Art lovers reel from the shock of the nude What begins with C and ends with T - Courbet, of course

France/ Courbet controversy; Does 19th-century centrefold have place in national museum?
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN a painting of a woman's sexual parts appeared on the walls of Musee d'Orsay in Paris last Monday it inevitably caused a sensation. The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet depicts the torso of a reclining female nude, with her legs parted. Courbet (1819-1877) is in textbook terms a realist and the picture is photographic in quality.

A recent donation, the painting is now on permanent display in the museum. While the more liberal newspapers welcomed its appearance - and printed a reproduction - radio talk shows asked whether this 19th century centrefold has a place in a national museum.

Originally commissioned in 1866 by a Turkish diplomat and known lover of the erotic, it has remained in private collections until now. Last year it briefly featured on the cover of a novel in France but had to be withdrawn on the grounds of indecency.

Despite such provenance, the painting does not seem pornographic. The body lies on a clinical white sheet, buttocks clumsily folded underneath. This is hardly titillating or even sensual: the model looks, rather, as if she's waiting for her gynaecologist.

As its title suggests, Courbet is dealing with the age old theme of creation. While his contemporaries continued to treat the subject by illustrating stories from mythology, Courbet controversially turned to familiar surroundings. His contemporaries' works received bourgeois patronage. Courbet had to be satisfied with any patronage.

Naked females without heads are not easily accepted in our society and one might expect a feminist protest. But the museum is full of women painted by men: the majority are decorative and controlled by the artist's interpretation. In the Origin of the World, the solidity and power of the body controls the artist who slavishly paints what he sees.

It is unlikely that the painting will attract any more attention. A few visitors are surprised by its honesty, some snigger, but most barely react. When asked if they had received any complaints the information desk had difficulty remembering the picture. When the notoriously trashy radio station Fun asked visitors if it had shocked them half claimed they had not noticed it.

This is not surprising. People come to the museum to see the nice Monets and Renoirs then buy the glossy poster. Nowadays reproductions have a life independent from the original. The main reason the Origin of the World provoked controversy was because it was reproduced in two national newspapers. On the wall of the museum it remains unobtrusive. For the moment excitement has died down. If the museum decides to market postcards or indeed a giant poster people might start talking again.