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Artistic Critique to 'The Origin of the World' by Gustav Courbet

Part of the exhibit, "The Burden of Creation"


L'Origine du monde or The Origin of the World is an oil painting on canvas, by Gustav Courbet in 1866. The painting close-up view of the vulva and abdomen of a naked woman, lying on a bed with legs spread. Considered as one of the most controversial painting in the world, many have speculated about its muse, origin, and intent. Of course, people have been obsessed over this anonymous nude (sic!)

It is said that the painting was commissioned by Halil Şerif Pasha (Khalil Bey), an Ottoman diplomat, to add to his personal collection of erotic paintings. It went through a series of private collectors and finally became public in the late 1900s. What followed was a public chaos each time the painting was displayed. Some question over how a nude of a female body can be made public, some have questioned creation and presentation of the painting without the consent of the muse, and some have complimented it over realistically portraying a female body. Nevertheless, it always took the public by storm.

I was particularly interested angry about the relationship between the painting and its name. Once again, somebody had created a unique identity of a "woman" by focusing on the genitals of a female body. For me, it had to be a part of the, 'The Burden of Creation' exhibit. The installation put particular focus on how woman and flowers have been pedestalised as 'creators' in this world. The exhibit further talks about the consequences of this burden on women and flowers and the exclusionary attitude towards queer-trans individuals. Below are some phrases I wanted to edit and put along with the painting to critique it-

The fertility of the earth is bound up with feminine fecundity; hence women become responsible for the abundance of harvests, for they know the "mystery" of creation. It is a religious mystery, for it governs the origin of life, the food supply, and death. The soil is assimilated into the sexual act. But for millennia, Mother Earth gave birth by herself, through parthenogenesis.
Eliade, 40

"The natural order is defined by communities of naturalists that have systematically excluded portions of humanity from their enterprise, that we see the significance of Linnaean and other taxonomies that purported to provide crisp and value-neutral renderings of nature. The natural qualities of plants, animals, and humans– stripped clean of history and culture– now defined a continuous natural order that stretched seamlessly from nature to culture and back again. A creature’s “nature” was seen as defining its rightful place in that order. "
– Dr. Londa Schiebinger

What did the Archives at NCBS think?

Needless to say, when the knowledge of this curatorial decision reached the Archives at NCBS (they are the site and the supporters of the exhibition), their reaction was not positive. While at first, they were worried that the painting might be against the institutional guidelines, new issues came up once that was not so. For instance, they questioned how women workers would be able to comfortably come to the space and feared if any man would masturbate in the space. While I rebuked these, the one I was actually concerned about was the POSCO act, whether the space would be accessible for children. With this in mind, I decided not to portray the painting.

What do I do now?

Even though, I decided not to put up the painting as is, it was important to talk about it critically. And the best way I figured I could do it was by doing an artistic critique.

I printed the painting very small (2 inches wide) and stuck it in the corner of a larger canvas, taking away its spotlight. Then I picked elements that *literally* depict origin of the world and I painted the whole canvas with that. Ta-da!

There is the Big Bang! Cell division, protein formation! The classic chicken-and-egg riddle, weather cycle and so on :)

For the portion near the painting, I showcase human birth, care and nurture without focusing on any gendered identity of people.

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