some speculation concerning a piece of canvas, which may depict the head of the figure and has recently been found, opening up debate considering whether not he originally painted the whole figure. It does however remain clear that the end result is a direct, unashamed voyeuristic gaze at a female. The image is stark and voyeuristic, the ultimate hidden guilty pleasure of the owner with his select guests. Simultaneously it remained a shameful hidden work, not spoken about or mentioned in written works until later dates. Maxime du Camp, gave one of the only known contemporary descriptions of the work in the late 1800’s, 10 years after he had seen it (Nochlin,2007):

To please a Moslem who paid for his whims in gold and who, for a time, enjoyed certain notoriety in Paris because of his prodigality’s, Courbet… painted a portrait of a woman which is difficult to describe. In the dressing room of this foreign 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 shoulders, the neck and the head.(Nochlin,2007,p.148)

The hidden aspect of this work should not only be considered and attributed to its pornographic nature but also in a wider aspect of female sexuality. The reality of female sexuality always held a certain threat and in the case of Kahlil Bey this threat held the physical manifestation of syphilis. The art critic Jules Castagnary wrote the following poem ‘On a Picture from the Khalil Bey collection:’

“It’s this that makes you stoop before your time,

Turning your hair from black to white,

It’s this that gives your face a leaden tinge…

All hail for miles around,

All bow down, as low as you can

For-to our shame- alas!

It’s this that makes the world go round.”(Des Cars,2008,p.380)

Courbet consistently struggled to survive as an artist, thus having to live and work within the salon system in Paris and making commission based works, which was still the prevalent way to survive as an artist in the mid to late 1800’s. He worked within these constraints, but in many of Courbet’s writings he expresses his battle with trying to find time and space to produce works which would push the boundaries of the system he lived in. (Chu, 1992) Although his nude masterpiece may have been kept hidden away from public view, it is not hard to imagine that Courbet painted this piece not only for financial reasons, but because it presented him with the opportunity to do something scandalous, breaking away from all expectations regarding composition and accepted nudity. This is a male painter, unapologetically objectifying a female in the nude and hiding nothing of his desire and fear, a direct confrontation.

Art history and its topics and depictions remained male dominant for a long time after Courbet’s image was painted. However, moving into the 20th century, female artists started to gain a greater voice and feminist art began to spread, especially in European and American art. Its role was not only to challenge the social and political issues which women faced, but also to challenge the norms of art and art history, its representation and the presence of femininity. Lisa Tickner explains in her essay, ‘Modernist Art History: The Challenge of Feminism’: “The principal components for a feminist art history are provided by a revisionist history of production and by theories of representation and the subject. The first maps the social positions from which women have worked as artists and the codes, conventions, and institutional opportunities available to them. The second enables us to see how representations of femininity contribute to the production of feminine subjects…”(1988,252)

The German artist Rosemarie Trockel (b. 1952), well-known and respected as a contemporary of Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, has often worked with the theme of feminism and femininity within art. She works with domestic materials like knit work, household items and “uses female images to parody the sexual stereotypes of German painting” (Chadwick,1990,p.400).

In 2011, she created “Replace me”, 32.5 x 40 cm, a black and white digital reproduction of Courbet’s ‘Le Origin Du Monde’, in conjunction with a larger exhibiting piece called “Cosmos”. Reworked as a digital print, the pubic hair is replaced with a large tarantula (Burleigh,2013). As Paula Burleigh explains: “Trockel transformed the pubic hair into a spider, ominously crawling toward the figure’s pudendum. This surrealist-inspired association between female sex organ and animal encourages the kind of free association that the entire exhibition is meant to foster, while its category-mixing (zoology, erotica, and art) evokes the collisions between the public and private that abound throughout the show.”(2013)

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Rosemarie Trockel, Replace me, 2011

In order to better understand the underlying message of this piece, it is helpful to look into the long standing history of the spider and its symbolic meaning, which can be traced back over many thousands of years in mythology, fables and folklore where the spider was held as a powerful, mysterious and dangerous animal, treacherous and simultaneously wise.

In the ancient Greek myth, Arachne was a talented weaver and eventually challenged the goddess Athena to a contest in order to prove her superior skill in the craft. Although her skill was perfected and proven, she had depicted many images of infidelity amongst the gods and her pride infuriated the goddess so much she destroyed the tapestry. Similarly, Buddhism also uses the allegory of the spider. As historian Timothy Brook explains:  “When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true—every dharma, in the language of Indian philosophy—is a pearl in Indra’s net…Everything that exists in Indra’s web implies all else that exists”(Brook,2009,p.22)

It is a combination of this historical symbolism, and the female artist reclaiming a male masterpiece, in an unashamed direct manner, which makes it significant. By placing the spider in Courbet’s painting, Trockel faces the many meanings of the piece and owns up to it. The female model is no longer just an anonymous object of male desire and fear, she now has a voice and boldly, openly states, here I am, no longer in hiding. The artist makes no effort to conceal what she is referencing, and she removes some of the shame and negativity of the image by unveiling it, replacing. Her title therefore relates to the act of replacing the old masterpiece with a new image, one that gives a power to the female model which she never previously had.

For many years hidden and disguised, lost to secretive owners, ‘L’origine du monde’ has now hung open to the public at the musee d’Orsay since 1995. Both of these pieces, significant in their own right, display the predominant way of looking at the female body and give both a male and female perspective. They must be considered within their individual contexts. Historically speaking, Courbet’s work holds up as a candid representation of many negative associations, lust and objectification, which were held towards women, in the 1800’s. When considered from this perspective public display and discussion should be allowed, not evaded. This piece should no longer be shrouded in shame and secrecy but instead publicly displayed and discussed. This is what Trockel’s direct, unapologetic contemporary transcription and confrontation does. It is a contemporary female replacement for something which once was forbidden and illicit, now being used as a point of discussion asking questions of where we can and should go next within female representation and art.

All rights reserved by the author.

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Henri Matisse, Kosovo and musing over the summer that was

I still can’t quite get over the fact that I have not posted in months. It was an eventful summer, and as eventful summers go, there is much to report but the time and dedication to sit down and put everything into words seems to have escaped me.  In many ways it is much easier and instantaneous to post a quick picture or a link to an exhibition on Facebook or Instagram, and I suppose this is one of the reasons I have become slightly neglectful in my blog postings.

As far as Exhibitions last summer go, I think I have to highlight The Matisse Cut Outs (1937 – 1954) which was showing at the Tate Modern. I wish I could bask into the colours, joy and life affirming exuberance over and over again. Especially as I have arrived in the cold dreary month of January and summer seems more like a distant hallucination.  I suppose these are the times when money really can buy you happiness, surely having a large scale cut out in ones living room would give a sense of happiness every time you sat in its presence. His approach to colour is what made Henri Matisse a stand out impressionist painter, but the way he utilised his skill and all that he had learned during the later years of his life is extraordinary. Because his mobility decreased dramatically with age, he utilised a different medium not only to create artwork, but also to bring his earlier life and the outside world back to him. He used his memory to create lagoons, coral reefs, gardens and movement within dancing figures. He reminded me that art is continuous exploration, no matter when and can be a wonderfully playful experience. I loved seeing kids run around this show with great excitement and happiness.

 

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition, Tate Modern, London, Britain - 14 Apr 2014

 

My most memorable travel experience this summer was visiting Pristine, Kosovo and travelling there on a 14 hour bus from Vienna.  This is no typical tourist route and with my washed out mum jeans and big backpack I certainly didn’t look like the average kosovian lady living in Vienna and going back to visit her family. I had taken longer bus journeys before but this was most definitely a journey into unknown lands and I was apprehensive, up until the point when I got to the bus and was greeted so kindly and openly by several people who would be travelling with me.

I was advised to sit in the middle section of the bus and felt very comfortable, especially as the bus drivers explained to me that the front of the bus is the smoking and socialising area. It really can’t be too bad if they smoke cigarettes and chat at the front of the bus. The journey was long, but amongst chatting, swapping food and some interesting stops at Serbian petrol stations, time flew by and before I knew it, 6am in the morning, I had made new friends and arrived in Pristine. Sleep deprived and slightly confused I was very happy to see my friend Odise arrive a few minutes after I had, and was promptly sat in a taxi. “Welcome to Baghdad” was the way he jokingly greeted me.

This short trip ended up being one packed with adventures, sight seeing and was above all, the most eye opening history lesson I have ever received. Growing up in Africa and then western Europe, I had heard of the atrocities happening in Bosnia and Albania on the news. My parents talked about it and I also had a friend who had fled from Bosnia to live in Vienna. But all this seemed more like an abstract idea, I could not imagine what had really happened. Odise had talked to me about his life before, but seeing it up close and personal really brought home the reality of what war, genocide and corruption mean.

That being said, what stood out to me the most was the vibrance, kindness and willpower within people that I encountered. Being lovers of music, all the bars and restaurants you go to in Pristine seem to be filled with live music and bands singing local tunes. I spent a night singing my heart out to Albanian folk songs, which are extremely catchy and surprisingly easy after a couple of Gin and tonics. I ate the most delicious and lovingly prepared home cooked meals, and let me tell you, the chickens just taste so much better for some reason. I spent a night in Skopje Macedonia, admiring a warrior on a horse,  a colossal fountain statue which is basically a huge middle finger to Greece. A poignant and provocative political statement. I think more conflicts should be handled this way.

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I feel I could and should write so much more, about my first experience going into a mosque and how gorgeous it was. But then I might never post this. So I will leave it at that and just say, I really can’t wait to go back.

 

 

 

Abramovic and 512 Hours at the Serpentine gallery

In 2014, Abramovic is known well beyond the circles of performance artists and art lovers. Marina Abramovic is a name. She hangs out with Lady Gaga and wears Givenchy. She has hit the big time, especially since her retrospetive at the MOMA in New York “The artist is present”.

In 1973, Abramovic performed her first piece ‘Rythm ten’. She used twenty knives and two tape recorders to play the “Russian game”. Rhythmic knife jabs are aimed between the splayed finger of her hand. She used every knife until she cut herself, then moved on to the next one after she recorded everything. She repeated this after going through 20 knives by trying to replicate her errors. Abramovic always aims to push herself mentally and physically, she is continuously testing her boundaries using her own body to explore state of conciousness as well as the limitations of the body.

She challenges her viewers, and in 1974 she invited the public to use any item she placed in the gallery on her as they saw fit. She came out of this performances in tears, dripping with blood.  As Abramovic described it later: “What I learned was that… if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.” … “I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly 6 hours, as planned, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”

512 hours is a far cry from the bloodied performance pieces the artist became known for, worlds away from where she started so many years ago. This exhibition is quiet and subtle, and Abramovic is the mother hen, guiding her visitors into a space of reflection, meditation and contemplation. Located in London, I find this piece really resonates with viewers living in the fast paced city from all corners of the world, no matter age, gender or race. I believe her interaction with visitors to the gallery is one of utmost importance in a place where we all constantly rush at an unreal pace. We all need some time to be still and reflect, something which is very often put on the back burner.Many may find her to have gone soft, others have called her a sell out. I believe Abramovic has not been afraid to age, develop and most importantly, she is still giving back to her viewer, in her own subtly powerful way.


Thoughts and opinions welcome.    marina-abramovic-7

Pi Artworks Retrospective Exhibition Nezaket Ekici

Since discovering Eastcastle Street early last year I have regularly visited this side street of small independent galleries tucked away behind the busy commercial buzz of Oxford Street.
In 1998 Pi Artworks was founded by Yesim Turanli and is a gallery that has been dedicated to introducing both Turkish and International contemporary artists to the growing art scene in Istanbul. In 2013, Pi Artworks opened the first Turkish gallery in London on Eastcastle Street. Their most recent exhibition, (After) Love at Last Sight, is the first solo UK Exhibition of Berlin based Turkish performance artist Nezaket Ekici.
The retrospective focuses on the last 13 years of Ekici’s work within performance art and begins with a 3 day live performance of the installation Emotion in Motion. Situated in the far right corner of the gallery space, the room is filled with the artist’s personal belongings. The white space is then covered in pink lipstick kisses by the artist over 3 days. This creates a surrealist replica of Ekici’s living room, a homage to intimate spaces and emotions. There is an apparent interplay between the private and the public space, a consciousness of space and its inhabitants. Even though the artist is no longer present at the time of my visit, her presence is indicated. The traces which have been left resonate beyond the momentary performance and turn art as a process into a semi-permanent piece.
Ekici is the central figure in most of her work, which is often exhaustive in its duration and contains repeated motions. Influences can clearly be traced back to earlier 21st century predecessors of performance, from Abramovic to Chris Burden, which is not surprising as her background includes 3 years of Study under Abramovic at Braunschweig University of Art (HBK). However, although this adds to her legitimacy in the performance field, she stands as an artist in her own right. Using humour and a vigorous personal presence to execute her artistic visions and her work feels surprisingly inclusive, removed from any narcissistic notions. This is largely due to the thematics in her work, addressing issues ranging from human rights, lines between reality and fiction, cultural as well as religious diversity and differences.
Pi Artworks makes a fitting introduction to an artist who deserves an international voice. She combines culturally significant philosophical ideologies and art of the 21st century with current relevant and important social issues, managing to do so with the strong momentary impact that performance and installation art should have. On-top of this, the execution of her work is strong enough to carry its impact beyond the performance or installation itself and the documentations of her work manage to hold most, if not all of the intended impact.
Artist website:
Address:
London
55 Eastcastle Street London W1W 8EG
Tel:+44 207 637 8403
nezaket-ekici
“Emotion in Motion,” performance artist Nezaket Ekici’s 2000 work, was performed again at Pi Artworks, London. (Photo: Prash Guru)
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Artist Focus: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Although I have never had the chance to see an exhibited retrospective of his work, the few times I have seen one of his works and ever since I have seen recorded versions of them, I have been fascinated with the images that Jean-Michel Basquiat created. Similarly to the way that Keith Harings work entrances me visually with its simple elegance and ease, the images that Basquiat created always seem to me to be hypnotic, natural and completely liberated. Perhaps it is quite natural to draw some parallels between these two artists, even if at first obvious glance their styles differ, much of their artistic drive and motivation stem from social ideas and popular culture which surrounded them. Harings art was deeply socialy motivated, he explored themes of sexuality and sexual identity, HIV and poverty. Basquiat similarly explored social inequality, heritage and heroism. These artist where both active street artists who gained critical acclaim during their lifetimes and died very young.

But back to Basquiat. There are a few things I wanted to address which I really enjoy about this artist. The first thing which I only recently learned is that Basquiat was self taught. The fact that he never went to art school and learned the ‘proper way’ of doing things and yet still managed to create the work that he did fascinates me. It is even more astonishing however, that he managed to gain the level of fame that he did, at such a young age and so quickly. He was not limited to any specific imagery or media, he worked on anything, with anything and made works that incorporated abstract, illustrative and writing in one. I also love the vibrancy of his work, this kind of, ‘fuck it’ radical exuberance that just jumps out at you from the paintings and captivates you. 

I started doing art classes with kids this summer and I think it has really changed the way I view creative process and what is ‘beautiful’. Maybe more so than change it, it has reminded me what it really is, and I think I see that in Basquiat, and I love it. 

Check out both of these artists and read more about them, you won’t be disappointed. 

some different ideas such as sexuality and sexual identity and Basquiat similarly worked with images of heroism, injustice, social inequality etc. The two artists were both active street artist who worked in New York, each died before their time. 

Basquiat was a self taught artist who was not only a talented artist but also loved poetry and music. 

 

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Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring

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Jean-Michel Basquiat, Philistines, 1982

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Keith Haring, Brazil, 1989

Frieze London 2013

I had mixed thoughts on the Frieze Art Fair, and originally had not planned on going, as dishing out 50 pounds for a fair just seemed a bit much. Considering the profit they are making anyway, it is a bit of an outrage to expect the general public to pay this kind of money. On top of this I have come down with a lovely flu which has left me coughing my lungs out and feeling generally unwell.

But my gorgeous friend Shilpika had some free tickets and as I had not seen her in ages, it seemed like an opportunity which should not be missed. It was lovely to catch up and have a good girly chat, and in the end, the art wasn’t too shabby either.

The truth is, Frieze is a bit of a meat market for art, it is VERY commercial. I felt slightly uncomfortable at times and tried to retain a critical view. I do believe that art should be commercially valued and that artists should be able to make a living from what they do. The only problem is that true art should not be made for the sake of making a buck. It should be about the creative process, a statement, the creation of something new, the expression of something deeper, a reflection of society etc.  And of course there should be ways of being able to market this and more importantly, for me personally, the art should be viewed, appreciated and critiqued by the general public.

Personally my main issue with Frieze, is the elitism that goes along with it. It isn’t about the amount of money being spent on art. It is about the fact that art is being dealt as a pure commodity and item for the super wealthy. If the fair was more accessible (cheaper entry prices for starters) I think I would agree with it much more than I do now.

On the other hand, I would like to say that I did see some wonderful art by some very talented artists. I also enjoyed the more international aspect of the fair. Being able to see art from some of the best galleries ranging from New York to Berlin all in one day was a wonderful experience. By far my favorite discovery where two Viennese galleries which I had not known about. I am always excited about going back to Vienna but knowing of these two galleries gives me a new discovery to make when I go back home.

http://www.meyerkainer.com/

http://galerie-krinzinger.at/

I’ll end my ramblings for today on that positive note and attach some pictures from my day of adventures: