L'Origine du MondeMonday, December 13, 2010
Just a few months later at Seattle’s SAM (Seattle Art Museum) we were looking at some ancient Greek vases. I was on one end of the room and Rebecca on the other when she loudly said, “Papi, come here you can see his scrotum on this vase.” There was suddenly lots of silence in the busy room.
About four years ago, in my class called The Contemporary Portrait Nude at Focal Point one of my students, a male student, left my class and never returned. I had asked my students that in the next shooting session in our studio I would like all to attempt the ultimate scrotum shot. It was then that I understood that scrotum is as unmentionable a word, a word that shocks in a present world that seems to be free of all shock, as that other one that describes that part of a female’s genitalia and that begins with a c.
Today’s blog is about that word that begins with a c.
In a roundabout way it all begins with a phone call I received around 1979. It went something like this:
Is this Alex Waterhouse-Hayward? My name is ….and I need to have some pictures taken. I am a fitness instructor at the YWCA and I want to be photographed in the nude. I have a great body and I want it recorded before nature takes it course.
Armed with two 35mm cameras, one loaded with Kodak b+w Infrared Film and the other with Kodak Technical Pan Film I met up with the YWCA fitness instructor on Wreck Beach. At the time I had no real studio in our Burnaby town house. For nature type photography in the raw nature’s best pointed at Wreck Beach.
The YWCA fitness instructor was pleased with her photographs. I never heard from her again and I have no recollection of her name.
While perusing the negatives (filed under YWCA Fitness Instructor) a few days ago I noticed a picture (above, left) which I have taken over and over through the years. It is a definite cliché.
In 1989 I purchased an excellent book, Image of the Body by Michael Gill. The beautifully illustrated book (in b+w) is a series of long essays on the subject of the human body as seen from the Paleolithic age, through the Greek Classical period and to the present times. It includes an interesting chapter on the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and in particular his startling photographs of body builder Lisa Lyon.
But there was one image that shocked me. Even today I don’t think I could get away with placing it in this blog. The image in question is called L'Origine du monde and it was painted by Gustave Courbet in 1866. It would be only recently that I finally saw the image on the web in its even more startling colour version. Of the painting, and another, author Michael Gill wrote:
What could not be viewed publicly [in the Paris salons] could be commissioned by a client with specialist tastes. In 1866 for Khalil Bey, the former Turkish ambassador to St. Petersburg, Courbet painted two naked women asleep on a bed, their limbs intertwined. Coubert said it should be called Laziness and Sensuality [It ultimately is known as Sleep]. The women are more comely than usual in his work and the whole picture, opulent with flowers, pearls, an enameled flask, breathes and atmosphere of satisfied desire. It must be one of the few major works of Western art dealing with lesbianism. Even more provocative was Courbet’s second picture for Khalil Bey. L'Origine du monde, was a straightforward view of the female sexual parts. It vanished from Budapest at the end of the Second World War. The French critic Edmond de Goncourt said it was as beautiful as the flesh of a Corregio. Courbet was demonstrating, in his habitual blunt manner, the Romantic determination to make the most intimate subjects fit themes for art.
It wasn’t until I read Canadian author, Ross King’s (Bruneleschi's Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling) The Judgement of Paris – The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism that I heard a big click in my head.
I will be short in the explanation (I have re-read King's The Judgement of Paris several times) but here is more or less how that click happened. The most famous painter (and the richest) in the 19 century was Ernest Meissonier. In 1814 he started with his The Campaign of France a theme that included Napoleon on a horse in battle or on his way to one. Meissonier’s paintings were large (The Campaign of France was his smallest at 76.5 cm) and had incredible detail such as Napoleon’s sprouting beard, the veins on the horse and the dirty snow result of the trampling of an army.
|The Campaign of France, Ernest Meissonier, 1814|
This man held court in France and in most of the civilized Western world. But something happened in 1827 that was to change the direction of painting as art. In 1827 Nicéphore Niépce took a picture from his kitchen window that was the world’s first heliograph. By 1839 the French Academy of Sciences announced to the world the Daguerreotype process. Later in that year the English Henry Fox Talbot announced his calotype process.
Photography was to painting in the 1840s and on what the internet seems to be doing to print in our very own 21st century. The world was in an uproar. Photography could not reveal the minutest detail with ease. Meissonier was as obsolete as is the formal photographic portrait photographer now (and alas me!).
Édouard Manet and Claude Monet decided that they could not compete with photography and found Meissioner a tired old man of the rear guard. “If we cannot paint in great detail, we shall do the opposite,” they might have asserted. So that is how Impressionism was born. From real close you could see the detail of Napoleon’s beard on a Meissonier painting. At that distance in a Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe you would not see much. You had to stand back to see the painter’s intention.
With Impressionism in vogue the startlingly realistic L'Origine du monde by Courbet was seen as tired as Meissonier. But art history has been kinder to Courbet than it has been to Meissonier. The former is still famous and the latter is mostly forgotten.
As a parallel to this, photographers got tired of recording detail so such pioneers as Alfred Stieglitz began a movement called Pictorialism in which photographs were hazy, blurry and painterly. By the late 1920s this movement began to weaken to be replaced by photographers who now wanted to shoot with consummate sharpness. This is how the Group f64 began headed by Ansel Adams and Willard Van Dyke.
Since then both photography and painting have gone back and forth between great detail and abstraction and have influenced each other.
Since then I have tracked down (after reading in The Image of the Body that Courbet’s infamous painting had been lost) L’Origine du monde.
During World War II, the 1866 Courbet nude belonged to Hungarian collector Baron Ferenc Hatvany. Amid wartime looting in Hungary by the Red Army, Nazis and locals, the painting and others (including Courbet’s, 1962, Femme nue couchee were stolen from the bank vault where the baron had put them for safekeeping. The baron, who was Jewish, survived the war but lost all his art, the largest collection in Hungary. Charles Goldstein, a lawyer for the Commission for Art Recovery, founded by the World Jewish Congress tracked down and bought back some of his lost works, including L'Origine du Monde. I further found out that Hatvany put L'Origine du monde in his bathroom, while the celebrated psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan bought it and hid it behind a panel that he uncovered for guests.
|Le Somneil, Gustav Courbet, 1866|
Even further research led me to find out that the model for L'Origine du monde and for one of The Sleepers was Joanna Hiffernan (Hiffernan is the woman in the foreground in le Somneil), an Irish artist’s model who had flaming red hair. That the pubic hair in L'Origine du monde is dark is not at odds with the prevailing opinion that Hiffernan was indeed the model for the painting.
|Woman in White, Whistler|
Courbet met Hiffernan through his friend James McNeil Whistler. Joanna Hiffernan was Whistler’s favourite model, lover and subject of Whistler’s most famous, 1862, painting Symphony in White Number 1 but previously named The White Girl. By 1866 Courbet was losing patience with Whistler who was shifting away from their shared realism. And it was at about this time that Hiffernan switched sides to become Courbet’s lover. Whistler got angry and left for the United States.
And the picture that starts this blog is my version (one of many that I have attempted since) of L'Origine du monde and my subject was the YWCA fitness instructor. It will be a while before I show any attempts at The Perfect Scrotum. And for those who might be curious about Gustave Coubert's L'Origine du Monde, you will have to do your own searching.
|L'oeuf du YWCA, Alex Waterhouse-Hayward|