Art and Sexuality: Vagina Activism

It’s another controversy about Contemporary Art, and I wonder what my students would think: visitors to the Musée d’Orsay in the French capital came across an unexpected performance (if you would call it so) when a young woman suddenly sat down with her back to a famous painting, opened her legs and posed with her hands stretching her vagina open for the viewers.

This time it’s not Femen, not Marina Abramovic, but rather an average artist from Luxemburg called Deborah de Robertis, whose intervention last week sparked a heated debate that we all know too well: where are the limits? The borderline?

The ‘act’ took place at the hall where Gustave Courbet’s painting ‘The Origin of the World’ hangs on the wall, a painting that portrays a woman’s thighs, torso, and, at the centre of attention, her unshaven genitals. The Orsay website celebrate this masterpiece of Modern Art, and on its website they had this to say about it: “Courbet regularly painted female nudes, sometimes in a frankly libertine vein. But in The Origin of the World he went to lengths of daring and frankness which gave his painting its peculiar fascination. The almost anatomical description of female sex organs is not attenuated by any historical or literary device.”

But what was Deborah thinking when she recreated -in a way- the original painting through her performance? Well, here is what she had to say:
“There is a gap in art history, the absent point of view of the object of the gaze. In his realist painting, the painter shows the open legs, but the vagina remains closed. He does not reveal the hole, that is to say, the eye. I am not showing my vagina, but I am revealing what we do not see in the painting, the eye of the vagina, the black hole, this concealed eye, this chasm, which, beyond the flesh, refers to infinity, to the origin of the origin.”

Obviously, the Museum does not share this ‘vaginal interpretation’. She was accused of exhibitionism and of violating the Museum’s rules. Many high profile critics rushed to condemn her act as pure propaganda, aimed at securing an ephemeral media attention, while others pushed for a feminist interpretation, overkill!

I do not know if what she did was art, I am not arrogant enough to claim I have the magical equation or definition for what art is. I also couldn’t care less about the limits. I do know, however, that if she really means what she says, we would be witnessing a case of ‘vagina activism’ in which genitals are –finally- at the service of art (rather than being a clichéd expression of a zillionth feminist outcry).

The Origin of the World by Gustave CourbetDeborah de Robertis in action

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