JON STEVENS (MRes History of Art)
Oh dear! Why is it that when art history hits the headlines, it is often a banal example of an artistic ‘who-dun-it’ or, even, ‘who-was-it’. A week or so ago, a news item in the Guardian announced that one of the greatest mysteries in art history appears to have been solved.
What was this mystery? Apparently, some new research has revealed (I use the word advisedly) that the model for Gustave Courbet’s notorious painting of a naked woman’s torso and genitalia – L’Origine du Monde – was not Joanna Hiffernan, as previously thought, but Constance Quinéaux. I can’t imagine that many people regarded the identity of the model for this work as a great mystery — or for that matter especially interesting, given the myriad other more profound and powerful analyses that this image of female objectivity opens up — but the way this story was reported by various news outlets, including the Guardian and the BBC, was problematic in other ways.
To start with the painting itself. It was commissioned in the mid nineteenth-century by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Ottoman diplomat based in Paris, who had a taste for erotic art. He apparently hung it in his private chambers hidden behind a green curtain. The truncated and foreshortened woman’s body in the picture lies uncovered and exposed, with the white bed sheet drawn back; the woman is objectified and denied any identity (which, apart from anything else, rather undermines the importance of scholarly debate around the supposed model). Bey apparently displayed his painting to selected male guests by theatrically drawing the curtain back. And, although I have only seen reproductions of the painting, it seems to me that it amounts to little more than a piece of voyeurism.
For many years, the painting was not shown in public. Apparently, it was thought that, while discerning and educated men could appreciate it as a ‘work of art’, ordinary people, rather like ‘the servants’ in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, might be corrupted by it. To maintain this conceit, it was given the overblown title of ‘The Origin of the World’. It was painted in 1866, seven years after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species; this made the painting either hopelessly unscientific, if you accepted the idea of evolution by natural selection, or blasphemous, if you subscribed to the idea of a creator god. But of course the title was just a false cover, designed to give the painting some kind of specious respectability.
The press coverage of the story makes matters worse, much worse. The BBC in its report tries to stick to the facts, as it were. But their whole approach is undermined by the photoshopped image, which precedes their article. This shows a woman spectator standing in front of the painting with the back of her head and her long hair obscuring the offending genitalia. To replace the male gaze with the female gaze in this way is unbelievably crass; in trying to be discrete, the BBC has instead added a new dimension to the notion of objectification.
The Guardian makes little attempt to be measured. Their news item engages in some titillating speculation about the model’s dark pubic hair; this matches Quineaux’s “beautiful black eyebrows” whereas Hiffernan had a “mane of flaming red curls”. Jonathan Jones in his Guardian article entitled Who posed for the ‘Mona Lisa of vaginas’? is more obviously prurient. Although he places the Mona Lisa reference in quotation marks, it is clear that this is his idea of a joke and he continues in this vein.
Jones, who previously subscribed to the view that Courbet’s model was Joanna Hiffernan, is a bit miffed by this new research as it means he will have to amend a book he is writing. However, he salaciously accepts that there is ‘a blazing piece of contradictory evidence’ to the contrary. Nevertheless, this doesn’t stop Jones pondering that ‘it is particularly tempting to imagine Hiffernan’s features hidden under that white sheet’. He goes on to use the story as a pretext for speculating about the ‘carnal dimension’ of some paintings that did feature Joanna Hiffernan, who apart from modelling for Courbet briefly, was James McNeill Whistler’s mistress and muse. Hiffernan features in all of Whistler’s ‘Symphonies’, including the Barber Institute’s own Symphony in White No III, but it is her appearance as a prostitute in Whistler’s Wapping that most exercises him.
I could go on but I suggest that you access the offending articles for yourself by looking at the BBC’s news item , the Guardian’s news item and the Jonathan Jones article. Further thoughts are welcome!