I knew that staring was rude. But it was hard not to stare at the realistically rendered, X-rated perspective of a splayed vagina on view in one of the most celebrated museums in the world. No face, no legs, no arms, just ladybits. Not a fig leaf in sight. I wasn’t the only voyeur, mind you. People were milling about, snickering or averting their gaze once their brains registered what they were looking at.
It was the winter of 2011. I had just arrived in Paris on an extended artist residency and was visiting the d’Orsay Museum to get the creative juices flowing. From the moment I laid eyes on Gustave Courbet’s sensational 19th century masterpiece, “The Origin of the World” (“L’Origine du monde”), I was smitten. The audacity, the beauty, the fearlessness of it! Even as I continued my trek through the museum admiring the van Goghs, the Monets and the Manets, the searing afterimage of Courbet’s vulvic portrait lingered on.
(Note: This article includes photographs and video of Courbet’s painting, so if that’s not something you feel comfortable looking at, don’t read any further.)
After several hours of art gazing, I decided to call it a day. What transpired next is still something of a mystery. As I was heading toward the museum exit, my feet made a sudden beeline for the information desk. Elbowing my way through the throng, I asked the sultry mademoiselle behind the counter how one goes about getting permission to copy one of the museum’s masterpieces. I don’t know what possessed me. I had never attempted, nor been tempted, to copy another artist’s work ― let alone in public where one’s creative shortcomings might be all too evident. Raising one perfectly groomed eyebrow she inquired as to which painting “madame” was interested in copying. “L’Origine du monde!” I blurted out.
I had come to Paris with a vague notion of exploring the topic of female sexuality and aging. Despite joining that broad swath of women of “a certain age,” I felt at the peak of my sexual prowess and was having a hard time coming to grips with the looming prospect of diminishing sexual appeal. What better place than Paris to hunt down the elusive essence of enduring feminine allure? It’s no secret that French men still wax lyrical about octogenarian sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, and Napoleon himself remarked, “Give a woman six months in Paris, and she knows where her empire is, and what is her due.” But where to begin? “The Origin of the World” seemed as good a starting point as any.