Remember the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for?” I’ve often used it as a guide, but am so glad I held to my wish in the instance I’m about to relate to you.
My husband and I love stories about art, whether visual or written. An art lecture we watched, introduced us to Gustav Courbet’s erotic masterpiece L’Origine du Monde, or Origin of the World. It is an explicit and unexpectedly beautiful painting of the model’s genetalia. She is lying on a bed and the depiction is of her torso only. I read Erin Davies’ review of the novel L’Origine: a Secret History of the World’s most Erotic Painting, by Liliane Milgrom. She is the first artist allowed by the Musee D’Orsay to make a copy of the original. No prude, I clicked on Want to Read, then didn’t think much more about it.
But Emma Cazzabone of French Book Tours emailed me with an offer of a free copy of the book for an honest review. Taken aback, but open to the challenge, I agreed. I agonized several times during the process, wanting to do right by Milgrom who had me in awe at her accomplishments. Here’s my review as it appeared in Goodreads.
L’Origine: a Novel by Liliane Milgrom is the tale of Gustav Courbet’s audacious and explicit painting of a nude model entitled L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World). Milgrom follows the painting from its inception in 1865 through the years it spent hidden from public view by a series of wealthy owner/collectors. They each loved it and tried to protect it through war and personal upheaval until the controversial masterpiece found a home at the Musee d’Orsay (Orsay Museum) in Paris. Milgrom’s book is also a love story that involves her fascination with Courbet’s masterpiece.
Milgrom opens with a prologue that puts her in the story as the first artist permitted by the Museum to be a copiste of L’Origine. She includes some of what I love to come across in fiction: insider information. I’d never known that, for example, the copy has to have a designated size difference from the original, and that the copier has only certain hours allotted to sit and work on the piece. And all this under public observation!
Paris of the mid1860s was light-hearted, open to new ideas, and sexually freewheeling, at least for the wealthy or creative. Milgrom adds enough detail to show the city as the perfect place to incubate a sense of wonder, playful approaches, and skill on the part of those drawn to seek fame and money through art. Courbet was a sensual nonconformist from the country and a firm proponent of artistic realism. Inspired by gazing on his lover’s genitalia, he decided to use it as the subject of a painting commissioned by a Turkish diplomat. The Turk’s mistress posed for the painting.
Courbet created something so masterfully portrayed, and titled it so thoughtfully, that it stopped all who saw it in their tracks. Some were shocked, but most also saw that Courbet had painted so well that what might have been dismissed as pornography was elevated by critiques and appreciators as great thought and emotion-provoking art. It reminds us of romantic love, awakens our desires, or makes men and women think of their mothers. For the vagina, we are reminded, is the place of the origin of life.
Courbet’s fortunes took a serious tumble from which he never recovered, and his art became long devalued. Following the days of the Commune, Paris became prim and proper. When L’Origine did trade hands it was because of appalled or jealous wives. The impressionists came into public favor as well and became the darlings of collectors. Nevertheless, there were always those who became intrigued, enthralled, or aroused by L’Origine. Courbet had forever created a painting that “captured the nebulous world between reality and fantasy.”
Through two world wars Jewish Baron Ferenc Hatvany, a Hungarian artist and collector, did his best to keep L’Origine safe and his. When he decided to let go of it at last in the 1950s, it sold to an artistic, intellectual couple. An example of the author including the zeitgeist of the times in which the painting’s owners lived and worked, Jacques Lacan, the male half of the couple, saw L’Origine as deeply connected to both penis envy and fear of castration. His wife, the former film star Sylvia Bataille believed the painting could be valued and shared by modern women as well as men.
In the end, L’Origine became available to the public via the prosaic demands of property
taxes. But the wider world is richer for it. Those who owned it were remarkable people, and belonged to their times. Milgrom does well at showing us those times: clothing, famous people spotted in café’s by the main characters of each chapter in the painting’s history. And she makes the owners real people with delights, fears, and often struggling to explain life’s mysteries. One of which involves origins.
I wish to thank France Book Tours for sending me a copy of the book for my honest review. To read more about the book and its author, and for a chance to win a copy, visit: https:francebooktours.com
It was a great experience, capped off by lovely notes of appreciation from both the author and Emma. Don’t be too careful about what you wish for. Besides, we all need good reviews.
By Karen Wills