Performance Artist Charged After Tagging Gustav Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde

Gustav Courbet L’Origine du Monde Deborah De Robertis

Deborah De Robertis, a performance artist, has been charged with damage and theft of cultural property after tagging five artworks, including Gustav Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, with the slogan #MeToo. On Monday, a French prosecutor announced the indictment, including charges against two others.

In early May, the women entered the Centre Pompidou-Metz in northern France and defaced the glass pane protecting Courbet’s 1866 painting, which depicts a woman’s nude torso and exposed vulva. The painting was on loan from Paris’s Musée d’Orsay for the exhibition Lacan, the Exhibition: When Art Meets Psychoanalysis, which explores the theories of the unconscious proposed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, a former owner of the Courbet piece.

Five other works by artists such as Valie Export, Louise Bourgeois, and Rosemarie Trockel were also defaced. Additionally, a photograph by De Robertis, taken during a performance of Mirror of Origin (2014), in which she poses nude beneath Courbet’s work, was similarly tagged. An embroidered piece by French artist Annette Messager, titled I Think Therefore I Suck (1991), was stolen from the museum.

A video of the incident shows protesters chanting “Me Too” as museum security removes them from the premises. De Robertis later claimed the action was part of a performance work titled You Don’t Separate the Woman from the Artist, referencing the ongoing debate about whether art can be appreciated independently of its creator’s behavior.

Deborah De Robertis Courbet
Deborah De Robertis #MeToo Gustav Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde

The #MeToo slogan gained global prominence in 2017 as part of a movement against sexual violence towards women. During the peak of the movement, numerous high-profile artists and gallery and museum staff faced accusations of sexual harassment or assault.

De Robertis told AFP that the performance at the Centre Pompidou-Metz was staged because “the very closed world of contemporary art has remained largely silent until now.” She has previously made headlines for exposing herself in front of works such as L’Origine du Monde, Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), and the Mona Lisa.

In a statement on Medium on May 13, De Robertis wrote: “I violated museums, from the Orsay Museum to the Louvre Museum to the Pompidou Center. Without consent or permission, I entered them by force to claim my place in history.”

Addressing “collectors, art critics, gallery owners, historians, directors of institutions, art centres and museums,” De Robertis denounced “predators” who exploit vulnerable women artists. She specifically named curator Bernard Marcadé, who co-organized the Centre Pompidou-Metz show, in her post.

“The Origin of the World” is considered a seminal work in Courbet’s oeuvre. Its bold portrayal of female anatomy challenged societal norms and conventions. By banning the painting, Facebook silences an essential piece of art history and limits access to a significant cultural artefact.

The FB ban reignited discussions about social media platforms’ role in shaping public discourse and the extent to which they should regulate content. While Facebook has the right to enforce its community standards, many argue that the censorship of art, especially historical works like Courbet’s, sets a dangerous precedent and hinders the free exchange of ideas.

In response to the ban, artists, activists, and scholars have called for greater transparency and accountability from Facebook regarding its content moderation policies. They emphasize the importance of fostering open dialogue and protecting artistic expression, even when it challenges societal norms.

As the debate continues, one thing is clear: Facebook’s censorship of “The Origin of the World” raises important questions about the intersection of art, technology, and freedom of expression in the digital age.

Khalil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat and art collector, commissioned Courbet to paint the picture in the nineteenth century. Over the years, the painting has become a much-loved work of art and a symbol of the feminist movement.

The oil painting remained in private collections until it was acquired by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in the 1950s. In the 1980s, the painting was displayed at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it attracted controversy and protests from feminist groups.

The artwork was eventually removed from public display and relegated to the museum’s reserve collection. In recent years, it has once again become the subject of controversy and debate. Some feminists argue that it is a powerful symbol of female sexuality and liberation, while others see it as objectifying and degrading women. Despite the controversy surrounding the painting, it remains an important art and artistic expression.

Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World 1866, tagged with “MeToo.” Photo: Deborah de Robertis

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