“Heroism,” Or After Art History records in detailed fictionalized terms the speaker’s feelings in response to a recent discovery of the rest of the painting from which Gustave Courbet’s infamous “L’Origine du Monde” was cut.
For going on 150 years, in the absence of the remainder of the painting, the 18 x 22.5 inch “L’Origine du Monde,” now in the collection of the Musee D’Orsay in Paris, has been read as an aesthetic whole, almost as if it were not a detail from a larger work. In issue 102 of October (1986), Linda Nochlin explores how such a celebration of Courbet’s genius depended, in large part, by the “fact” that “L’Origine du Monde” had no visible origin than its little self. The cult of the little painting added to the glorification of Courbet; the daring rectangle of oil on canvas was at one time owned by the psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan; when it visited New York some years ago, it was secluded behind a partition to protect the innocent from its power. Today, even Facebook censors its image on users’ walls.
The speaker of my poem is one of those for whom the myth of an independent “L’Origine du Monde” dramatically increased his admiration for Courbet’s devil-may-care genius. For the speaker, Courbet is a rare artist who in this one work was bold enough to stop fiddling around and let the pornographic intention behind so many female nudes hold the conceptual and visual center of a work.
Such a pure form of artistic heroism—a Courbet courageous enough to be the little self that flouts patriarchy for being ashamed to want to see what it wants to see—may be even harder to come by than even the speaker of my poem supposed.
In early 2013, the international press published the story that the remainder of a full-length nude which corresponded to the “missing” portion of “L’Origine du Monde” had been discovered. Over a year ago, Jean Jacque Fernier, a leading Courbet expert, confirmed in Paris Match that he had studied the larger canvas, which was indeed the origin of “L’Origine.” The argument may not be over: connoisseur Hubert Duchemin calls the Paris Match apparent match “bullshit.” Either way, for the speaker of “Heroism,” Or After Art History, the gig is up: he will never be able to see “L’Origine du Monde” as the origin of a new, un-compromisingly honest world of art.
Daniel Bosch’s poems, essays, and reviews appear in such journals as The Paris Review, Agni, Poetry, and The Glasgow Review. He is Senior Editor at Berfrois.