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Gustave Courbet, L'Origine du monde (Origin of the World) (1866)

Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World) (1866)


In 1866, the French artist Gustave Courbet created the erotic oil-on-canvas painting L’Origine du monde (“The Origin of the World”). It features a close-up view of the genitals and abdomen of a faceless woman lying on a bed with her legs spread apart. The Ottoman diplomat Halil Şerif Pasha commissioned this artistic work. This work of art is now considered a masterpiece.

Courbet’s favourite model at the time was a young woman named Joanna Hiffernan. She was the lover of the American painter  a friend of Courbet. In all, Courbet did four portraits of Joanna. She was perhaps the model for L’Origine du monde.

On May 29, 2014 Deborah de Robertis, a Luxembourgian performance artist wearing a gold sequined dress, came to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. She walked up to Gustav Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World,” and plopped down in front of the painting. She raised her dress, spread her thighs, and publicly exposed her vaginal lips.

Deborah’s intention was to re-enact the famous painting of Gustav Courbet, but with an open, exposed vagina in contrast to the closed vaginal lips presented in Courbet’s piece. She called her performance “Mirror of Origin.

Eventually, police officers escorted Deborah from the premises. After the incident, two museum guards filed complaints of sexual exhibitionism against her.

The administrators of the Musée d’Orsay in a statement said it was a typical case of disrespecting the museum’s rules.

Deborah de de Robertis disagreed with the museum administration’s accusations. She explained to the German language Luxembourgish daily newspaper Luxemburger Wort:

If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism, but what I did was not an impulsive act. There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.

Deborah says she had performed this piece, “Mirror of Origin,” more than once in the same museum without causing any hysterical scene.


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