Sunday, February 10, 2013

Courbet Recapitated

Gustave Courbet's perennially provocative L'Orgine de Monde has made cameos in two recent artbouillon posts (quoted in works by Michalene Thomas see Rosemarie Trockel).  Now art history's most infamous crotch shot is in the spotlight once more, and for an astonishing reason.  It was reported this week in Paris Match that an art collector found what seems to be a missing part of the painting.  While rummaging though a Paris antique shop, an art collector found a painting of a woman's head leaning backward as if lying on a bed.  It has now been confirmed that the weave of the canvas matched Courbet's painting, and the head appears to belong to what was long believed to be a headless presentation the a woman's netherregion.  This 1,400 euro purchase will change art history books.

Courbet's painting shocks viewers, in part, because of it's headlessness.  Reclining nudes are common in Western art.  This one is unusually explicit, but it's brazenness owes much to its cropping.  We are not presented with a whole woman here; there is no face to express her thoughts or feelings.  Woman is distilled to the part that, in Courbet's time like ours, is too often seen as the measure of her worth (be it as sex object or as mother).  Then there is the cosmological title, which reminds us that we are all born to women.  A feminist commentary on Courbet's part?  A condescending apotheosis?  Or, worse still, a sly suggestion all life begins in vulgarity?  All vying interpretations must now factor in this new discovery.

We can now see that L'Orgine de Monde was once a full portrait.  It is sexually changed like many of Courbet's nudes (see above), but not nearly as radical as it has been described to be.  It is much like other pornographic pictures of the time.  Of course, Courbet may have decapitated the painting himself.  In that case, he deserves the dubious honor of dissecting away his sitter's humanity.  But historians will surely want to know now when and why.  Perhaps he was trying to save the woman's reputation, for example, or salvage her portrait for a respectable buyer.

On this topic of identity, the new discovery is a great boon.  The identity of the sitter for L'Origine de Monde can now be confirmed.  It appears to be Joanna Hiffernan, an Irish model and muse to two famous painters: Courtbet and James Whistler.  Hifferman is known to have posed for The Sleepers (the entwined nudes above), as well as Whistler's Symphony in White 1 and 2 (2 is on the left).  Here, Hiffernan catches her own reflection, a commentary, perhaps, on her own status as a mere depiction, forever trapped in a two-dimensional world.  Comparison of these likenesses suggests that Hiffernan is represented in the recovered Courbet portrait, and hence its more familiar lower half.  This settles what has long been a matter of speculation.  Interestingly Hiffernan is reported to have been an artist in her own right, though her work is now unknown.  Thus, her once anonymous anatomy, presented as a cradle of creation, can be cast in a new light.  Like Courbet, Hiffernan partook in a form of worldmaking: not birth, but the creation of art.  By regaining her head, Hiffernan at last regains her status as a thinking, feeling, and creative human being.  Indeed, her expression is not that of a soulless woman in ecstasy, but of a woman in contemplation.  Where Courbet drew attention to the possibilities in her pelvis, we now see Hiffernan's eyes staring upward in imagination as if to suggest more cerebral acts of engendering.


  1. I think that Courbet painting, is utterly scary. It's horror. Let alone being vulgar, that is not the main concern with the painting. It looks vulgar because it is thrown out to the viewer with so much coldness, fatalism, and without hope. I think that painting is about fatalism and being trapped. we are not free, not even the artists. now live with that...

  2. "Where Courbet drew attention to the possibilities in her pelvis, we now see Hiffernan's eyes staring upward in imagination as if to suggest more cerebral acts of engendering.

    It does not necessarily mean that. Seeing a head, I mean. Or a starring look. And also, cerebral acts, unfortunately, I do not think they are that powerful. I did say the painting is really scary.

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