BANNED MEDIA MONTH #7: L'Origine du monde, by Gustave Courbet (1866)

An unused piece of L'Origine du monde.

An unused piece of L'Origine du monde.

Type of Media: Painting

In 1866, Ottoman diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey commissioned a painting from French artist Gustave Courbet to add to his private collection. Courbet gave him L'Origine du monde, or The Origin of the World. Khalil Bey kept this painting in his dressing room, hidden behind a green curtain. Sometimes he would invite guests into his room, have them draw back the curtain, and watch their looks of shock at what they were seeing. It's an image that even still shocks people, as it has been banned from public display in several European countries and even censored on the internet.

So, what is The Origin of the World a painting of? What dark truths does it contain? What could be so profane, so upsetting, so maddening to cause police to confiscate books bearing this image in the name of maintaining the public order?

It's a vagina.

Yep, that's it. It's just a painting of a vagina. More specifically, a painting of a naked woman, framed from the chest down, lying on a bed with her legs spread in a way that prominently displays her vagina. Now, while there are many pictures of nude women in the art world, L'Origine du monde manages to deviate from the crowd in key ways that highlight the image's eroticism. You may want to pull up a picture of the painting on Google Images for reference (cause I'm sure our web host would throw a fit if we showed it here).

Before L'Origine, nude women were almost exclusively painted in an idealized way. These paintings often draw on Biblical or mythological figures, and present women with flawless skin, no body hair, and a certain lack of detail that makes them sort of inhuman. Conversely, L'Origine's woman has skin that's kind of ruddy and veiny, and she's sporting a lot of pubic hair. Most importantly, however, is how detailed the vagina is. The woman doesn't just have a suggestion of a vagina, but detailed, realistic genitals. With the woman's head and legs cropped out, the painting's focus is almost exclusively her nethers.

The painter, Courbet, was no stranger to controversy. The leader of the Realist painting movement in France, Courbet wanted to paint things he saw in everyday life. This meant picking subjects that were considered vulgar by the artistic elite, like peasants, rural life, and workspaces with dangerous conditions. His nudes in particular, showing modern women as opposed to classical beauties, provoked scandal after scandal at the Paris Salon, the official art exhibition of the Academy of Fine Arts at the French Institute.

L'Origine wasn't even displayed publicly until the 1980s, existing in private collections or places undocumented by history until it was shown at the Brooklyn Museum, and then acquired by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Since its creation, though, L'Origine has been viewed by some as pornographic. Bookstores with books showing L'Origine on the cover have been particularly affected by this characterization, with at least France and Portugal sending police into stores to cover or take offending books. Another opponent to L'Origine is Facebook, which has censored pictures of the painting and deleted accounts for posting it.

So, is L'Origine fine art or is it porn? Or maybe both? Well, if you're ever in Paris you can visit the Musee d'Orsay where it's still on display and decide for yourself.