Erotic art journey comes full circle

My upcoming participation in the group show Dans le ventre des femmes  (In the Belly of the Woman) in Paris this fall is another satisfying twist in the journey I undertook two years ago with Gustave Courbet’s notorious masterpiece l’Origine du monde which is housed at the d’Orsay Museum in Paris.

Original and copy in progress

While undertaking the authorized copy of this painting, I was approached about writing a chapter for an anthology on the uterus. The resulting anthology includes musings by artists, poets and writers, both male and female and was recently published and launched by BSC Publishing in Paris. (For those of you interested in my chapter entitled I AM WOMAN I have pasted the English translation at the end of this blog entry).

After being hailed in literary circles, the book’s contributing artists will now be featured at the Rivoli 59 Gallery. I will be exhibiting a painting and a video documentary of my experience copying Courbet’s masterpiece. So SAVE THE DATE (Opening reception October 3, 2012) if you are lucky enough to find yourselves in Paris! And while you’re at it, I am also honored to be participating in an Open Studios (Portes Ouvertes) weekend September 28-30 in Ivry-sur-Seine, an outer suburb of Paris which boasts a concentration of over 130 artists in renovated factories and lofts. I will be showing at the MOLIERE commune. Definitely worth checking out, a weekend full of art, music and performance.

Paris, here I come again!

I Am Woman  (Excerpt from Dans le Ventre des Femmes)

Lilianne Milgrom

In my quest for the elusive essence of female sexuality and identity, I chose a path which led me back to the beginning of time. Back to the creation, the very origin of the world. In artistic terms that meant undertaking a profoundly personal dialogue with Gustave Courbet’s notorious masterpiece entitled ‘l’Origine du monde’ (The Origin of the World).

Courbet’s shocking depiction of an exposed vagina entitled The Origin of the World is still as thought-provoking and relevant today as it was when Courbet painted it in 1866. Till its public debut in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay in 1995, l’Origine du monde was held in various private collections. The painting’s enduring ability to provoke strong emotional response and heated academic debate, suggested it would make the ideal starting point for my journey of exploration and discovery. After jumping through various bureaucratic hoops, I obtained permission from the Musée d’Orsay to become the authorized copyist of this work. This decision turned out to be an enlightening experience.

Copying l’Origine du monde can be likened to a meditative experience, with a certain black triangle as one’s focal point, and the word vulva as one’s mantra. To identify the quintessential core of what defines a woman one must delve deeper than the study of her intimate physical attributes. I know this from experience. I spent six weeks scrutinizing every fold, crevice and pubic hair of a woman’s exposed genitals. The hours and days spent face à face with Courbet’s painting gave rise to a torrent of reflection and introspection, but ultimately confirmed what I already knew to be true. A vagina alone does not a woman make.

Courbet’s painting could hardly be more visually revealing. Yet if one takes the painting at face value alone, it does not reveal the full picture. The raw depiction of a disembodied vulva thrusts the most intimate of feminine possessions unabashedly into the public view. There is no question that it reveals the visible, external and erotic aspect of female sexuality in all its glory. But this painting transcends a one-dimensional interpretation. Despite or perhaps due to, the absence of facial reference, Courbet’s model differs from suggestive pornographic images which reduce women to superficial sex objects. The explicitly erotic l’Origine du monde presents Woman as an object of desire while simultaneously portraying her as goddess of Motherhood, Fertility and Creation. And in so doing, the artist has presented us with an unsettling and paradoxically complex image.

Courbet’s artistic mantra was realism. He claimed that “the essence of realism is the negation of the ideal.” Indeed, Courbet’s painting has spared us an idealized or romanticized female figure. He has painted Woman as Nature intended her to be. Moving past the painting’s sexual and erotic first impression, one is reminded that the anatomical function of the painting’s alluring focal point is to serve as gatekeeper to the true feminine core – the uterus. The uterus is not sexy. It is not erotic. It is not the stuff wet dreams are made of. It is a hidden, utilitarian organ, invisible to the naked eye.  In our male-dominated society the vagina may be the focus of our collective tunnel vision; but it is the uterus which directly and uniquely connects every woman to the Origin and to the Creation of Man – past, present and future.  

By the time I completed my intimate observation of l’Origine du monde, I had fully grasped that Courbet succeeded in capturing not only a woman’s physical attributes, but also what lies beyond the visible. The Origin of the World offers us a real woman, comfortable in her sexual prowess while basking in her unique role as custodian of the uterus and all that it signifies. It is this physical and spiritual duality which ultimately defines Woman.