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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