Artist Enacts ‘Origin of the World’ at Musée d’Orsay—And, Yes, That Means What You Think

Deborah de Robertis staged a performance in front of Courbet's provocative canvas.

Deborah de Robertis performing Mirror of Origin (2014).
Photo: Video still via DailyMotion.

On May 29 the Luxembourgian performance artist Deborah de Robertis visited Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, sat down in front of Gustave Courbet’s infamous 1866 painting L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World), and recreated the iconic image in the flesh. In a video of the piece, titled Mirror of Origin, the artist can be seen dressed in a gold sequin dress, exposing her vagina while the museum’s security guards crowding around her and usher cheering visitors out of the gallery. The artist was eventually taken away by police. The museum and two of its guards have filed sexual exhibitionism complaints against the artist.

“If you ignore the context, you could construe this performance as an act of exhibitionism, but what I did was not an impulsive act,” De Robertis told Luxemburger Wort. “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.”


Gustave Courbet, L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World) (1866)
Photo: Courtesy Musée d’Orsay.

The museum’s administration was predictably unimpressed by this art historical intervention. “This is a typical case of disrespecting the museum’s rules, whether for a performance or not,” the Musée d’Orsay’s administration said in a statement. “No request for authorization was filed with us. And even if it had been, it’s not certain we would have accepted it as that may have upset our visitors.”

Though her May 29 performance ran afoul of the museum, De Robertis claims that she had done Mirror of Origin once before, a month earlier, without incident.

“I came to the Musée d’Orsay before, about a month ago, to be photographed in that pose by photographers I had chosen, without being seen,” she told Le Monde. “I behave in a very natural manner, which is why even when there are guards around, sometimes they don’t say anything. They see something in my demeanor that isn’t shocking. I always try to convey something very pure, with my feminine sensibility.”

Mirror of Origin is just the latest and most high-profile of De Robertis’s series staging similar performances at major art institutions including the Casino Forum of Contemporary Art and MUDAM, both in Luxembourg.

This is hardly the Musée d’Orsay’s first brush with bare flesh. In September of last year a 26-year-old art student staged a nude intervention in the museum’s “Masculin/Masculin” exhibition of nude art. And, in (arguably) a far more crass incident, the institution became the backdrop for a viral underwear ad in January 2012, when three models ran amok in its galleries as part of a commercial.

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