Book Rating: ★★★★☆ (4 / 5 stars)
Society has always spoken of the female body in the dark. Yes, artwork has portrayed women for years, but no artist dared paint a detail rendering of the region below the waist…that is, until Gustave Courbet. But his revolutionary painting was forced into hiding for many years, only to once again be freed from its shackles by a series of events that placed it into the hands of women.
Lilianne Milgrom takes a personal approach in discussing L’Origine du monde. As one of the first copyists, her connection of the painting is the grounds for this novel. We are woven into her experience as she produced a rendering of this so called “taboo painting”. It are these experiences that help her tell the tale of L’Origine, and it’s travels across Europe, hidden beneath other paintings.
The painting itself is the main character, as it is passed from Turkish Diplomats, to Hungarian Art Collectors, to French Movie Stars, until finally finding its way to a permanent home. Throughout the story, we’re seen how men abuse the painting, and women ultimately liberated it. L’Origine ultimately ends up being more than just a piece of pleasure, but a symbol of female liberation and humanity, as Courbet might have initially intended.
As with any historical story, fictionalized for the audience, there are gaps. This is by no fault the author, but it means as the reader we only get a brief glimpse of L’Origine‘s true story. Milgrom highlights the biggest moments: when the painting changed hands, when Nazis threatened its existence, and even when one of the collectors smuggled it out of Soviet Hungary.
The most interesting part of this whole story might have been the prologue though: this small memoir gives us a true look into Milgrom’s connection with the painting, and was written (expectedly) with the most passion and emotion. Even if you don’t care about the history (though I really think you SHOULD because it is remarkable), Milgrom’s experience with L’Origine du monde will pique your interest.
I definitely learned so much about this painting from this book. Do I want to know more? Absolutely. But as a stepping stone into the scandalous world of L’Origine, this book was absolutely fantastic.
What’s it about?
The riveting odyssey of one of the world’s most scandalous works of art. In 1866, maverick French artist Gustave Courbet painted one of the most iconic images in the history of art: a sexually explicit portrait of a woman’s exposed genitals. Audaciously titled L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), the scandalous painting was kept hidden for a century and a half. Today, it hangs in the world-renowned Orsay Museum in Paris, viewed by millions of visitors a year. As the first artist authorized by the Orsay Museum to re-create Courbet’s The Origin of the World, author Lilianne Milgrom was thrust into the painting’s intimate orbit, spending six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. The experience inspired her to share her story and the painting’s riveting clandestine history with readers beyond the confines of the art world. L’Origine is an entertaining and superbly researched work of historical fiction that traces the true story of the painting’s unlikely tale of survival, replete with French revolutionaries, Turkish pashas, and nefarious Nazi captains. But L’Origine is more than a riveting romp through history—it also sheds light on society’s complex relationship with the female nudity.