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Head related to famous vulva found after 144 years
February 7, 2013 9:48 AM   Subscribe

The most famous female pudenda in the world, depicted in Courbet's 1866 painting L'origine du monde (The Origin of the World), which has been drawing crowds at the Orsay Museum since 1995 (and caused recently some Facebook-related controversy), may be soon reunited with the head of their owner, Irish model and muse (for Courbet and Whistler) Joanna Hiffernan. The theory is that the painting originally showed Hifferman's whole body, as in Courbet's Sleep, and was later cut in several pieces, though some art critics already disagree (Most links NSFW).
posted by elgilito (62 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
What, no picture of the two paintings lined up next to each other?
posted by monospace at 10:03 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there a decent shot of the newly found painting anywhere? The badly scanned version that the Telegraph ran is cut off and pixellated.
posted by klangklangston at 10:05 AM on February 7, 2013


Here's the best picture of the two paintings together I could find.
posted by yoink at 10:06 AM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


[Make an effort please? Thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 10:09 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have to say that, to me, the head and body don't quite seem to match, although I imagine that an artist could somehow fill in the gaps to make it conceivable. I'd have expected the nightgown she's pulling up in Origine to be rucked up around her neck, for one thing, and her shoulders don't seem to have turned the same way as the torso.
posted by yoink at 10:15 AM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


I like Andre Masson´s allusive version which was painted on a double bottomed frame for the then owner Jacques Lacan and his wife Sylvia.
posted by adamvasco at 10:16 AM on February 7, 2013


I wonder if somewhere in the world there's a lost painting of Mona Lisa's vulva.
posted by swift at 10:23 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Don't give Dan Brown ideas.
posted by The Whelk at 10:24 AM on February 7, 2013 [27 favorites]


And fuck facebook and all the purient and very american hypocrisy of not suitable for work / not suitable for anything art.
posted by adamvasco at 10:25 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Whoa, Lacan owned it? That...kinda makes sense. I learn something new every day.
posted by ifjuly at 10:27 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


The video link is so fun. I love watching people come upon the photo (heh) and react to it, most amusing.

adamvasco, I couldn't get to your first link but here is a page on Andre Masson's version, with more explanation of the double framing:

Not every painting has a story. Not every story with a painting is an interesting story. Andre Masson’s L’Origine du monde has a very interesting and very amusing story. Jacques Lacan, stepbrother to Andre Masson, acquired Courbet’s notorious L’ origin du Monde in 1955 and installed it in his country house outside of Paris where he entertained many top European artists and a host of ‘important’ visitors. Jacques Lacan was the leading psychoanalyst of his day. Followers of his psychoanalytical writings included Salvador Dali and Andre Bresson. Jacques Lacan was Picasso’s personal physician. In that era, 1955, the Courbet painting proved too provocative, too explicit, for his company and a solution had to be found for Lacan to enjoy the work of art and at the same time be able to conceal it from the ‘public’. Lacan asked Andre Masson, his stepbrother, to build a double bottom frame with a sliding panel to sit in front of the painting and draw another picture thereon. Andre Masson painted a surrealist image, an allusive version of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde 1866. The water color offered, of the same name, was his study for that painting.
posted by madamjujujive at 10:36 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't give Dan Brown ideas.

""L.H.O.O.Q," murmured Robert Langdon to himself, quietly. It means something, I'm sure!"
posted by yoink at 10:36 AM on February 7, 2013 [21 favorites]


Courbet's art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.
posted by sendai sleep master at 10:38 AM on February 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.
Bwah!
posted by Redfield at 10:42 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The theory is that the painting originally showed Hifferman's whole body, as in Courbet's Sleep, and was later cut in several pieces, though some art critics already disagree

Whichever, The Origin of the World is a brilliant painting and much better than one that shows the entire body, IMO.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:44 AM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


"...one in which the model’s hand holds a fluttering parakeet, a symbol of eroticism. "

A parakeet? Eroticism?
What does that even mean?
posted by Floydd at 10:46 AM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]


sendai sleep master: “Courbet's art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.”

Indeed. So, throughout the centuries, many men have had recourse to a hideous euphemism which actually occurs in the post above: "pudenda". "Pudenda" is basically the grossest word ever; it's generally meant to be a "polite" term for vagina, but it literally means "shameful thing," so that in tiptoeing around actually using frightening words like vagina, vulva, etc, we actually insult and degrade female sexuality specifically and human sexuality in general.

I guess not everyone knows what "pudenda" means, so I cringe and try to understand when I hear or read the word. However, take this as a suggestion that perhaps one may wish to replace the word "pudenda" in speech and text with a word that is less offensive. Like "cunt."
posted by koeselitz at 10:48 AM on February 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


A parakeet? Eroticism?

Here's Courbet doing a nude of Joanna Hiffernan with a parrot that's acceptably non-vaginal by the standards of the day, but pretty obviously erotic.
posted by yoink at 10:49 AM on February 7, 2013


A parakeet? Eroticism?
What does that even mean?


As for the specific relationship between women and

parrots, examples in literature and art can be traced
back for centuries. The relationship between the two is
intimate and borders on the erotic. In the sixteenth
century the parrot was associated with courtly love.I4
Many prominent members of the French nobility, including
Marguerite de Valois, Marguerite d'Autriche,
and Jeanne d'Albret had pet parrots.'5 It was for
Marguerite d'Autriche, the wife of Philibert le Beau,
that Jean Lemaire de Belges wrote the poem Les Epitres
de l'Amant Vert, in which the parrot is Marguerite's
constant companion. The parrot describes her beautiful
body, whether dressed or half-dressed, which he was
privileged to behold. He talks of his growing love for
Marguerite and is jealous of her lovers, whose activities
he must watch.16 Similar representations depicting the
parrot as the intimate companion of the woman, seeing
her in a state of partial dress, and sharing knowledge of
her personal life, recur over the centuries. They are
found frequently in seventeenth century Dutch and
Flemish paintings. The Woman with a Parrot by Frans
van Mieris (Figure 3) is illustrated in Charles Blanc's
Histoire des Peintres-a book consulted frequently by
Manet in the I86os.'7 (PDF)
posted by The Whelk at 10:50 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


A parakeet? Eroticism?
What does that even mean?


Selma: Are you gay?
Troy: Gay?! I wish! If I were gay they'd be no problem! No, what I have is a romantic abnormality, one so unbelievable that it must be hidden from the public at all cost. You see...
Selma: Stop!

posted by mosk at 10:52 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Or more directly "Sexual analogies between women and birds occur repeatedly in the history of art. In the seventeenth century birds and women were often so intimately related that the Dutch word vogelen, literally "to sell birds," also meant "to copulate."2"
posted by The Whelk at 10:54 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is about the point where I wish I had a sock puppet named Mulva.
posted by spicynuts at 10:55 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Indeed. So, throughout the centuries, many men have had recourse to a hideous euphemism which actually occurs in the post above: "pudenda".

While it's true that pudenda is used more often of female than male external genitalia, it does literally refer to both and it's not hard to find instances--and more the further back in time you go--of its use in reference to male.

By the way, "pudenda" does refer to external genitalia; i.e., in women's case, the vulva--not the vagina, which is internal.
posted by yoink at 10:57 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


A parakeet? Eroticism?
What does that even mean?


Apparantly there is a parrot in this picture
posted by adamvasco at 10:59 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel like I'm supposed to say something, but I don't have anything beyond, "Hey, this is cool!"
posted by loriginedumonde at 11:01 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


However, take this as a suggestion that perhaps one may wish to replace the word "pudenda" in speech and text with a word that is less offensive. Like "cunt."

You're fortunate that you're in a situation where you can analyze the offensiveness of these words based on their dictionary definitions and not whether they've been directed at you. I would suggest that this is not only a bad idea but actually rings so tone deaf to my ears that it has caused me to wonder if you are actually trolling. I know you to be not-a-troll, but I thought it might be helpful for you to understand what people on the other side of the "No actually, cunt is more offensive than pudenda, especially on MetaFilter." divide are thinking and feeling.
posted by jessamyn at 11:03 AM on February 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


I know you to be not-a-troll, but I thought it might be helpful for you to understand what people on the other side of the "No actually, cunt is more offensive than pudenda, especially on MetaFilter." divide are thinking and feeling.

I think his point was "OMG, pudenda is so utterly horrible it's even worse than 'cunt'--if you stop and think about it" not "hey, you guys should all start using the word 'cunt' at every opportunity, it's so totally awesome."
posted by yoink at 11:06 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the original painting is quite beautiful and complete. Pity it has so much baggage, and that so many find it offensive.

That said, my parrot, Turtle Bird, finds hilarious the idea that she represents eroticism.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:08 AM on February 7, 2013


I think his point was

And my point is that implying that people haven't "stopped and thought about it," and that he has and can tell us what is and is not offensive in some sort of objective fashion--as if language were not continually evolving and if meaning didn't come at least partially through use--is patronizing and rude.
posted by jessamyn at 11:10 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's at least another piece missing, with all the stab marks on it.

Seriously, am I the only one that finds the dismembering part creepy?

And also the "One complete figure cut up" theory a bit suspect in its reasoning?

I could understand Lacan's guests and the man himself deciding that a work depicting not just a nude but a very graphically anatomically correct one was perhaps a bit too outre for the dining room (after all, we've seen fig leaf editions before). That said, though I love the double-bodied frame in concept, the "allusive representation" of L'Origine is not so very skillful for me to want to display; I wonder if Lacan balked at it as well?

Whatever; the point I want to make is that if you want to display titillating or erotic art, there are many creative ways to do so short of cutting up your expertly crafted full-length nudes. Were I an art collector, I'd be loathe to go that route.

If the works are intended to stand on their own, though...you know, that's kinda creepy as well. You could argue that they are just some examples of an artist workin on mastering his technique. You often see sketches with many hands represented, for example, since hands are difficult to reproduce. Presumably vulvae are not much easier.

Most likely, though, the solution is simple: the head and body may be of the same woman, but they were never intended to be a single piece. Artists often worked on consignment, and should a wealthy patron desire a painting depicting only the vulva of a woman sprawled across the bed, in a pose that suggests the subject is eagerly primed for sex, Courbet probably wouldn't quibble at taking that on. Leaving off the face, then, or any other identifying characteristics, lets the buyer fantasize any woman he pleases, and makes for, I'd imagine, perfectly acceptable masturbatory fodder at the very least.
posted by misha at 11:14 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


"And fuck facebook and all the purient and very american hypocrisy of not suitable for work / not suitable for anything art."

So its probably best for facebook to not be covered in porn, I mean at best that'd be really fucking creepy, and so we really do kinda want facebook removing porn to keep it not hostile to people who don't want surprise porn. Now the painting is not porn, that its art is blindingly obvious to anyone with an art education, but that difference is awfully subtle for a corporate thing to see. So like, yeah this kind of shitty, but common, its not "Facebook wants to impose a form of Sharia law on the Internet" or "Once again, Eve is expelled from paradise" or whatever.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:18 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


“I am the official Courbet specialist and I have said it is by him.”


So that settles it? I hope it is fake.
posted by R. Mutt at 11:20 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd have expected the nightgown she's pulling up in Origine to be rucked up around her neck, for one thing, ..

One of the articles mentioned that there'd been some 3rd party "restoration" and it looks like someone clumsily painted out the nightgown, maybe thinking that a bare shouldered portrait would fetch a higher price.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:21 AM on February 7, 2013


One tidbit found in the French articles about the paintings: while some critics doubt that the head belongs to the body due to alignment issues, others point out that Courbet took some liberties with female anatomy anyway, including in the Origine painting. The person who noted this is the author and art critic Catherine Millet, author of The Sexual life of Catherine M., when she tried to replicate the Origine with her own body for a photograph and could not find the correct pose.
posted by elgilito at 11:23 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Leaving off the face, then, or any other identifying characteristics, lets the buyer fantasize any woman he pleases, and makes for, I'd imagine, perfectly acceptable masturbatory fodder at the very least.

I can't say that no one ever masturbated to this picture (or, come to that, to a portrait of George Washington or a still life of a block of cheese), but I think the notion that this picture's main purpose was essentially that of a Playboy magazine pictorial is weirdly reductive--and weirdly puritan (OMG a picture of a woman's vulva!! Obviously it's for masturbation!!!).

And while there's no doubt a fetish out there for headless/faceless porn (just as there's a fetish for everything else) it's not, in fact, true--as a matter of simple observation--that headlessness/facelessness is a typical or prevailing feature of porn, either in the mid C19th or today. Look at any mainstream porn mag or any porn site (like the tumblr linked above) and you'll see lots and lots and lots of intense attention paid to faces. Clearly the vast majority of male consumers of pornography prefer to project their fantasies onto an identifiable face than onto a de-identified torso.
posted by yoink at 11:25 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I, too, hate the word "pudenda" used for genitalia, because I am not ashamed of having genitalia. But then again, I haven't used my genitalia to create anything.

All the words are kind of terrible. My vulva isn't a wrapper, my vagina isn't a scabbard, my clitoris isn't a key (that one doesn't bother me as much, though). But "pudenda" definitely gives me the icks.

I like Courbet, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:27 AM on February 7, 2013


One of the articles mentioned that there'd been some 3rd party "restoration" and it looks like someone clumsily painted out the nightgown, maybe thinking that a bare shouldered portrait would fetch a higher price.

That's a good point. I assume that high-tech lab study of the two canvasses should be able to figure this one out pretty quickly, no? If it's a fraud it would be pretty improbable that the paints and the support will match up perfectly.
posted by yoink at 11:27 AM on February 7, 2013


jessamyn: “... my point is that implying that people haven't 'stopped and thought about it,' and that he has and can tell us what is and is not offensive in some sort of objective fashion--as if language were not continually evolving and if meaning didn't come at least partially through use--is patronizing and rude.”

You know, I did this whole 'listen to my etymology which explains why your words for things are wrong' thing in another thread recently too. And it was just as much a mistake there. Maybe it's time for me to have a bit of a think about the way I accord power to etymology and take it away from people who are actually using words.

You're right, as usual. Sorry, folks. That was rude of me; particularly the implication that elgilito had done something wrong just by using that particular term.
posted by koeselitz at 11:40 AM on February 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'll just point to my pudenda muliebra story from junior high, which I think is pretty funny.

Also to say that I was one of those who came around a corner and ran smack into L'orignie while walking around the Orsay museum. All I remember is laughing and thinking "Yep, I'm in France."
posted by benito.strauss at 11:52 AM on February 7, 2013


"Yep, I'm in France."
posted by Nomyte at 12:00 PM on February 7, 2013


One of my ongoing goals is to go as Courbet (from his Artist In Studio) for Halloween, ever since some drunk at a bar told me I looked like him.

As for the cut up, couldn't he have painted on two separate canvases from the same session? I mean, Courbet did have a fair number of huge works, but he was also pretty good at getting the art out in saleable sizes.
posted by klangklangston at 12:21 PM on February 7, 2013


I think the point of l'origine is that it's a picture of a cunt, not a picture of a woman exposing her cunt. I take it that Courbet finally saw just one more picture than he could take of a hairless nymph or goddess with a strategically placed hand and/or wisp of implausible gauze, and stormed back to his studio determined to show people "Hey, this what a cunt looks like! It's where we all came from, for God's sake!"

And amen to that.
posted by Segundus at 1:00 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I dislike the word pudenda because it sounds gross. I didn't know the etymology. But you can't say it out loud without sounding disapproving, so I suppose that's fitting.

I would probably have used the word crotch to describe this painting if I had to. Or I suppose genitals if I was feeling formal.

But I agree with misha, I find the painting unsettling. Maybe I've seen too many movies about serial killers, and the way they dismember and pose their bodies.

To make things worse, the combination of the painting's name and its subject sounds (to my modern ears) as though it's meant as an ironic smirk. Like, "Look at this disgusting thing, can you believe it's where we all came from?"

I'm not saying it's a bad painting, though. Quite the contrary. That's the kind of thought-provoking-ness that I want to see in art.

And while I admire the efforts to put a head back on the model, it's clearly not what the artist originally intended, so I think the effort is a bit - please forgive me for this - wrong-headed.
posted by ErikaB at 1:15 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina.

Um, OK. Except this is a painting of a vulva.

The vagina is the internal part. You can't see it in a painting like this.

I'm glad we're all agreed that pudenda is the worst word in the English language, though.
posted by Sara C. at 1:32 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Um, OK. Except this is a painting of a vulva.

it's from a movie
posted by shakespeherian at 1:41 PM on February 7, 2013


it's from a movie

which only some people have seen apparently.

posted by jessamyn at 1:50 PM on February 7, 2013


we're whispering because this is a library
posted by shakespeherian at 2:08 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


"which only some people have seen apparently."

To be fair it is a very famous movie that is a metafilter staple.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:18 PM on February 7, 2013


The word "pudenda" sounds so much like "pudding" to me that I have a hard time not thinking of it as a Latin participle meaning "that which is to be puddinged". Like Julia Child would say "make sure you have all your pudenda — milk, butter, and so forth — measured out before you start to heat the milk".
posted by benito.strauss at 2:28 PM on February 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yes, I have seen that but didn't recognize the quote. Sorry?

It does sort of annoy me when people get all WHY ARE PEOPLE SO AFRAID TO SAY VAGINA when they are actually talking about vulvas, anyway.

posted by Sara C. at 2:49 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


but I think the notion that this picture's main purpose was essentially that of a Playboy magazine pictorial is weirdly reductive--and weirdly puritan (OMG a picture of a woman's vulva!! Obviously it's for masturbation!!!).

What? Where do you get that? You characterizing it as Puritanical is on you, not on me; the label assumes that I find something wrong or distasteful about masturbation or erotic art, and I don't, with either.

My point was that it seems like a standalone work, rather than a dismembered larger nude, and that there might have been any number of reasons why the artist chose to focus on the vulva. To me, the most likely is that the work was commissioned by someone, perhaps as fantasy fodder, but that's only one possibility.

L'Origine du Monde could be a simple anatomical study (like I mentioned, with the hand sketches). It could be a cautionary tale on sex leading to pregnancy. Maybe it was part of a larger statement on childbirthts.

I do feel that if childbirth were what the artist was going for, intuitively one would think he'd include the pregnant stomach and perhaps the breasts, with a child suckling. That's another reason why the head, as it is, feels wrong to me, as does the "dismembered" conjecture.
posted by misha at 3:18 PM on February 7, 2013


The NYT report about the Courbet exhibition at the Metropolitain Museum of Art in 2008 calls the Origine an "unembellished close-up of a woman’s lower torso and open thighs". The painting was shown in a secluded passageway. Pudenda may sound dirty in English, but it's sort of fitting when the English-speaking mainstream media in the early 2000s still considers the subject matter too shameful for public viewing and has a hard time calling un chat un chat, as French people say (double-entendre included!).

To me, the most likely is that the work was commissioned by someone, perhaps as fantasy fodder, but that's only one possibility.
Actually it was commissioned for the erotic art collection of Khalil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat, who also commissioned the barely less explicit (but much larger!) Sleep cited in the FPP. So it's really fantasy fodder, and the model of both paintings was the painter's lover. There's even a theory that claims that the Origine shows the model in post-coital state.
posted by elgilito at 3:54 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pudenda: Rude Bits (British English, also unisex.)
posted by glasseyes at 4:36 PM on February 7, 2013


I just want to applaud the title of this. Clicking on the links was even better than I expected, especially since I don't think I have heard of this artist before. Not that I would put a print of it on my wall, head or no head.

the Metropolitain Museum of Art in 2008 calls the Origine an "unembellished close-up of a woman’s lower torso and open thighs"

This looks like a job for The Phantom Vajazzler.

(But can we change pudenda to "hoo hoo"? I really feel it would be less confronting).
posted by Mezentian at 6:43 PM on February 7, 2013


> To make things worse, the combination of the painting's name and its subject sounds (to my modern ears) as though it's meant as an ironic smirk. Like, "Look at this disgusting thing, can you believe it's where we all came from?"

I don't know where you're getting any hint of disgust or smirking. He's painted his subject with reverence.
posted by desuetude at 7:30 PM on February 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


Your rap shiftless/ like mark return to sender
Your crew dickless/ pudenda pretenders

I dunno guys I think the word's got some overlooked potential.
posted by furiousthought at 7:47 PM on February 7, 2013


L'origine du hoo-hoo
posted by jaguar at 8:47 PM on February 7, 2013


yoink referenced L.H.O.O.Q. but nobody has mentioned Duchamp's last great artwork, Étant donnés, which is immediately what I thought of when I saw L'Origine du monde. It's hidden in a back corner, behind a door, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
posted by LeLiLo at 1:32 AM on February 8, 2013


I don't know where you're getting any hint of disgust or smirking. He's painted his subject with reverence.

Absolutely. And that's also why I prefer the work as it is currently shown, without knowing the identity of the vulva in question - because every woman has that part, and thus has that ability to create life (as well as, for the most part, the ability to choose whether to use that power or not).

Seeing a head or a face on that body would set it up for me as "this is a specific Mother Goddess/whatever figure" and it would distance it for me; but seeing just the torso sort of underscores that "oh, hey, that could be me. It could be my mother. My grandmother. Her grandmother. It is my best friend, who's had a child, and it could be my other best friend, who hasn't." I like it best where you can imagine any kind of everywoman attached to that torso, precisely because it is Every Woman that can be, if they wish, the Origin of The World for someone.

And dammit, that's awesome.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on February 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


Étant Donnés looks like what Thomas Kinkade would jerk off to.

(Not that I don't like it, but the way those trees are lit? Christmas wonderland.)
posted by klangklangston at 8:55 AM on February 8, 2013


Étant Donnés looks like what Thomas Kinkade would jerk off to.

It's a sculptural installation--you have to peek through a little keyhole to see the scene and the lighting is weirdly atmospheric. It really is completely impossible to convey the experience in a two-dimensional reproduction.
posted by yoink at 10:17 AM on February 8, 2013


Actually it was commissioned for the erotic art collection of Khalil Bey,

"Erotic art collection" is a pretty misleading description of Khalil Bey's fantastic collection of C19th French art. He had works by Ingres, Corot, Daubigny, Rousseau, several by Courbet etc. etc. Sure, some of the highlights of the collection were nudes (Ingres's Bain Turc etc.), and a few of them nudes that would have been controversial to hang in public back in the day. But this painting was the most "shocking" of the entire collection, by a pretty wide margin. It's not like it was being slipped in alongside hardcore photos of Jeff Koons and Ilona Staller or something.
posted by yoink at 10:23 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


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