Sunday, February 10, 2013

Courbet's Origin of the World: a field day for psychoanalysts

Gustave Courbet
L'Origine du Monde, 1866
Having crudely Photoshopped one of the few media images yet published of the recently discovered top portion of Courbet's controversial painting 'L'Origine du Monde' (The Origin of the World) to at least bring it into closer proximity with the extant lower half, my original skepticism towards the 'discovery' has been somewhat dispelled, although not entirely. This is, I readily acknowledge, an almost unforgiveable aesthetic crime, but hey, my curiosity got the better of me. I'm no expert in computer graphics, so cut me some slack for a moment — this is connoisseurship, not prurience.

We will have to wait until French experts have done a more professional job of digitally reuniting the two parts to be more sure. I can't see them attempting to actually 'restore' it. Perhaps it will end up being displayed like Manet's almost exactly contemporaneous Execution of Maximilian (1867-8) in the London National Gallery, which has also suffered radical dismemberment since it was painted (the art market is to blame for that).

If the Courbet head just discovered is indeed the excised part of the painting it will be an extraordinary art historical find, although not, perhaps, in the same league as the disinterment of Richard III's skeleton beneath a Leicester Car Park.

Jean-Jacques Fernier of the Courbet Institute unites the fragments
I learned this morning from Guardian critic Jonathan Jones's blog that Courbet's Origin of the World was once owned by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan's famously obscure writings were the cynosure of all undergraduate critical theorists while I was studying art history at Sussex University in the mid-1980s. That was a time when the so-called New Art History was asserting itself, a defining strand being the fusion of methodologies from other disciplines, most notably anthropology, critical theory, Marxism, gender theory, French psychoanalysis, and so on, into one gloriously calorific casserole of critical approaches. It made for some lively and knockabout post-graduate seminars.

Courbet's 'Origin' was often wheeled out on such occasions. It will be interesting to see how art historians deconstruct the marriage of the two separated portions. The possibilities for psychoanalytic interpretation are surely endless. Oh to hear what Lacan might have said. On other other hand, maybe not.

Image above right: Photograph: Jacky Naegelen/Reuters