French Court Sides With Artist Who Exhibited Her Vagina at the Louvre, Deeming It Non-Sexual

The artist objects to what she calls the 'depoliticization' of her genitals.

Deborah de Robertis being forcibly removed from the Salle Mona Lisa on April 15, 2017. Photo: Fabienne Costa, ©Deborah De Robertis.

French-Luxembourgish performance artist Deborah De Robertis has been cleared of sexual exhibitionism charges by Paris’s High Court.

The artist defended herself at a trial on Tuesday, October 18, after a complaint was filed by the Louvre regarding a controversial performance carried out in front of the Mona Lisa on September 24, which saw De Robertis expose her genitals.

The court ruled her actions did not constitute public exposure due to the absence of “the material element of the crime,” which is to say that spectators could not actually see her genitals because of her pubic hair. The court also acknowledged that the motivation for the offense was non-sexual in nature.

“The court has no legitimacy in deciding what is or is not art,” De Robertis asserted when speaking to artnet News, “but it has found that my work can not constitute an offense of sexual exhibitionism because of its political, activist, and artistic dimension.”

She went on to explain: “I show the genitals of women as they are, hairy and natural, and my nudity is not sexual because it refers to the pictorial nude.”

Deborah De Robertis performing My Pussy My Copyright in front of the Mona Lisa on September 24. Image courtesy the artist.

The artistic message behind De Robertis’s provocative artwork regards women’s place in the history of art, in which they have appeared so often as nude models but rarely as artists. According to experts, even the Mona Lisa might have originally been a nude.

“Instead of looking at my vagina, look up and look around: where are the women?” De Robertis asks in her work. “See if they appear on the canvas or on the wall text. Who tells you that Mona Lisa did not paint?” 

The artist also faced charges of assault for biting a guard’s jacket during her arrest, for which she was ordered to complete 35 hours of community service.

The performance in question was a follow-up to another carried out in front of the Mona Lisa earlier this year. The first performance offered a critical look at sexism in the art world, as it referenced a similar work carried out by Alberto Sorbelli in 1997 during which he exposed his buttocks in front of the painting. The Sorbelli happening is a celebrated moment of art history in France, and the reaction to De Robertis’s performance exposed an imbalance in the reception of a work when the same artistic gesture was performed by a woman. “His performance has been described as ‘historical’ and mine as ‘sexual performance,'” De Robertis told artnet News.

The second performance was a response to attempts by the Louvre to suppress her first artistic statement, and referenced VALIE EXPORT, the 1970s Austrian performance artist known for similarly provocative work.

Valie Export, Genital Panic (1969). ©the artist, courtesy Deborah De Robertis.

On the occasion of De Robertis’s second Louvre performance, the museum evacuated the Salle de la Mona Lisa, although the artist continued her performance despite the lack of an audience. Police were called and the artist was locked up for 72 hours before the trial date was set, prompting her to ask “Would you recognize it better if the artist VALIE EXPORT reproduced it today?”

The performance also heralded the release of a video entitled Ma Chatte Mon Copyright (My Pussy My Copyright), in which you can see clips of her first performance at the Louvre. During the trial, the Louvre asked the court to ban De Robertis from its galleries, and to order the removal of all images of her performances from the web. “It is therefore clearly a matter of censorship, of infringing on my freedom of creation, of expression, and of coming and going,” she told artnet News.  

The film has been censored by YouTube and Facebook, and other sites have imposed an age restriction on it, something De Robertis sees as hypocritical given the non-sexual nature of her performance, and the lack of censorship around much more sexually explicit content, such as Robin Thicke’s infamous video for the song Blurred Lines. “As long as female nudity remains mute and domesticable, it is tolerated and thus viewed and shared,” she said.

To demonstrate the absurdity of such censorship, she uploaded the video to a porn website with a disclaimer promising no sexual content. “It is not a question of being for or against porn,” she explained, “but of rejecting the systematic depoliticization of my genitals, which are a tool of expression,” she said. “To open my legs is to open my mouth.”

De Robertis has a history of being embroiled in such stunts. In February, she was acquitted on charges of indecent exposure for performances at at Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie and Musée des Arts Décoratifs. In January 2016, she was arrested at the Musée D’Orsay for indecent exposure after lying down naked in front of Edouard Manet’s painting of the prostitute Olympia, and in May 2014, she spread her legs in front of Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, also at the Orsay.

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