What a Turk wanted from a French…
January 28, 2012
It was in the mid 19th century, when most foreigners would normally yearn for a bottle of classic white wine, a delicious wheel of Brie cheese or least some fiery night with the reputed lorettes who made the prostitutes of the time, that Ottoman diplomat and art collector Khalil Bey (1831-1879) , very respectable man otherwise, commissioned an erotic painting from libertine Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).
Roll out the red carpet for “L’Origin e du monde” (“The Origin of the World“), a medium-sized oil-on-canvas naughtily representing the genitals and abdomen of Whistler’s mistress, Joanna “Jo” Hiffernan, with the cruel realism Courbert was so proud of. Vulgar? Offensive? Gaudy? Maybe, but label it as misunderstood art and here you go! a masterpiece! currently one of Musée d’Orsay’s most appreciated works!
Only looking at the model, really, you can see she had just one part which truly deserved to be immortalized in Courbert’s picture -and what an inspiring part that was! Visitors today queue to admire and impassionedly comment her precisely drawn fanny, as I observed when I passed through the halls of the museum, few years ago. Can’t blame them, though.
But if nowadays open-minded people curiously gather to watch it, how could such a specific violation of academic canons escape from a scandal while more innocent and traditional portrait like Eduard Manet’s “Olympia” caused a historic outrage?
Well, l”L’Origin e du monde” was sheltered by an usually unlucky factor which can be quite merciless with some things- ignorance. For over two decades, after its first pervert owner, Khalil Bey (remember him?), sold it due to financial problems, our controversial painting was hidden behind a wooden pane depicting a church (ironically…) with a snowy landscape, in a Parisian antique shop. Since then, it went from Hungarian Baron Ferenc Hatvany’s house to the thievish Soviet troops and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s country estate, the Brooklyn Museum, the Met and ultimately, the Orsay Gallery, its present place.
Thus being mostly privately displayed in the period when it wouldn’t have been accepted and unveiled with “Playboy” ‘s apparition, “L’Origin e du monde” ‘s story is a happy one.
Now it’s hanged between the best works of French masters, showing what a Turk wanted from a French.