What’s in a statue? Politics, Women and Rebel Artist Gustave Courbet

What’s in a statue? Politics, Women and Rebel Artist Gustave Courbet

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gustave courbet
© Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

I think it’s fair to say that Paris is awash in statues and monuments. It’s one of the things I love about the city. If you don’t watch your step you might collide with one of the hundreds of magnificent landmarks scattered about in every arrondissement, reminders of the glorious (and at times not-so-glorious) chapters of French history.

Following the spontaneous swell of unrest in the United States in response to the murder of George Floyd, a collective lens has turned its eye upon historic statues founded upon dubious ethical and moral foundations. This critical assessment of public monuments has spread like wildfire across the globe and Paris has not been spared from protests and acts of vandalism aimed at statues perceived as colonial and racist.

Place Vendome in Paris. © Alexis Duclos for INSPIRELLE

Statues that liberate or frustrate

I have no intention of wading into the fraught waters of whether or not these monuments merely record past history or whether they should in fact be relegated to the vast dumping ground of history. However, these current events have illustrated just how powerful public symbols can be. Statues such as the Statue of Liberty for instance, can galvanize an entire nation while removal of public monuments can set in motion a series of events that lead to unprecedented dire consequences.

Take for example the Vendôme Column, smack in the middle of the luxe Place Vendôme. You know the one – that towering bronze obelisk decorated with classic bas-reliefs and friezes and topped by Emperor Napoleon himself. This monument’s checkered past includes its dramatic toppling in the 19th century, an event that destroyed the life of one of France’s most famous native sons, artist Gustave Courbet.

Place Vendome with its famous column. © Wikimedia

Gustave Courbet: Politics, women and art

For those of you familiar with this trailblazing 19th century artist, the name Gustave Courbet may well conjure up images of heavy-flanked maidens, dead stags, village burials or perhaps the iconic and memorable portrait of a woman’s vagina on permanent exhibition at the Orsay Museum. But apart from being an artiste par excellence, Courbet was also a staunch defender of the working man and a tireless opponent of authority in all its forms.

His zeal for change landed him in deep trouble during the 1871 Paris Commune – a brief but traumatic period in French history wittily described by Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker as “an Occupy Paris movement destined to become an urban Masada in the middle of the Belle Époque”. The short-lived utopian uprising ended in a blood bath, but not before our hotheaded artist-rebel inadvertently triggered the toppling of the Vendôme Column and consequently, his own downfall.  

Barricade set up at Place Vendome in 1871 during Paris rebellion. © Wikimedia

Downfall of an artist-rebel

How, you might ask, did an artist manage to get himself in such a pickle? In 1871, Paris was in total chaos. As Prussian bombs rained down on the city, its feeble governors were clandestinely negotiating with the enemy. The citizens (or rabble, depending on which history book you read) took to the streets and established their own government, nominating none other than Gustave Courbet as protector of the city’s art treasures. But Courbet being Courbet, he wasn’t satisfied with simply defending Paris’ museums and monuments. He made an impassioned speech denouncing the Vendôme Column as a reactionary symbol of “brutal force and false glory.” His intention was for the column to be taken apart piece by piece for safe-keeping and replaced by something more suitably revolutionary.

Instead, the crowds marched off towards the Vendôme Column, lassoed the massive pillar and brought it crashing to the ground. This stirring event is but one of the adventures and misadventures that befell Gustave Courbet during his colorful lifetime. Sadly, it marked the beginning of the end. After the Commune was brutally quashed, Courbet was a wanted man. Imprisoned and held personally liable for the reconstruction of the column, he had no choice but to flee to Switzerland, sick and dejected and betrayed.

Lilianne Milgrom’s copy of Gustave Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde. Photo courtesy of the author.

Secrets of Courbet’s Origin of the World revealed

Courbet is possibly best known for his erotic vulvic portrait L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) on view at the Musée d’Orsay. But like many iconic works, its fame and celebrity tend not to extend beyond its face value. Believe me when I tell you that there’s a lot more to this scandalous little painting than meets the eye. In 2010, I had the honor of becoming the first artist authorized by the Musée d’Orsay to copy Courbet’s controversial work, spending six weeks replicating every fold and pubic hair while interacting with museum visitors eager to share their divergent views of The Origin of the World.

The experience was so profound that I spent the next decade researching and writing my recently released novel L’Origine: The secret life of the world’s most erotic masterpiece (Little French Girl Press, July 2020). L’Origine is a work of historical fiction that traces the remarkable story of the painting’s unlikely tale of survival, replete with Turkish pashas, French revolutionaries and nefarious Nazi captains. But the book is more than an entertaining romp through history – it also sheds light on the condition of women over the past century and a half. My own intimate adventure, narrated in the book’s prologue, addresses the social, gender and cultural divides that the naked female body continues to provoke.

The stories behind any statue, sculpture or painting enrich our understanding and appreciation, so next time you collide with a statue, you might do well to wonder what’s behind the façade…

Photo courtesy of author
Lilianne Milgrom
Paris-born Lilianne Milgrom is an internationally acclaimed artist and author residing in the greater Washington, DC, area. Her artworks can be found in private and institutional collections around the world. Aside from her blog, she has written essays and articles for publications such as Ceramics Art and Perception, Ceramics Monthly, Bonjour Paris, and the Huffington Post. L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece is her first book.

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