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Gustave Courbet in 21st-Century France and Japan

Yoko Kitamura
Associate Professor of the School of Culture, Media and Society, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was a French painter involved in the 19th-century realism movement. His famous works A Burial at Ornans and The Painter’s Studio are large paintings with a height of 3 meters and a width of 7 meters. Both of these works provoked severe criticism when they were first revealed. Even now, the “lack of common sense” in these works can be felt when viewing the actual paintings at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, a museum which held a large-scale replacement of exhibitions in 2011. In the past, paintings by Courbet were displayed in a spacious room filled with sunlight from the Seine. Today, his paintings are displayed in a dim room on the same floor, exhibited together with sculptures from the same time period. The current exhibition space stimulates the imagination, conjuring images of similar interiors which may have existed in Paris during the Second French Empire. However, Courbet’s work The Origin of the World, which can be called the “ultimate indoor painting,” is not displayed here. A special indoor exhibit space was prepared for the painting in a separate location.

A Burial at Ornans (1850) (314×663cm)

The Painter’s Studio (1855) (361×598cm)

The Origin of the World is a close-up painting of the genitals and abdomen of a naked woman. The painting measures about 50 centimeters on each side. Many times, I have seen unsuspecting museum visitors confronted with this painting only to struggle to pretend they didn’t notice it. The February 7th, 2013 edition of the French weekly tabloid magazine Paris Match published a sensational article about this painting. The article featured a flamboyant title proclaiming “The Face of ‘The Origin of the World,’’ “Top Half of Courbet’s Masterpiece is Discovered!” The magazine claimed that a painting of a woman’s head discovered in a second-hand shop in Paris was severed from the original work. Although this is an extremely intriguing rumor, the February 8th edition of the French newspaper Lu Monde reported that the Musée d'Orsay flatly rejected the news as “unthinkable.”

In the March 16th edition, Lu Monde published an article entitled “The Flagey Oak Tree Finally Returns to its Roots.” The article reported how The Flagey Oak Tree, a famous work of Courbet that was part of the collection at Tokyo’s Murauchi Art Museum, had been purchased by the Musée Courbet, which is located in Courbet’s hometown. An opening ceremony for the work was held on March 9th. According to a report published on the website of France Télévisions on March 9th, the purchase price was 4 million euro (500 million yen). I learned of this news because I happened to be teaching a class on Courbet starting from the spring term. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the following announcement on the homepage of the Murauchi Art Museum: “The Flagey Oak Tree will be exhibited at the Musée Courbet as a French National Treasure.” What a blunder! Of course, the homepage itself has already been deleted.

When using Google France to search for Courbet, the first result displayed is “Courbet Catering Delicatessen”—a store offering what appear to be very fine confections. When searching with Google Japan, the first result is The Origin of the World’. I can’t decide which result is stranger.

The Flagey Oak Tree (1864) (89×110cm)

Yoko Kitamura
Associate Professor of the School of Culture, Media and Society, Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University

Graduated from the Waseda University School of Letters, Arts and Sciences I with a major in art history and French literature. After graduating from the Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, assumed her current position as Professor.
Her specialty is modern French painting, historical criticism and cultural history.
Her translated works include Film is a Battleground! (written by Samuel Fuller; Chikumashobo, co-translated) and Collected Paintings of Daumier I—Various Politicians (Misuzu Shobo).