Most scandalously he is regarded today as the first painter to create an explicit image of the female genitalia. It was a private commission, not intended for exhibition at a salon—and it would have been instantly rejected anyway. It's a small painting, very straightforward, and Courbet entitled it L'origine du monde (The Origin of the World). By straightforward I mean that the image focuses solely on the subject from the chest down—there is no face to the female figure. The body is lying on a bed of white sheets, and no other context for the setting is given. Because of this, and because the woman has no face, this painting has been held in extreme controversy as a work not of art but of pornography. Now, I don't really want to have the discussion of art vs. pornography right now because, frankly, it's going to hold us up from continuing on with the material (and that's what I'm interested in). It's a discussion that perhaps must begin here and will be more fully realized later on as we continue to move through the timeline of art history, but it's a discussion that's still going on to this day. And to avoid a brusque dismissal of this important debate, I don't want to simply quip about it now with my own opinion and then move on. This is something we can go back to. For now, however, I suppose there are one or two things that must be said immediately.
Courbet titled it L'origine du monde, indicating this as a statement or concept painting that invoked "the world" as its ideological or philosophical subject matter. This enlarges the interpretations of the otherwise narrow-minded, explicit content of the image; there is latent meaning implied through its title, giving the painting additional, abstract qualities of subject matter in supplement to its visual elements. Paintings have been conveying ideas for centuries; this is nothing new. Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco of The Creation of Adam conveyed ideas about the inadequacy of Renaissance humanism as a spiritual philosophy for its worldly focus on self ability. Going back even further, medieval illustrations and sculptures used images to express ideas and tell stories about the life of Christ. It is no exceptional thing, then, to argue that Courbet is here using an image to convey an intangible idea (or several ideas). Perhaps most readily, a student of the artist's life work can distinguish a satirical approach to the Renaissance-era idealization of female nudes in mythological paintings of goddesses, such as Botticelli's Birth of Venus or Titian's Venus of Urbino, artwork in which nudity is validated merely by putting it in the context of mythology or spirituality. Courbet, the Realist painter, no doubt wanted to show the female nude in a new light—the way it actually looks. There is a truth-seeking sentiment behind that, someone who wants to paint the world for what it really is for the purpose of honest self-examination. If people are all born from women, then, Courbet suggests, it is a valid subject to paint. This is the world's "origin," a kind of mock-biblical Creation account of mankind's genesis; and, also like in Genesis, there is the element of temptation in the painting. Eve as the temptress, the seducer of Adam, is perhaps the subject—or even the serpent, if you look at how Courbet paints the form of the subject's cylindrical body stretching down on the bed, almost snake-like, and if you consider the more animalistic side to not attaching a human face to this figure. There are several potential interpretations of the form and structure to this complex painting, not just the obvious, smutty reading of it as cheap, base titillation.
Written into the sincerity of the work is the desire for human connection, intimacy of race, of self, and the nakedness of the soul. The philosophy is that the nude is more identifiable, more quintessentially human, and more true; that it is the most honest image one can have of those often elusive and otherwise unfathomable bipeds, people. This is not the same as the spiritual self-discovery practices of the nudists; artists like Courbet (at least in theory) intend to tap in to the broader relationship of all human beings, on a whole, transcendent of individual distinction and collective in common bond to the concept of the Oversoul, hoping to thereby attain some higher truth about mankind. On the subject C. S. Lewis begs to contradict and writes:
Are we not our true selves when naked? In a sense, no. The word naked was originally a past participle; the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, stripping or peeling (you used the verb of nuts and fruit). Time out of mind the naked man has seemed to our ancestors not the natural but the abnormal man; not the man who has abstained from dressing but the man who has been for some reason undressed. And it is a simple fact—anyone can observe it at a men's bathing place—that nudity emphasises common humanity and soft-pedals what is individual. In that way we are "more ourselves" when clothed. By nudity the lovers cease to be solely John and Mary; the universal He and She are emphasised. You could almost say they put on nakedness as a ceremonial robe—or as the costume for a charade. For we must still be aware…of being serious in the wrong way. (The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991. Print., p.104)
Although the context of Lewis's statements deal with real-world observation, not artistic expression, they nonetheless provide valid points crucial to the understanding of this abstract concept of Nudity as an artistic or real-world motif.
This painting was so scandalous that it was not put on public display until 1988, 122 years after its creation. It was only officially bought by the Musée d'Orsay some twenty years ago, but it attracted a lot of attention most recently in early 2013, when an art collector proposed he had found, in a separate canvas of just a female head, the "missing piece" of the original painting. The tv specials produced about the find were almost completely censored from showing Courbet's painting. (As highly controversial as his art was then, there are paintings by Courbet which are still to this day censored by the FCC from appearing on broadcast television).
I don't want to make the distinction. It is for you to decide what your opinion is on artworks such as this, whether they are truly "art" or simply pornography that has been promoted to look like art with a lot of high-academic pseudo-intellectual babble. However, in order to offer educated and really well-founded thoughts to the discussion, it is critical to know what we are talking about when we label something as art and something as pornography, lest we find ourselves making hasty and ignorant judgments about something we know nothing about and have no business talking about. Part of the reason we are examining such a broad and comprehensive timeline of art history is for the goal of better understanding, so that we can better tell what art is. With a more educated approach to art, we are all more likely to be well prepared and well equipped to face such heavily debated questions as the art vs. pornography problem going on right now—and not make hasty generalizations. The study of art can lead to more rational, educational, and profitable discussion, which I would welcome. …There, that is where we must stop now in order to continue on with the material. Our discussion on this topic is not over—there is more to be said; this is just a piece—but there will be time for that later. Not to silence any readers who would flag me here and now—I welcome questions and comments of course, as always—but for now I'll just march on until somebody stops me. Next we move on to Modernism…