For a talk that will focus on two of the most notorious nudes in art history, I will begin by recalling that for the nude to constitute a provocation, human society must prefer its concealment. Why it does is the topic of a book I have written, but it is notable that the nude constitutes the overwhelming master narrative of art despite its veiling since the reputed fall from Eden into culture. Therefore, masterpiece-status nudes have been approved by the cultures in which they were exhibited and by the subsequent centuries. I must also sidenote before I proceed that I have dedicated my career as an artist to the study and the liberation of the female (fecund) nude.
Early on, Western culture, starting with ancient Greek culture, posited a mathematically harmonious nude based on Pythagorean and Vitruvian theories of harmony. The perfect hand, wrist, chin, breast, ass, constituted an artificial whole designed to represent the image 4th century BCE wanted to have of itself. The masterpiece-status statues of Greece had no models, which is why they came to define a universal concept of beauty. Mosre often than not, the female nude would lean on one leg, extending the curve of her hip upward to meet the curve of a breast while an opposite curve indicated the ribcage between them, her beauty thus unfolding in the shape of an ess (S). The still body evoked undulation and subtle motion, in effect, sensuousness and desirability frozen in space, enhanced by irrealism. The nudes held their draperies away from their bodies for the viewer to admire their mathematical proportions which thus established the erotic identity of whatshould be the desirable standard. Conformity made the classical nude the ideal woman: one who, despite her coy and curvaceous appearance, was literally inaccessible, unavailable on earth.
The classical Greek nude is impersonal — that is her allure. Put on a pedestal, raised above the viewer, the classical figure is gazed up at from below. It is a stone statue that has no openings or orifices. In other words, the beautiful nude retains her interior mystery, embodying the unattainable which some came to call the divine. The artist who wants to freeze and frame the moment of erotic recognition acknowledges by doing so the inherent loss of the object, which is why it has often been said that Greek nudes have the look of constantly being looked at and never touched.
The elaborate history of the female nude in art is really the province of what art theorists have come to call the male gaze. It is an overarching history because of the longevity of the form, which we owe to both the male artists who drew, sculpted and painted female nudes, and to the men who wrote the history of their attempts to do so for several hundred years. The gaze per se, as we now mean it, is a psychoanalytic construct posited by the 20th century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, known as the most controversial psychoanalyst sice Freud. Lacan’s name will reappear in this talk as an art collector who serendipitously happened to own the famous Courbet painting on which I will focus. For now let me say, in an absurdly abbreviated summary, that Lacan formulated a theory of child development based on Freud, and one of his central themes is the concept of the gaze; the gaze symbolizes the child’s narcissistic need for others in order to unify itself as a being in the world. By seeing itself in a mirror, the child first sees itself as something other than a self, and delights in seeing itself as an object for others to admire. The gaze unconsciously organizes our narrative of social development. The understanding of oneself as an image in the world for others enables each child to fulfill narcissistic needs even as it integrates those into a wider understanding of the need for others in the world, as well as the inevitability of others. In part, Lacan’s concept of the maturing gaze is influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre, and the inevitability of others that causes the human gaze to mature can be understood via Sartre’s famous statement: “Hell is other people.”
Elaborating from this concept of the gaze, in 1975 Laura Mulvey introduced the concept of the male gaze in her article “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” She argued that a film audience can only read a film by identifying with a heterosexual male protagonist as he comes to desire a leading female figure in the story. With that generalization, Mulvey intends to emphasize that an overwhelming number of films, and virtually all master narratives in film, are made by men with men’s money for the pleasure of men, who earn the income to form an audience that includes their wives and girlfriends, who might become more like the wives or girlfriends seen in the movies if they watch the movies. A director directs our vision to the protagonist’s vision as he scrutinizes, evaluates and judges a woman in the film to be an object of his desire. If he falls in love with her, so do we — or we have misread the movie, or the director is incompetent, or the director is out of the mainstream. Laura Mulvey’s point was that the audience must identify with the male gaze to work its way through the film. In reply to numerous articles taking exception to her theory, in 1981 she revised her argument to suggest that the only way a female audience member could read the male gaze was by “a masochistic identification of the female object” or by an act of aesthetic transsexualism, by becoming a faux purveyor of the male gaze. By now the concept of the normative male gaze, and the mainstream vocabularies attending it, have become standard in critiques of culture, and nowhere more useful than in discussions of the female nude in art, and by extension the female nude in popular culture.
Applying the concept of the male gaze to visual art in general, the scholar Griselda Pollock suggests that we know a male gaze is present when a nude female in a work of art is objectified. The male gaze expresses the psychosexual longings of the male-seeing artist and his male-seeing viewers by insisting that the female body exhibits its otherness from the male. The artist, irrespective of his or her gender, is always telling the story of the female’s mystery. Most often, the artist places her in surroundings that frame his desire or awe of her — beds, brothels, dance halls, boudoirs, bathtubs, woodlands, artist’s studios, and in front of mirrors so the female other can display the imagined vanity that makes her doubly mysterious to the artists who want to paint her, and paint her vanity, in a compulsive effort to comprehend her and demystify her.
So tonight I want us to look at works that comprise masterpieces of the female nude not only because of their greatness or importance, but because the way each of these paintings implicates the viewer in relation to the nude tells us much about how art works in general, how cultures differ and change, and how our expectations influence what we see when we see art. The theme of the history of the nude is first and foremost the story of the viewer’s response to nudity, itself a changing subject from culture to culture and era to era, so that the viewer is never the same even though the viewer is always positioned as every other viewer who came before.
The history of the nude, which may not be distinguishable from the history of writing about the nude, is primarily occupied with defining or redefining beauty. This consistency alone determines that there is no beauty without its decay and death. For a form as obsessive within each culture as the nude has always been, its fate must be linked to a collective sense of self as surely as national pride. Are we looking for an adequate representation of ourselves to ourselves? Are we adequately representing the failure to represent a collective, the way Greek art was sustained by a collective definition of self? Who are we when we represent ourselves and each other to ourselves and each other? In short, who is the gaze for if not for me? Who is being seen when I look at a nude if not myself?
To answer these questions, I’m going to tell the story of the most notorious painting in Western art, the painting Robert Hughes has called “the most transgressive work of the 19th century.” In order to do it justice at all, I must first place it in the context of some famous nudes that preceded it, the paintings that established and revised the tradition.
If we look for a moment at Titian’s Venus of Urbino, painted in 1532–38, we see a modest woman, confident in her beauty, casual about her nudity, whose servants are rifling a trunk in search of her clothes. She holds a nosegay of flowers, a gift from a suitor perhaps, and has her dog — a symbol of loyalty — asleep at her feet. She reclines on a daybed of red that has been covered with linen, a daybed placed behind a screen that has itself a green drape across it. Titian’s Venus is in a secluded spot in her palazzo with the sun going down outside her window. Though she appears to be someone’s lover, her frank gaze at the viewer is disarmed by her modest hand that covers her private parts. What speaks to the past is the perfection of her proportions, her golden hue of youth, the grace of her hands and feet, the roundness of her breasts; she is elegantly, classically, proportioned. What dates the painting in the Renaissance, and what makes it among the great nudes of all time, is the humanity of her facial expression. She has the eyes and mouth of a contemporary, not of a mythic figure and not of a painted sculpture. The casualness of her hair against her radiant body resolves the tension concerning what she is preparing for or whom she is expecting. Titian here establishes the hencetofore familiar irony in the tradition of the female nude, namely the viewer’s concern over how the figure looks out of the painting at her audience. This painting turns us toward modernity by its frankness, though it preserves the idea of perfection. This Venus is not a natural nude, but her easy confidence acts as if she is.
If we look now at Velasquez’s Venus at her toilet, otherwise known as the Rokeby Venus, painted in 1651, we find that the simple ideal perfections have been complicated. This Venus gazes at us from her mirror, where she is gazing at her beauty. We see her reflected face, while we also see her vulnerable S-shaped backside, which she cannot see. She can see, if she adjusts her mirror, her, her full frontal nudity denied the viewer. From our vantage that sees her face in reflection, the reflection seems to be looking at her, thereby establishing the vanity and narcissism of which Velasquez is critical, without however suggesting that Venus is anything but beautiful. And the confidence of the painter deliberately exceeds that of his subject, because he provides the viewer with a wide horizon of beautiful backside. His Venus enjoys her reflection almost as much as the reflection enjoys her, but only we can judge what she cannot see. Velasquez uses the grammar of the nude against itself, by showing the insecurity of this vain Venus. If she were confident, says the painting, she would be facing us, as does Titian’s Venus, so Velasquez raises the stakes regarding the nude by addressing the tradition of facing the audience, and raising the issue of the viewer as intruder and voyeur. The artist acknowledges the fourth wall, as if his Venus knows people are looking at her — which is one of the reasons art theory refers to the passing viewer as the beholder and the spectator.
I will now conclude my concealment of the main attraction by considering two famous works that are contemporaneous with it: Manet’s Olympia and his Luncheon on the grass, both painted in 1863. The nude’s name Olympia ironically refers to the goddesses of ancient Greece, who resided on Mt. Olympus. Manet’s goddess resides on the same daybed, before the same screen and even the same green drapery as Titian’s Venus. What is new here is that the female nude has opened her gown and removed it while she meets our gaze directly. Ours is the gaze of the suitor who has brought her the bouquet of flowers. The flower in her hair, the ribbon at her throat, the slippers still on her feet, speak not of a confident or even amorous nude as the ones we have seen before, but of a commodity: a concubine. It is also true, with Manet, that the nude does not gaze at us so much as stare, pointedly. At the time the painting appeared in 1863, it was castigated for Manet’s use of paint as loose and haphazard, in itself an implicit criticism of the loose woman at whom the viewer may not be gazing at so much as staring back, probably in shock. The nude herself was viewed by the critics of the time as a short-legged gorilla, because of a line of hair running along her belly as well as inexplicable shadows along her thighs. The candor of her expression is not one of pleasure, or even interest in the beholder, and, unlike the modesty we expect in the traditional nude, Olympia does not cup her hand to cover her genitals. Instead, her short, clubby fingers are spread open, in invitation, and the right hand still holding the gown is apparently responsible for opening it to the viewer, just as the fingers of the right hand direct us to the thick long fringe of the gown, itself more like human hair than the pasted, pinned hair on Olympia’s head. Is it the displaced or concealed fringe we can expect to find under the open hand? Does it allude to her pubic hair? Contemporary critics of the painting wondered why anyone would want to see such a lowly ‘ape-like creature.’ Manet’s realism was more social than psychological. Even in the curious appearance of a black maid at the vanishing point of the painting, Manet refers us to a modern and alienating eroticism. This is no palazzo, and that is no lady in love or ardent mistress; she is a displayed prostitute available to anybody who can afford her intimacy. In fact, her strength is her frankness; she owns her body because she gets to sell it. She hasn’t married it away. She is capitalizing on it, flaunting the unholy binds between money and sex enforced by traditional patriarchy to ensure its perpetuation.
At a different register, the nude in Luncheon on the grass is comfortably, confidently nude in the company of the dressed men beside her. She meets our gaze with her chin in hand, casually but thoughtfully, as if interrupted during an intellectual conversation in the most natural of settings. Even more shockingly, she is outdoors, lying naked in public, and that is not her only provocation, because she is surrounded by overly dressed and mannered men of more than one ethnicity. But for the public venue, her nudity among dressed men could be said to resemble the artist’s studio on any given day. Again Manet’s audience was outraged by his painting, this time by the intelligence in the woman’s face, and by her utter indifference to public mores, similar to the indifference in Olympia, though lacking Olympia’s hardness. The freedom of the nude causes the provocation. Manet used the same model for both nudes, his sister-in-law Berthe Morisot, who is today among the most celebrated painters of the 19th century, due to her association with Manet and the dearth of women artists in that era, though her own paintings depict domestic scenes, full of interiors and quiet moments among women and children. We don’t know if she wanted to paint nudes of her own, perhaps even of her brother-in-law, who is the man next to her at the picnic. One thing we can discern from the reception of nudes in history is that the more natural the nude, and the more human the expression, the more anger and derision culture mongers have expressed; which brings us to Gustave Courbet and his masterpiece.
Already in 1844, twenty years before Manet’s Olympia, Courbet had staked his claim, where the nude was concerned, in his painting Bacchante, which depicts a sleeping maenad apparently having drunk too much, having frolicked too much, and therefore having passed out, not in a mythic or a generic woodland, but on a vibrant red blanket or man’s cloak surrounded by the trunk bases of enormous shading trees. She lies hidden in nature. What distinguishes this nude from those that have come before it is, first of all, the foreshortening, which affords the viewer a revolutionary vantage of her body, by which I mean not only are we at an angle we would be at if we were coming towards her while she sleeps, say to take advantage of her nudity abandoned thoughtlessly as it is in nature, but we are at an angle that affords us the best fullest view of her full-bodied curvaceousness from head to toe. She is nothing but curves of flesh — head, shoulders, arms, breasts, ribcage, hips, belly, thighs, knees. This angle even allows us to consider her heavy eyebrows and strong chin without at the same time thinking her masculine. The critic Michael Fried has written that this painting is suggestive of a “post-coital aftermath.” I believe this is true more in the form of a sleeper’s memory than in the aftermath of a recent sexual encounter. The painting’s title certainly refers to more than getting drunk in the forest as Bacchantes participated in bacchanalia, or dionysian orgies in forest grooves. The red cloth, which we see in more Courbet paintings, surrounds the nude with liquefaction, and while it may allude to sex itself, it separates this so-called maenad from her mythic counterparts. Her face and body are contemporary in their sturdiness, though in the way they are lit we are put in mind of masterwork techniques, as we are by the brush and palette-knife work, a decision we see time and again in Courbet’s nudes. The artist showcases his mastery of his medium flamboyantly but disdains the traditional effects of those techniques and instead utilizes them to subvert aristocratic elegance and to showcase republican realism.
As with most of Courbet’s eroticized nudes, his Reclining Nude of 1862–this was the decade of the many great nudes by him — is also asleep and thereby available, in effect spied upon by the viewer who sees she has fallen asleep with her stockings on, a slipper on one foot, and wearing an earring. Her shawl or chemise has fallen open so that we see the full glowing big-bellied and big-thighed body thrust forward against the dark brocade draperies beside the window. Her arm across her neck thrusts her breasts toward us, and reveals the hair of her underarm. Courbet has taken a traditional setting for the nude and turned it into a provocation by showing us misplaced stockings and shoes and hair where we are not accustomed to finding them. They rub against the innocence of the sleeping nude, suggesting a grammar of male fetishes even as they beg the questions, why are the stockings there, why are they partially rolled down, why the shoe, where has the other earring fallen? What kind of siesta preparation is this? Why are we seeing the hair of an underarm — is it the misplaced pubic hair this nude nearly shows us, as the Bacchante nearly showed us, as Manet’s Olympia a year later nearly showed us? Sleep makes Courbet’s nudes safer for the male gaze to peruse, objectify, take its time with, and eroticize. As in all Courbet’s major nudes, his shocking decision to light provocative material the way Caravaggio lit biblical scenes stands out. Many of his nudes were copied from photographs that got their photographer, Auguste Belloc, arrested. The lighting that places this reclining nude so starkly against her background reminds us of the garish lighting used in the daguerrotypes on which Courbet reputedly relied for his paintings.
Sleepers, painted in 1866, the same year, and for the same client who commissioned Origin of the world, reiterates not only the erotic sleep of the female nude as at least interpreted by the viewing gaze but also offers the evidence that we have arrived too late to see the sexual adventure. The two lesbian lovers are asleep in each other’s arms and legs — again, there are curves everywhere — and beside them on a table are a wineglass and a carafe. The right hand of the dark-haired lover touches the dark pink inside fold of the coverlet, which directs our attention to the broken strand of pearls, whose missing two can be found, beside a barrette, at the bottom of the sheet next to the lovers’ feet. The pearls evoke vaginal fluids. This has been a passionate encounter between young nudes of different hues. The pearl necklace that has been broken is the proof of the sexual bliss, why the redhead holds the calf of the voluptuous brunette in her hand — so that she will not slip away, so that they can feel each other’s flesh and pulsing blood in their sleep. As with other erotically charged Courbet paintings, we are presented the afterglow of sexual reveries. By 1866, Courbet was viewed as a dangerous man by both government and church, and his exhibitions, for which he charged an entry fee, were monitored by police. Despite the known eroticism of his nudes, until 1866 Courbet had maintained one feature of the long tradition by concealing the female genitals, instead alluding to them elsewhere in his paintings, or positioning his figures so that modesty was irrelevant, and indeed, as in the paintings we’ve just seen, the concealment retained for the works a lyricism for which Courbet was admired most, a lyricism also prominent in his famous self-portraits of despair and madness that began his mature work. Until Origin of the world, neither Courbet nor any other serious Western painter dared to combine the idea of transgressing against society at the same time as he viscerally challenged our sensibility. And even Courbet only did it for a private party.
The private party was Khalil Bey, a wealthy Turkish-Egyptian Ottoman diplomat living in Paris, who commissioned Courbet to paint an erotic work that would only be seen in private by him and his friends. Courbet painted it for a large unknown sum, and, out of fear of the authorities, he did not sign it. Khalil Bey had negotiated the end to the Crimean War as ambassador to Athens and St. Petersburg on which posts he had begun collecting. When he retired in a private capacity to Paris in the 1860s, he became a gambler, art collector and patron. He kept the painting, which measures 18" by 21 1/2", behind a green veil in his apartments, in windowless rooms called toilet rooms that adjoined his dining rooms. To show it, he would remove the veil and announce, like a master of ceremonies, “It’s a Courbet.” The guests who saw it never forgot the experience and described being utterly “stupefied by the debauching life-size frontal-view filth” they had been confronted by. Most wrote this of it: “No, I would never say what I saw behind the veil.” Poems were written about it. I quote a couple of lines from one such, titled “On a Picture from the Khalil-Bey Collection”: “Do not lift the curtain/ that hides this image from your eyes. ..It’s this that makes you stop before your time,/ turning your hair from black to white. /It’s this that eats away your teeth, /..All hail from miles around,/ all bow down.. /for, to our shame, alas, /it’s this that make the world go round.” Critics like Maxine du Camp, who attacked Courbet in anti-Commune tirades at Les Convulsions de Paris, took great objection to the contemptible action of painting such an unseemly canvas of a French woman for a Muslim, and equated such obscenity with political disorder. When Courbet refused the Legion of Honor in 1870, “the little monstrosity hidden behind a little curtain” was attacked in the press.
Two years later, in 1868, the extravagant Khalil Bey went broke and auctioned off his collection of 80 paintings — all but Courbet’s Sleepers and Origin of the world which went to unidentified private buyers. Bey became Ottoman ambassador to Vienna, leaving Paris before the Franco-Prussian war, then moved to Constantinople where he married the daughter of a prominent reformer, and returned to Paris in 1877 as Ottoman ambassador. By then the Origin of the World had disappeared. He reportedly asked after the original buyers but his inquiries took him nowhere.
The Origin of the World resurfaced from the abyss in January 1889 in the shop of Antoine de la Narde, a gallery owner specializing in Far Eastern art, who showed it to the famous critic Edmond de Goncourt, who had despised Courbet, by now dead for eleven years, having died tragically at the age of 59. By then the Origin was hidden behind another Courbet, a painting of a chateau in winter called Chateau de Blonay. La Narde unlocked the painting with a key, lifted the outside panel that showed a village church in the snow, and revealed the hidden panel that showed the dark prominent mons veneris. Now Courbet was hiding Courbet. Upon seeing Origin, still notorious despite having disappeared for twenty years, Goncourt said that he owed Courbet an apology, for the belly in the painting was the most beautiful belly since Correggio, though which Correggio we don’t know.
The double painting resurfaced again 24 years later, in November of 1912, when the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune bought it from a Mme Vial who had inherited it from Emile Vial, a scientist and collector of Japanese art who had purchased it from La Narde. In June 1913 the dual acquisition was sold by the gallery to Baron Herzog who kept the chateau in winter and sold the Origin of the World to his friend Baron Ferene Hatvany, a Hungarian Jewish industrialist and a painter himself who also owned Reclining Nude as part of his 800 piece art collection. When the Nazis invaded Hungary 30 years later, the Baron hid the best of his collection in bank vaults in banks specifically not owned by Jews, in order to protect the art, having guessed that the Nazis would only steal the art and jewelry they found in Jewish banks and homes. However, in February 1945, the Soviet Army found the Courbet along with the rest of the Baron’s collection in the Hungarian Commercial Bank in Pest, and began to transfer it to Moscow. Wanting to save at least the Origin of the world, the Baron persuaded his friend, Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish diplomat who had saved as many as 15,000 Jews during the war, to intercede with the Soviet general in charge. The Baron paid a handsome bribe and the Courbet left Hungary for Paris, as did the Baron. Wallenberg was arrested within a week. He was imprisoned in Moscow and two years later was shot on Stalin’s orders. He was thirty-four years old.
In 1954, after the Baron’s death, the painting was sold to the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his wife Sylvia, who had previously been married to the novelist and erotic philosopher Georges Bataille. Housing the painting in a separate building at his country estate, Lacan wanted to protect it from both thieves and the police, so he had his brother-in-law, the painter Andre Masson, draw an abstract landscape of large strokes vaguely reproducing Courbet’s open thighs and Courbet’s grotto landscapes on a brown background painted on a thin plane which was placed in a heavy gilt frame. Lacan would announce to his select guests, “I am now going to show you something extraordinary,” slip the thin panel out of the frame to reveal the detailed, magnificently executed close-up of a plump woman’s genitals, and say, “It’s a Courbet”. As he learned of the painting’s history of concealment, starting with Courbet’s refusal to sign it, Lacan also wrote a seminal lecture titled “The function of the veil,” where he states the concept that “the curtain placed in front of something, or the veil in front of the body, enables us better to imagine the importance of love of the object.” The veil reveals the invincibility (not invisibility) of society’s cloaking of the nude in countless inventive ways. The curtain’s presence symbolizes our desire to love, and therefore to idolize the image it conceals. The more hidden and taboo the object of our love, the more it can become a subject and deserve our respect. Love is easier to give than respect. As the prime thinker and mover in the concept of the gaze, it seemed appropriate that Lacan own and protect the most notorious challenge to the role of the spectator and viewer in the history of Western art.
Before I proceed with the history of the painting, I want to focus on the work itself. This is the painting that the official history of the female nude scrupulously avoided for centuries. Courbet’s “headless torso” supplants the tradition of the classical nude with the body part that has been displaced and symbolized for thousands of years; therefore it must be the body part that most instills desire and fear — which was Aristotle’s definition of the “awe’ produced by a true artistic masterpiece — and of course reiterates the history of the nude as the history of a male preoccupation. For Courbet to paint the forbidden subject elegantly only enhanced the taboo. Even his detractors respected his talent, so that for Courbet to paint the great male mystery, in effect the cultural mystery of all time, was to risk transforming muted desire into open disgust. In case you think I’m overstating this, it was not until 1995 that the French government, which by then owned the painting through a gift from Lacan’s widow, placed Courbet’s painting on permanent display at the Musee d’Orsay, at last rendering the painting into an artwork that nothing could render banal. Up to then, it was publicly shown only once, in Brooklyn in 1988, at the instigation of Linda Nochlin, for the first time officially restored to its creator, to test the waters of public outrage outside France.
Courbet’s painting was quarantined for 130 years, consistently concealed, yet never destroyed. The issue of its obscenity has never been severed from its extraordinary quality. It is its brilliance that has tested people’s nerves, and, because of it, it can not be ignored or destroyed. The strategy of placing nothing but the most extreme and therefore absent anatomical part in the history of painting in the viewer’s face brings to the fore all the issues of audience, painter and subject that have been discussed since the first nude female smiled from a neolithic temple fresco. In her work on pornography, Linda Williams has come close to explain the prolonged discomfort so many viewers felt in the presence of Courbet’s painting. She has described “the history of pornography as the history of visual strategies to overcome the anatomical invisibility of the female orgasm.” This is relevant to the Courbet insofar as the gossip surrounding the painting in its time, rumors by satirists who had not seen it, was that Courbet’s realism had extended to being able to paint the female orgasm, and that since the model had had an orgasm for Courbet to paint, she must have been a prostitute. In fact, as was his common practice, Courbet painted from a photograph, which we have. There doesn’t seem to be an orgasm anywhere.
Though we can recognize Origin of the world as the culmination of decades of progressively more modern nudes, it is clearly most disturbing because its matter-of-factness equals its lyricism. John Updike has referred to the pubic hair in the painting as a Rorschach blot, and the modern art critic Roger Scruton has called the painting “a lower portrait.” The social context shouldn’t be lost. There were courtesans of great renown, called les grandes horizontales, one of whom, for instance, served herself to her richest clients on a large silver platter. These were the subjects of most erotic art at the time, and to some extent are reflected in Manet’s Olympia. On the other hand, there were common prostitutes who often modeled for artists — known as lunettes, or mooners, because their buttocks were often unusually round and large, evoking faux classicism or Renaissance fecundity. Courbet worked among these nude outsiders, the low culture society fears most. What makes Courbet’s Origin even more provocative than its subject is our angle of incidence, meaning we view the open legs of the nude as an approaching lover would. As with Bacchante of 1844, Origin’s vantage is that of a voyeur, so that we are violating the privacy of this genitalia, just as we violated the privacy of the sleeping nudes, as we did not violate the privacy of the nudes who stared straight back, or who invited us to violate their privacy.
As a result, Origin is arguably the most intimate nude ever painted, despite the absence of facial expression, the position of hands, the accoutrements or furnishings of real life or artistic tradition. While it does not depict the invisible female orgasm, as its contemporary attackers claimed, it depicts the site of one. It shows its audience not merely the arena of sexual pleasure, and where babies come from — it presents a realized and resolved sexual image that is as lyrical and desirable as the fantasies it evokes. That is, Courbet did not paint a gynecological study — though later a playful forgery and exact copy appeared in an obscure obstetrical journal — he painted the sexual longing of the voyeur and the lover, one of the reasons why Michael Fried sees the painting as Courbet’s most courageous attempt to merge artist, subject and viewer into one. He demystified the mystery at the heart of painting the nude. The opened thighs are an invitation, a picture plane where artist, image and viewer touch each other. This is not a “touchy-feely” heart-opening experience, however; as all acts of dramatic revelation, which literally means unveiling, this is an act of aggression, of transcendence, and, lest you assume Courbet wants to mingle with his audience, by painting this piece he meant that “the only place we can meet is inside my artwork.”
Though Courbet did not sign the painting, and it is from the study of it and its history that we know it is by Courbet, the painter did acknowledge it once at a dinner party, shortly after its owner began showing it to friends. A dinner guest had seen it, and noted to Courbet that Khalil Bey said that he, Courbet, was the artist, at which point Courbet excitedly exclaimed that Titian, Veronese, Raphael, even he himself, Courbet, could not imagine doing it. He then remarked that the painting should be referred to as Origin of the world. As to its meaning to Khalil Bey, we can only guess, but some historians have noted that its pornographic association might have been muted by the fact that Khalil Bey had contracted a very noticeable and deteriorating syphilis, so that whenever he saw the painting he must have seen not only the breasts and belly and thighs of an anonymous woman, but the source of his deadly illness as well. It was suggested that the painting had been an ex-voto, a magic talisman, acquired to thwart the malady. It was at this time that the governments throughout Europe began to warn citizens of health hazards associated with the poor and the social outsider, so that Courbet’s painting speaks not only to sexuality but to the constant socially-sanctioned efforts to censor and control it, fearing sexual chaos could cause social revolution. In a sense, by fetishizing the hidden female genitalia, Courbet transgresses against realism itself. The exposure is spontaneous, voluntary, willful, stubborn and in-your-face — empowering the nude female over the male viewer. It is a pudendum that has the look of being looked at. There is no facial expression, but the image gazes back at the beholder.
The source for the painting is less the photograph, and his previous nudes, and more his numerous grotto and cave paintings, in which the hidden and dark interior opens out toward the viewer in waters that flow only in his direction. In fact, all of Courbet’s seascapes and caves and grottos depict water coming toward the spectator, possibly alluding to female ejaculate, and, where the caves are concerned, they are always buttressed at left and right by thigh-like hills or mountains. So the source of the most notorious nude in history is a series of forgettable landscapes.
Is the painting beautiful? Erotic? Is it cold? Is it analytical? Is it insulting? Is it obscene? Is it sexist? We are reminded that it is easier to have strong opinions about art when art refers to things outside itself. Nothing is more urgent in most viewers’ judgment than their sense of violation or shame, their moral indignation. Through the decades, viewers have noted that Origin is anatomically incorrect, that in fact Courbet left out the labia and concealed the clitoral hood; they account for these decisions as the artist not wanting the viewer to think of anatomy but of effect, not of realism but of sensuality. Critical viewers at the time said Courbet forgot the small bits because the once incredibly beautiful young painter had become a hermit by 1866 whose obesity made him odious to women. In fact, he was being consistent in his aesthetic: by obfuscating a few details that would force us to remain outside the painting, Courbet’s lyricism invites us in. Voyeurs and lovers don’t take inventory. Courbet wants the effect of realism: look closely, he says, it’s just like being there.
Is the painting is an instance of the ‘sublime’? That it is not about beauty, and therefore it disquiets us with a sense that the painting implies more than the image should be able to bear? What causes a beholder to suffer an experience of the sublime is a spontaneous recognition of the force of a pure presence, mostly found in wild nature. The sublime strikes like lightning, overwhelming us with its instant of arrival. The sublime menaces us because it is absolute, excessive, timeless and formless.
Nothing in nature or art is inherently sublime, said the philosopher Immanuel Kant who first introduced the concept; but we involuntarily attach the idea to something that creates a sense of danger, and of ambivalence, because we do it to ourselves. Kant said the sublime presents to us “delirium” as well as “finality” — which together cause a “transparent, immediate tumult.” We suffer the experience of forgetting boundaries; we undergo anxiety, vertigo. The world loses its frame when we sense the sublime, which in Courbet, for example, we can find in his Romantic self-portraits The Desperate Man and Man driven mad by fear, of 1843.
When the painting was in Jacques Lacan’s possession, many notable writers and artists saw it. They watched him ceremoniously lift the drawing by Andre Masson to reveal the infamous little painting nestling behind it. The unveiling act echoed the intimate ritual of undressing a lover before a circle of voyeurs. One of the visitors actually reproduced the painting from memory, so that his own guests could see what the Courbet looked like. You weren’t seeing the Courbet, but you were seeing what you would be seeing if you were seeing the Courbet through this specific viewer’s eyes. The artist was Rene Magritte. It was one of his many copies of the erotic painting that was reproduced in the obstetric and gynecological journal.
By then it was considered a great cultural honor, and act of intellectual respect, to be invited by the philosopher to see the great painting, and not being invited was a way for Lacan to let his peers know how he felt about them. Dora Maar, Picasso’s mistress, saw the painting, but not Picasso — because Lacan, as Dora’s psychoanalyst, was cognizant of the psychic damage Picasso had done to her. It was Pablo Picasso who had brought Dora to Lacan, complaining that she was no longer the masochist he had fallen for, and had hired him to fix her back to blind, besotted obedience.
Among the guests to Lacan’s country house was Marcel Duchamp, in 1958. Duchamp had begun a secret art project 12 years before, one that would take him 20 years to complete, and would not be shown until after his death in 1968, when he was 81. By the time he saw the Courbet, which he had of course heard about, he had made a small plaster cast of a woman’s body — an homage to a Brazilian sculptor named Maria Martins whom he loved from the early 1940s until his death, though she ended their affair in the early 50’s, returning to Brazil with her husband and children, after her art career in New York fizzled. The cast of the female nude was presented in a sculpture composed of an old wooden door, nails, bricks, brass, aluminium sheet, steel binder clips, velvet, leaves, twigs, a female nude made of parchment, hair, glass, plastic clothespins, oil paint, linoleum, an assortment of lights, a landscape composed of hand-painted and photographed elements and an electric motor housed in a cookie tin which rotates a perforated disc. Reportedly the plaster cast was taken from an actual mold of Maria Martins’ body while his second wife, Alexina (Teeny) served as the model for the nude figure’s arm.
In his playful subversive effort to attack the very notion of the art museum, Duchamp constructed throughout his working life 300 items he called La boite-en-valise (Box in a Suitcase), 300 separate wooden cases that opened up and out, and included 79 drawings, sketches, notes, and postcard reproductions of works by Duchamp. The owner of a box had a portable Duchamp museum, or, put another way, as Duchamp did, you’d find Duchamp in every possible “box,” referring to the slang in both French and English for the vagina. As with the mustache Duchamp had painted on his reproduction of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, or the public urinal which he signed R. Mutt and placed on exhibit, the Box in a Suitcase series demonstrated his restlessness with the boundaries and nomenclatures of publicly acceptable art. He created an alter ego in drag that Man Ray photographed, calling himself Rose Selavy: Rose That’s-life (c’est la vie). One of his exhibitions consisted of a chess match, in which he played in a suit opposite a voluptuous nude woman, Eve Babitz, challenging both the chess-lover’s and the museum-goer’s capacity to focus, to know what was important, to tell nature from art, to define art. He thereby introduced conceptual art.
The whimsy of his aesthetic belies Duchamp’s visceral discomfort with limits and with permanence. He feared that, if galleries and museums decided what was and was not art, they would become the same oppressive authority he had fled in France. In speaking against the tyranny of museums, Duchamp became the great anti-authoritarian authority and therefore an icon by the 1960s. His critique of culture extended to the 1942 Surrealism in Exile show in New York City. His contribution was to entangle the entire show in a mile of string, so that guests could not view the works without navigating his obstacle course.
When he began the Box in a Suitcase series, Duchamp lived out of a suitcase in Nazi-occupied Marseilles. In the disguise of a traveling cheese salesman, Duchamp trained back and forth from Paris for two years, carrying photos and brochures regarding cheeses mixed in with the reproductions of his art, which had been banned by the Vichy government. Eventually he filled numerous suitcases with his reproductions and fled France for New York, taking a safer route than the critic Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide at the Spanish border, and whom I mention only because his most famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, gave Duchamp the origin of his aesthetic that reproductions such as postcards and magazine photographs and film posters could be placed in contexts that made them art in and of themselves. The suitcases that became a series of 300 portable museums were autobiographical miniatures including detached souvenirs of Duchamp’s identity and life. They embodied his aesthetic of mobility, transience, a life without borders.
In the case of the Box in a Suitcase Duchamp made for Maria Martins, before it went on display at the Menil Foundation in Houston in 1988, the curators were unable to discern what material he had used as a priming ground for an abstract painting he made as an inlaid cover to the wooden suitcase. The FBI office in Houston agreed to test the material, which proved to be entirely composed of his own seminal fluid, which Duchamp had painted over. In short, his sexual obsession with Maria was absolute, beginning with drawings, maquettes and the first molds of her nude torso in 1946, and ending twenty years later in the wire and painted leather of the show he called Etant Donnees — Given. The title notably referred both to what is a given and what is given freely to the artist and then to the viewer.
After seeing Courbet’s masterpiece in 1958, Duchamp conceived the framework of his last, greatest, and most provocative, work, as his homage to Courbet, who after all had painted the first portable “box” when he painted Origin of the world. Because the blunt vaginal display might be shocking to those who recognized it as ‘pornographic’, the painting had always been closeted, framed and displayed as if it were a guilty pleasure. It was the combination of its blunt imagery and compulsive concealment that provided Duchamp the framework for his final spectacle and statement.
Duchamp insisted in elaborate notes found after his death — which was the first time anyone saw the completed “boxed” project — that the assemblage could only be shown in a public museum. He left page after page in a 4-ring Manual of instructions on how to disassemble and reassemble the exhibit. He left specific instructions on how the exhibit should be displayed: the viewer enters a room, seeing a door of bricks, wood, and iron across the way that is built into a brick threshold. At the door, the viewer finds that there is an opening within it, once the latch is lifted. By opening the latch one sees another section of brick wall a few feet away, but that a section of brick has been jaggedly removed so that the viewer can see beyond the peephole a woman’s nude hairless body made of leather on metal wire lying on an artificial bed of grass and twigs. Beyond her there is an artificial wood and an artificial waterfall. In her left hand she holds a small gas lamp that illuminates the scene, enabling the viewer to now realize that the body is partially dismembered. The genitalia are stylized gaping. Many museum-goers who see Given for the first time are shocked or disgusted, in part because it is a Duchamp, and he was not a threatening or violent artist.
The sense of shock turns quickly into embarrassment, because the viewer is being observed by the next viewer politely waiting in line to look through the unassuming peephole. The embarrassed viewer realizes he or she has been made self-consciously ashamed to be viewing such a macabre sexual scene in public. This experience, for Duchamp, duplicates the great existential moment, first found by Jean-Paul Sartre, which is the recognition that you are an Other to others — a source of shame when you realize that someone is watching you look through a keyhole — and in this case, a public peephole. Suddenly, the innocent museum-goer becomes an object of other people’s scrutiny — all the others waiting in line who look to judge the viewer by the viewer’s response to what he or she sees through the peephole. In his seminar on the Duchamp homage to Courbet, the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard famously said that Duchamp placed the viewer in the same position as the viewed. What was a private violation of a woman’s private parts for Courbet became in the 1960s in America a public spectacle for Duchamp, and a posthumous statement about the definition, or de-definition, of art. As Lyotard says in his lecture, “the beholder suddenly realizes he is the vagina everyone’s looking at.” In effect, Duchamp’s assemblage both recreates and comments on the museum-goer’s discomfort with Courbet’s painting, but, by including the viewer as part of the spectacle, finds a way to merge image, artist and spectator that Courbet would not have considered when he was trying to shrink the distance between the image and its observer. Duchamp updated the discomfort and the unmasking of the viewer that Courbet initiated. Duchamp considered all of his art “a game between I and me.” Whether Courbet would have divided his identity as easily is doubtful, nor would he have accepted the premise of art for art’s sake, but in the ambiguity of his nudes with regard to their observers, Courbet did grasp the revolutionary tendencies inherent in the female nude from the beginning. After all, he was the first artist to show us what the entire history of the nude was hiding under gowns, bed linens and tactfully placed hands.
Neither Courbet nor Duchamp would have satisfied Kenneth Clark’s characterization of the artist’s nude as the “civilizing” of the human flesh, when he wrote in his famous classical study The Nude that “a mass of naked figures does not move us to empathy, but to disillusion and dismay.” For both Courbet and Duchamp, the female nude is the source and also the solution of dismay, the locus of illusion and disillusion, the impasse of a first principle: the alpha and omega of why we keep making art.