On First Seeing Courbet’s ‘L’Origine Du Monde Blonde’


Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine Du Monde Blonde
…………….(Oil on canvas 1866)

Serpent-fuzzed Medusa’s smile,
a twisting irony of wry love’s 

languid testament,
a last adagio
slowed to sapphire isle; pulse
emphatic to undulating seas:
silk skimming curvature, starkly
leveled among white sheets;
her lipped integrity, caverned
by hollow folds slipping round
the bend of love’s insistent charm;
hovering amber marshaling
a labile moon: all bound 

to Courbet’s eyes, glazed risible;
a sublimity
brought low, induced
below extremity’s bright plumage,
revealing abjectness: a final clearing,
abstracted matheme – reality’s
mark and line,  toad-
curved wonders 
of flesh and cure;
torso cropped and splayed, anesthetized;
her human form bared distinctly, stripped
of that anxious allure: the entrapment,
horror vacui – this ‘Esthétique du Mal’;
tracked excrement in excess
of male desire,
harbinger’s dark weaving ‘night of the world’.



I must admit I am not trying to purposively offend anyone, not at all. My poetry tries to push aesthetic limits in various directions. This one being toward realism and disgust which have been used at various times throughout the long history of artistic endeavors from Aristophanes to Mapplethorpe and others. If it offends just pass on by… other poetry in other modes will soon reappear along with my usual philosophical musings.

I happened to be reading Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute when I came upon a passage on Gustave Courbet and the end of naïve realism, where he says “with Courbet, we learn that there is no Thing behind the sublime appearance – that if we force our way through the sublime appearance to the Thing itself, all we get is a suffocating nausea of the abject..”. This sense that with Courbet something ended, that realism had pushed its aesthetic to a climax in revealing the sublime object of the woman’s vagina, the Lacanian ‘lost object of desire’ – the object petit a. After Courbet the Modernism of the abstract anti-realist would enter the staging of the Void as the missing Thing. Of which the two extremes were Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ as the staged void, and Duchamp’s bicycle or toilet as the ordinary object revealed in the missing Void or (Sacred) Place where Truth, Art, God, etc. once revealed itself. Both place and object would from then own become the aesthetic of the Ugly rather than the Sublime. We would now live in a world bereft of Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and the Longinian-Burke Sublime: the subterfuge of religious longing and its belief in an Outside – and archetypal realm beyond; its Transcendence. That is until Andy Warhol whose Coca-Cola bottles revealed the limit and litmus test of Void and Thing as Commoditized Absence; or, the End of Art as Art. After Warhol all innocence is lost, as well as the illusive ‘object petit a’. Now we are left in the kenoma – the vastation of late capitalism; i.e., ‘night of the world’ – Hegel’s image from his lectures:

Man is this Night, this empty nothing that, in its simplicity, contains everything: an unending wealth of illusions and images which he remains unaware of—or which no longer exist. It is this Night, Nature’s interior, that exists here—pure self—in phantasmagorical imagery, where it is night everywhere… where, here, shoots a bloody head and, there, suddenly, another white shape—only to disappear all the same. We see this Night whenever we look into another’s eye—into a night that becomes utterly terrifying—wherein, truly, we find the Night of the World suspended.

Further note: interestingly I lost four  five followers after posting this poem and picture (of Courbet’s painting). Obviously I’ve hit a nerve and mark, brought forth certain inevitable reactions to this art form as should be expected. Is such realist art still shocking to certain minds? Is realist art so disgusting that people deem it still should be hidden or forgotten? Maybe, it is seen as politically incorrect, a derogation to feminist, a stain upon the era of Victorian Irony? Strange, one wonders what might be going on in their minds. Of course Courbet along with his era was flowing between an ultra-realism and the late symbolist and decadent moment of artistic invention; a time when Gustave Flaubert, Emile Zola, Huysmans, Henry James and many others worked the extremes of realism and naturalism. The time of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme just to name a few of the poets of that interesting era. In poetry one allows the dead to reinhabit their homes allusively by way of echo and embellishment. Ours is an age of transition, seeking ways out of the anti-realist vision of the postmodern era and turning toward new speculative forms of materialism and realism. I seek to allow these many threads into my poetry, indifferent to the moral consequences of such strange sublimes; allowing both the upper and lower limits of desire to take hold and channel the ghosts that seek voicing in my utterance.

As Wiki reports it:

During the 19th century, the display of the nude body underwent a revolution whose main activists were Courbet and Manet. Courbet rejected academic painting and its smooth, idealized nudes, but he also directly recriminated the hypocritical social conventions of the Second Empire, where eroticism and even pornography were acceptable in mythological or oneiric paintings.

Courbet later insisted he never lied in his paintings, and his realism pushed the limits of what was considered presentable. With L’Origine du monde, he has made even more explicit the eroticism of Manet’s Olympia. Maxime Du Camp, in a harsh tirade, reported his visit to the work’s purchaser, and his sight of a painting “giving realism’s last word”.

By the very nature of its realistic, graphic nudity, the painting still has the power to shock and triggers censorship:

In February 2011, Facebook censored L’Origine du monde after it was posted by Copenhagen-based artist Frode Steinicke, to illustrate his comments about a television program aired on DR2. Following the incident, many other Facebook users defiantly changed their profile pictures to the Courbet painting in an act of solidarity with Steinicke. Facebook which originally disabled Steinicke’s profile finally re-enabled it without the L’Origine du monde picture. As the case won media attention, Facebook deleted other pages about the painting.

One forgets there is a complete tradition of the ‘Aesthetic of Disgust’, which is the central mode of the various forms of naturalism and realism from the Victorian Age till now. Even Umberto Eco’s History of Beauty and History of Ugliness inhabit that space:

  1. Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics by Carolyn Korsmeyer
  2. Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation by Winfried Menninghaus
  3. Representing Repulsion: The Aesthetics of Disgust in Contemporary Women’s Writing in French and German by Katie Jones
  4. On Disgust by Aurel Kolnai
  5. Anatomy of Disgust by William Ian Miller
  6. The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust by Robert Rawdon Wilson

– Steven Craig Hickman ©2015 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.


5 thoughts on “On First Seeing Courbet’s ‘L’Origine Du Monde Blonde’

    • There never was one sublime… there have been different versions from Longinus, to Renaissance, to Romantic, to Modern … which one? We’re living in the midst of the technological sublime at the moment, when machines are taking on the embers of human sublimity. Or, I should say the last remnants of Freud’s ‘Uncanny’. Which was, after all, the last version of the Sublime….


    • As you saw in his last statement that “no one can deny that technology is a no less inexhaustible god.” That’s to me the false sense of the transcendental, etc. Whereas for me following what has always been termed the counter-sublime of those who seek an immanent intensity not in some beyond, but rather in the intensive livingness of our actual universe here and now. Poets like Frost, Robert Penn Warren, and others follow this other counter-sublime as did Melville and Hawthorne against Emerson’s early notions of transcendentalism and Self-reliance. It’s just a matter of knowing the literature connected to these various traditions, seeing into which you feel lured or allured as the case may be. Being atheist and materialist only means as Lucretius stated long ago that there is no fear in death, because death is finality. So live your life as if this were the last day: seize the day! And, although, Lucretius’s metaphysical materialism is no longer viable with our new knowledge of the sciences, naturalism, and the universe in physics and biology we’re learning that at the quantum level things are not quite what the old atomists believe. For from it the universe is quite open and free of human thought and being, and at heart we have a great deal still to learn and discover about ourselves and our universe.

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