L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece by Lilianne Milgrom

Review by Linda Lappin

Since its first foray into public view at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988, Gustave Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde, a depiction of female anatomy sans head, lower legs, and feet, has stirred controversy, outrage, and fascination. Now on display at the Orsay Museum of Paris, gifted by the family of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan after his death, this painting continues to inspire, repulse, and scandalize, enraging feminist critics while engendering new works of performance art and fiction. It is the focus of a brilliant new cross-genre historical novel by Paris-born artist Lilianne Milgrom: L’Origine du Monde: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece.

In 2011, while in Paris researching a project on ageing and sexuality, the author stumbled across Courbet’s painting at the Orsay Museum and realized that this bold celebration of the female body held the key to her current project. She obtained permission from the museum to become the first authorized copyist of L’Origine du Monde, and spent six weeks working at her easel in front of Courbet’s sensational picture. This intense contact gave her the opportunity to study the painting in great detail, to really see it, and to slip behind Courbet’s own male gaze through which it was first conceived. But by putting Milgrom in the public view of the other museum visitors, the act of copying also made her the object of their gaze, and became a work of performance art. The author became part of the exhibit, interacting with the spectators who had very diverse reactions to Courbet’s work.  Such close attention held for a prolonged period fused a strong bond between the seer and the seen. At times she felt as though she were the painting and the painting were herself.  In copying L’Origine, Milgrom was also performing a radical act vindicating the rights of women artists, for in Courbet’s time and indeed for quite a while after it, women were banned from drawing classes featuring nude models in French public art academies.

L’Origine du Monde shows a supine female figure from the neck down, with one breast and open thighs revealing what Anaïs Nin aptly called the delta of Venus, topped by a dark tangle of pubic hair, in extremely realistic detail. The title of the painting, (The Origin of the World) with its suggestion that we sprang from mother nature rather than the divine, was perhaps even more offensive to Courbet’s contemporaries than the subject portrayed.

After her Paris stay ended, Milgrom began to research the life of innovative enfant terrible Gustave Courbet and his infamous L’Origine du Monde, which was kept concealed from the public for over a century, from its first unveiling in 1866 until 1988, when the Lacan family loaned it to the Brooklyn Museum for an exhibition.  From her research was born L’Origine du Monde: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece, an intriguing, multifaceted novel tracing the history of this work from its inception to the present day, passing from owner to owner, surviving war, insurrection, looting, censorship, and furious wives.

L’Origine du Monde was created on commission for Khalil Bey, a Turkish diplomat and bon viveur, who moved in avant-garde circles and collected erotic artworks by the European masters. It eventually ended up in the hands of a Hungarian-Jewish collector who saved it from destruction during the Nazi occupation and later smuggled it out of Hungary before the iron curtain fell. In the nineteen fifties, it was acquired by Jacques Lacan, its last private owner. Lacan, who kept the painting hidden behind a cleverly designed wooden panel, found in L’Origine the corroboration of his Freudian theories: a representation of man’s castration anxiety and woman’s envy of that which she has not. It also represented the “Otherness” which allows an individual to gain awareness of the self as distinct from others by means of “the gaze.”

Milgrom’s novel opens with a nonfiction prologue, recounting her experience as a copyist then mutates to historical fiction. She traces the painting’s history in deeply researched, gorgeously crafted scenes skipping years between them. As L’Origine du Monde travels through time, in Milgrom’s retelling we also witness changes in mores and artistic tastes, along with the evolving status of women.

Her characters – Courbet, his mistress and models, Khalil Bey, Lacan and his family – are beguiling and convincingly drawn. We feel their humor, lust, passion, irony, suffering, dismay.  But it is when we find them caught in an epiphanic moment, wiping paint-smudged hands on a smock, undressing a lover, or snipping off the ends of green beans that the author shows her stylistic skills in creating the illusion of real life unfolding before our eyes: putting us there, in that place, inside that person, in a sensual universe made only of words, solid enough for us to inhabit if only for a short time. As a first novel, l’Origine du Monde is a remarkable achievement in its style, pacing, and concept.

But most importantly, Milgrom bids us to consider the journey we ourselves have made to a time where, at least now and in Paris, Courbet’s masterpiece may be exhibited uncensored for all to see, and to ask ourselves why it has taken so long, considering that full disclosure of male bodies has been an accepted subject of public art in western civilization for thousands of years. Did Courbet see it as a well-deserved smack in the face of bourgeois propriety and hypocrisy? Or as a revolutionary glorification of female sexuality? Or simply an act of voyeurism?  Is the title “The Origin of the World,” ironic, cynical, confrontational – or a  paean to the feminine principle?  And how do we see the painting? A positive or negative representation of the female body? Empowering, frightening, disgusting, shameful, exciting; a symbol of women’s liberation or of patriarchal domination? Interestingly enough, some feminist critics have claimed that L’Origine is anatomically incorrect.

Many readers will be prompted to check out Courbet’s painting on the Internet, and perhaps plan a visit to the Orsay to decide for themselves. In any case, in recounting the secret history of L’Origine, Lilianne Milgrom offers us an entertaining, provocative read which will continue to intrigue us and invite speculation, long after we have turned the last page.