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Novel set mainly in Paris

12th September 2023

L’Origine by Lilianne Milgrom, novel set mainly in Paris.

Novel set mainly in Paris

“The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece”

L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet was painted in 1866. It now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay, but still has a whiff of scandal about it, which in fact has been the hallmark of the painting for obvious reasons; and in the 19th Century it proved to be an exceptionally daring execution. As a reader of this novel, it might be worth googling the painting: there are many carefully curated images of this fairly tiny piece (measuring 46.3 x 55.4cm), artfully shielding the viewer from the intimate nature of the painting.

Khalil-Bey was the first owner of the image, for whom Courbet painted this erotic subject. Now the painting can be seen in all its glory at the Musée d’Orsay and the book opens with the author applying for permission to become the first ‘copiste’ of the notorious painting (how often does one visit a gallery and espy an artist copying an original? I had never given any thought to the process behind the permission-giving). The author in the ensuing “Parts” then goes on to chart its journey, as it changes ownership over the years.

The point of the opening chapters is to render the author/artist’s journey to a point where she feels comfortable with the image on display and a growing familiarity with a part of the body that 50% of the population has, a part that can still evoke a myriad of responses. She then goes on to discover the painting’s past, which was “…as extraordinary as the painting’s flagrant nakedness.”

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Given the subject matter, the painting was destined for private viewing, a clandestine veil always hung over its whereabouts, secrecy and rumour abounding. A secondary painting by the artist, which was seemingly considered fairly second rate, was attached by hinges and was created to hide the original, so that l’Origine could be hung hidden in plain sight, with a key for those in the know.

The painting has survived across 3 centuries and the author wonderfully sets it against the various cultural, societal and political backdrops. It nearly got destroyed in Budapest  in 1944, when the Nazis were sorting through the artworks in the possession of Ferenc Hatvany, a Jewish collector and at that point the covering painting was butchered and not given a second glance. The hidden masterpiece remained in tact and continued to be secreted from prying eyes.

There is also a good level of detail about Courbet’s personal life, racy and unconventional as one might expect. The enfant terrible of the art world, for example, was implicated in the destruction of the Vendôme Column and faced a stint in prison.

This is a fascinating story which culminates in the painting’s arrival at the Musée in 1995 and the conundrum faced by the Minister of Culture, who had to unveil it to the public and position himself so that the newspapers the next day would not have the opportunity to capture him next to a larger-than-life vulva.

The painting was clearly created with male admirers in mind, who could lust over the image in secret. Moving into the 20th Century more women became familiar with the image and Simone de Beauvoir exclaimed, when she saw it: “Behold! A woman! … Nothing but a sex organ, a womb, and a pair of ovaries.” The daughter and partner of the final owner, Sylvia Bataille and Jacques Lacan, settled outstanding tax bills and the painting went to the Muséee for an undisclosed sum.

It is interesting to see how many twists and turns there are in the story, as the painting changes hands. Charting the ownership of a famous painting is very important in art circles, when buying and selling, tracing a picture’s provenance back to the beginning. Without the certified history, a painting – even by a renowned artist – has little worth. Every painting has its own unique story and l’Origine, given its subject matter, even more so.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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