A Newcomer’s Guide to the Art-Historical Vagina

This week, I read an article about a legal dispute between a French art teacher and Facebook. The man posted an image of L’Origine du Monde (NSFW) on his page to promote an art-historical video. Facebook cried indecency and removed the image. If you’re not a student of art history, you might not be aware of this 1866 painting by Gustav Courbet. My guess is that you’ll find the image a bit shocking.

The painting couldn’t be more frank. L’Origine du Monde. The Origin of the World. As the title suggests, it depicts the physical origin of every human being on Earth, i.e. the loins of a woman (Caesarean sections excepted). It is a shocking painting, for it shows us something we are not supposed to see in public. Moreover, we don’t know how we’re supposed to react to it, because this is not sexualized pornography, nor is it Earth-mother-style birth imagery. The viewer is not told how to feel about this anatomical portrait. There is no packaging, no user’s manual. And so it makes most people uncomfortable.

But L’Origine du Monde is an important piece of art history that has inspired many important artists of later generations, from Marcel Duchamp to Lucian Freud to Mickalene Thomas. It is an artwork that we should know about and look at and discuss. We should not be afraid of it simply because our culture is uncomfortable with desexualized nudity. Dare I say we’re repressed?

Okeeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe, Series 1, no. 8, 1919

Consider another famous artist who painted vaginas: Georgia O’Keeffe. A lot has been written about the fact that many of her flowers look vaginal, but the fact that you can say, “Oh, that’s just an iris” makes her paintings safe. It’s just our own dirty minds leading us to the idea that her flowers look like women’s genitals, right?

Let us return to Courbet’s image and the dispute on Facebook. Although nudity is prohibited on Facebook and other sites, many nudes are less troubling. Take, for example, Titian’s sixteenth-century Venus of Urbino. I seriously doubt anyone would get into trouble for posting this image. The Venus of Urbino is the poster child for “acceptable” nudity. Nothing is too specific or realistic; the nude woman is shrouded in a hazy, warm glow, and she is coy and beautiful. In sum, she is sanitized and packaged for our consumption. (There are countless similar images of nude women from art history. A few: Boticelli’s Birth of Venus [1480s], Renoir’s The Large Bathers [1880s], Modigliani’s Reclining Nude [1916].) What are we to do with the L’Origine du Monde, which is anonymous, which neither sexualizes nor medicalizes the female body, but which instead gives us an honest depiction of female anatomy?

Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

Let me finish with another question: Why is it perfectly fine for Kim Kardashian’s oily butt to appear in every corner of the Internet, whereas a straightforward nineteenth-century painting of a woman’s crotch is taboo to the point of horrifying some? Obviously there are degrees of indecency at play here. A woman’s rump might deserve an R-rating, whereas genitalia would earn an X-rating. But it’s not that simple. There’s something more going on than that, and that something says a great deal about our culture. It seems to me that it will take a lot of self-reflection for us to parse this one out. I, for one, do not find L’Origine du Monde to be obscene. Kim Kardashian’s shiny rear-end gives me far greater offence.

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