On January 16th, 2016, Luxembourg artist Deborah de Robertis caused commotion in the artworld by incarnating Manet’s ‘Olympia’ with her own body, in Orsay Museum in Paris. Dutch poet Edfwin Fagel, present at the performance, wrote an essay about it, which soon will be published on deRecensent.
The essay is a sequel to his earlier essay, which was published in Dutch literary magazine Revisor (January 2015), like this new performance was a sequel to De Robertis’ earlier performance near Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde. We hereby publish the earlier essay, with kind permission of the editorial staff of Revisor. In March, the essay on the performance ‘Olympia’ will be published.
1. A cock and a pair of balls
"All intellectual and artistic endeavours, even jokes, ironies, and parodies, fare better in the mind of the crowd when the crowd knows that somewhere behind the great work or the great spoof it can locate a cock and a pair of balls."[i]
With this sentence, the novel The blazing world by Siri Hustvedt opens. It’s a quotation of the novel’s main character, Harriet Burden (also: Harry). Out of dissatisfaction with the indifferent reception of her work, Harriet Burden decides to expose her work under the cover of three male colleagues. With the experiment, she wants to demonstrate that a work of art is appreciated differently when it’s created by a man. The history of art agrees: like in society, the work of female artists is estimated lower than the work of men.
However underestimated the female is in the history of western art, women are very present as a subject. The female body always has been a favorite subject in the visual arts, and still is. Art viewers are used to female nudes. However, it’s different when the nude looks back – and thus becomes herself a viewer.
Olympia (1862) by Edouard Manet is a known example. In its time, the painting was scandalous because the young, naked woman – after Venus – looks at the viewer assertively. With that, his quibblers claimed, he transformed the classical goddess of love into a whore. In the same period, Gustave Courbet painted l’Origin du Monde (1866), a nude which was bold in a very different way: the viewer sits between the model’s legs and looks straight into her (uncovered) crotch. For a long time, the painting was hung behind a curtain, behind lock and key and behind an innocent landscape. It was not until the end of the twentieth century, the painting depends in the collection of Orsay Museum in Paris.
On May 29th 2014, ascension day, the Luxembourg artist Deborah de Robertis uncovered her vagina near l’Origin du Monde. The action was part of the performance Mirroir d’origine with which she made some (in my opinion important) statements on art, society and the role of women. Covering, I could indicate a mystical element, which is strongly connected with the other elements.
Of course, the word ‘mystical’ is problematical. If anything becomes clear from Jaap Goedegebuure’s study Dutch writers and religion 1960-2010, it would be that all writers and poets that appear in the book, all have their own interpretation. In this essay, I will demonstrate what I myself mean by ‘mystisism’, on the basis of Deborah de Robertis’ performance and several poems from contemporary Dutch poetry. This scheme is not a coincidence. I think there is a clear parallel between the performance and some of the Dutch poets of De Robertis’ generation: they are very related. [ii]
2. Mirrior d’origine
We know what happened in Orsay Museum because there is short film clip published on the internet[iii]. It displays the artist, dressed in a golden dress, entering the hall, walking towards l’Origin du Monde, turning around in front of the banisters, sitting down on the floor – and pulling up her dress in the same movement. She opens her vagina and remains in that posture. In the remains of the clip the camera registers the consternation in the hall. A female guard hastens towards her, says something, and walks away. A visitor (or is it a guard?) shouts ‘Non, non, non!’ but most persons present start to cheer and applaud. The guard ascents before De Robertis, with her leg between the artist’s legs to block sight. Later on, three other guards start to clear out the hall.
The sound of the clip is beautiful: one can hear the sounds from the museum hall under Maria Callas’ interpretation of Ave Maria. And we hear a female voice monotonously read a poem:
Je suis l’origine
Je suis toutes les femmes
Tu ne m’as pas vue
Je veux que tu me reconnais
“Vierge comme l’eau créatrice du sperme”
The clip ends with a text screen:
“The 29th of May 2014, ascension day, at the Museum Orsay in Paris, I saw this art piece. The name of the artist is Deborah de Robertis. I would like to share this video with the world.”
Not in the clip is the artist being arrested and taken to the police station. And two guards filing a charge against her for ‘exhibitionism’. We know this from newspaper records. The Orsay Museum has stated to disapprove with the performance.
3. A divine reality
After the performance, the artist made statements on Mirroir d’Origine on different locations on the internet, mainly Second Sexe, a cultural website on female sexuality, and Facebook. Her remarks aroused more questions, some explicitely. On second Sexe, De Robertis wrote:
Qui est l’objet: la femme ou le tableau?
Qui est le maître, qui est l’élève?
Qui est l’original, qui est la copie?
Qui est l’ange blanc, qui est l’ange noir?
This series of questions indicates the woman and the painting are apparently exchangeable. The answer seems obvious. The picture on the wall is the painting – and the woman sitting on the floor in front of it, well, that’s the woman. Simple. But in the reality of the work of art Mirroir d’Origine is, that cat won’t jump. By her act, De Robertis transported the artwork l’Origin du Monde to what I for the moment call ‘the tangible reality’. And by that, she created in that museum hall a new reality, in which the woman became a work of art, and the work of art became a woman.
In the opening poem of I put on my species, the third volume of poetry by Dutch poet Sasja Janssen, the poet explicitely searches for that kind of reality. I cite the first half of ‘Enough composing about I’:
Today I became insane
You should even see
You should see it
Is it those poems?
Yes, these poems, everything put in scene
Enough composing about ‘I’
Yes, enough, no more scenes
It’s also the full words, the actual days.
The real ones, you should feel them, what can one do with it
In the poem is taken distance of the ‘I’ in a dialogue. The title, ‘Enough composing about ‘I’’ is significant. Writing about ‘I’ is seen as unreal: ‘Yes, these poems, everything put in scene’. But of reality ‘the actual days./ The real ones’ is also said: ‘what can one do with it?’ There is a searching for a reality between those realities: a non-imaginary, not ‘tangible’ reality. One could say: a divine reality. Janssen even poses she has found that reality. The insanity from the first line is a clear indication. Insanity is that, which society doesn’t understand or doesn’t accept. De Robertis has also been called ‘insane’ in the newspapers.
This mix between what is put in scene and what is ‘real’ can also be found in Mirroir d’origine. Here as an ‘unreal’ situation which is presented as ‘real’. The closing text of the clip, in which the artist de facto signs her work, consciously suggests this film was shot by coincidence, like there circulate so many on social media. It makes the clip ‘authentic’. It makes the ‘theatrical aspect’ of the performance (the golden dress, with which the artist presents herself as an angel) more real.
But the ‘authenticity’ is contradicted by the clip itself. The person with the camera wasn’t there by coincidence. The first 10 seconds of the clip show the eyes of the artist (made up in such a way it looks like she’s crying) in close up. Every other person than the artist, and every other painting than l’Origin du Monde is blurred. De Robertis visibly keeps an eye on the camera and it sometimes looks like she gives directions. And of course the sound editing is done thoughtfully. The clip shows a radical belief in the relevance of art, and the truth of the non-tangible reality.
When De Robertis subsequently says: ‘Je suis l’origine’, she imagines herself as the realization of the copy: the painting by Courbet. With that formule, she puts herself in the position of Courbet’s model. Thus she says: the work of art originates from me. At that moment, the mirroring is complete. After all, Courbet’s painting is titled l’Origin du Monde, a mystical title in itself which says the world originates from a woman. De Robertis emphasizes the work of art also originates from a woman.
4. I alone have a cunt
In the heart of I put on my species, we find a series of poems calles ‘I am my sex’. The second poem in the sequence goes as follows:
I alone have a cunt
Like seaweed in a bath or around a male’s tense skin
Cool tiles, more of that meat
There’s the narrow, the sweet, the rather not stowing
On a harsh tl-afternoon when I’m there and you’re not
I am my sex
Away with the legs of calves that were supposed to seduce
No gasping belly, my breasts
If yes my breasts do something else
My head rests with being of a complete different order.[v]
The first line in this poem suggests the ‘I’ in this poem is the only one in a group, or perhaps the only one in the world, who is in possession of a vagina. In the next stanza, this remark is extended with ‘I am my sex’. Thus: ‘I am my cunt’. And also: ‘I am female’, and: I am all women.
Does the ‘I’ claim this about herself? Or does she point out how she is seen by the outside world? I think both. The poem closes with the observation that when the ‘breasts do something else’ (moving?), the head rests with being of a complete different order. One can read that as a rather comical comment on how men often have more attention for the breasts than the face of a woman. ‘I am my sex’ also says: ‘I am nothing else but my femininity’, ‘I am nothing but a woman’. This observation is also a complaint.
On the other hand: when something’s of ‘a completely different order’, it also is something extraordinary, something divine. Thus when the head is of a completely different order, the total body is. And when ‘I am my sex’ means: ‘I am all women’, it could be Janssen here declares the female sex divine.
Back to De Robertis. She did the same by stating ‘Je suis l’origine’ and ‘je suis toutes les femmes’. The timing of the performance (ascension day) and the use of Ave Maria is significant. De Robertis stated on her Facebook page that the poem which is repeatedly read during the clip is a modification of the poem ‘Memory of the wind’ by Adonis. She says it’s a mantra on Ave Maria: ‘When I’m all women, I am also the Virgin. By projecting this on l’Origin du Monde’, I created a sexual Virgin.”[vi]
5. The hole, that is, the eye
In literary magazine Liter 74 (june 2014), Dutch poet Joost Baars published a sequence called ‘courtyard’. Following poets like Willem Jan Otten, he directs a ‘vous’. This vocative case is comprehensive: ‘vous’ can be a god, it can be the reader, and ‘vous’ can also be, for example, like in this sequence, a courtyard. The title suggests the divine can be addressed through the outside world (literally a courtyard), then again, the divine can also be addressed through the poet himself (one could say: the figurative courtyard). The poems are in the middle of prayers and reveries.
About the ‘figurative courtyard’ the poet C.O. Jellema once said after Meister Eckhart: “This thinking offers me a God who presents Himself, and who, whenever I make space for Him in myself, wants to be born within me, in a way in which He and me, His being and my being, become one, and in unity eternal.”[vii] I think Baars tries to reach the same goal. The space he creates and directs (the external and internal courtyard) is not occupied by God, she is God: an empty space. In Baars’ poetry, it’s about an absent God, which is, by believing, present in the absence.
We saw that De Robertis in Mirroir d’Origin functions as the incarnation, or the mirror or double, of Courbet’s l’Origin du Monde. But in contrast to the woman in the painting, she opens her vagina, showing, in her words, ‘the hole, that is: the eye’. Thus she reveals what in the painting remains hidden: the origin of the world. The word ‘hole’ is significant: the vagina is a hole, an empty space in the body which one can regard as divine.
But why does De Robertis call the vagina in this context ‘an eye’? The eyes of the artist are put on screen prominently at the opening of the clip. And in the poem, ‘seeing’ is an important subject.[viii] Angelus Silesius once wrote: ‘The eye through which I see God, is the same eye through which God sees me.’
De Robertis seems to refer to the essay ‘La métaphore d’oeuil’ by Roland Barthes, published in his essais critiques. In this essay, Barthes connects the eye to a metaphorical chain of objects, mainly body parts: eye – egg – testicle – breast. He continued, amongst other things by involving the kinds of fluids these objects expel (tears – egg white – sperm – milk) and the ways these objects are damaged or destroyed (to cut out – to break – to castrate – to drink). By connecting all these concepts associatively, a web of meanings is created. I think the last line of the poem De Robertis reads (“Vierge comme l’eau créatrice du sperme”) should be read in this context.
6. The violation
In The eye by Georges Bataille, the eye is allocated with extreme violent and erotic implications. Bataille was called ‘the philosopher of evil’. He was fascinated by the transcendentally force of transgressing experiences like sex and violence. In The eroticism, he urges that the ‘profane’ world is impossible without the ‘sacred’. Amongst other things, he meant that there will be no peace and order, when peace and order are not violated. By defiling taboos (ecstasy, intoxication, (extreme) sex, wastage, murder) people get in touch with the ‘sacred’. Bataille’s ‘sacred’ place is also empty: “Making the violation the foundation of philosophy (this is the direction my thinking is developing), is to replace language with a silent contemplation. It is the contemplation of the creature on the highest point of its being.”[ix] [italicization by Bataille].
Replacing language by a silent contemplation. That sounds like a reference to nineteenth century French poet and essay writer Stéphane Mallarmé. One can regard his poetry as an ongoing attempt to achieve silence, by using the white in his poetry, or by using words that themselves should create a certain kind of silence. In this silence should subsequently manifest l’Idee itself. This ‘Idea’ is itself an emptiness, the Néant, behind which Beauty shelters. Beauty can be viewd as the ultimate being, the divine. Mallarmé’s word hymen in this context is striking: it can both mean ‘hymen’ and ‘marriage’. Hymen, in this view, is that which seperates poetry from l’Idée in its most pure form. [x]
To reach l’Idée, hymen must be broken. Some commentators saw in De Robertis’ action an act of violence, a terrorist action alike. The execution (unexpectedly on a public place) and goal (disturbing the daily routine for making a statement) are indeed comparable. And one could regard the viewing as an act of aggression for it is compulsory (‘je veux que tu me reconnais’), meant to get the female to be regarded as divine. As said earlier, when the model looks back, it is experienced as intimidating.
So you could say the performance had a violent component. Terrorists regard their action as divine. In the context of De Robertis’ principles and the ideas of Bataille, so was Mirroir d’Origin.
7. Bringing life
The essential difference with a terrorist act is of course that De Robertis did not bring death and destruction to Museum Orsay. I would say, on the contrary. Persons present applauded. One could even say that the performance was an act of ‘bringing life’. I think I don’t have to explain the sexual component of the performance: showing and opening a vagina is, amongst everything else, also an erotic act. The closing line of the poem is: “Vierge comme l’eau créatrice du sperme”. The line reminded me of the poem ‘Body water’ by Dutch poet Rozalie Hirs, published in her volume of poetry Happiness bringer (2008).
A house he enters and within the space he feels
the water and the water is his and his
is the body and the body
measures her and measures her with itself and with itself
his body the time and the time comes and comes
from itself and from itself
he finds space and space which he pumps
is soft and purifying and is
The poem can be read in different ways, but I think the interpretation that this is a poem about the male orgasm is obvious. The house ‘he’ enters in the first line can literally be a house, it can also be a body. The word ‘body’ is doubled in the third line and in the next stanza the other body is ‘measured with itself’. Two bodies are connected (by measuring) and by measuring the body, time also is measured, time that comes from itself. The sexual connotation of the repeated ‘comes’ and the ‘pumping’ in the first line of the third stanza is no coincidence, I think. The orgasm comes from the body and subsequently the body comes from the body. Like De Robertis, Hirs compares sperm (‘bringing life’) with purifying water.
Mirroir d’Origine also ‘brings life’ on the level of art, ‘the divine reality’, like any work of art does. Every painting, every poem, every art performance, in short every art expression adds to the ‘divine reality’ art forms. And with that, every artist can be regarded as a life creating instance, a God.
De Robertis did this very literally by bringing to life the painting by Courbet. With this, in more than one aspect, ultimate act, she took possession of Courbets female nude. And because she did this with a classical work from western art history, created by a man, she conquered a little bit of space back on man, in favor of the female creators of sperm.
Baars, Joost: ‘Binnenplaats’. In: Liter 74 (juni 2014), p. 2-8.
Barthes, Roland: Essais critique. Parijs; Seuil, 1991
Bataille, Georges: De erotiek. Vert. Jan Versteeg. Amsterdam: Arena, 1993.
Bataille, Georges: Het oog. Vert. Paul Claes. Rijswijk: Goossens, 1995.
Dijk, Yra van: Leegte, leegte die ademt. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2006
Goedegebuure, Jaap: Nederlandse schrijvers en religie 1960-2010. Nijmegen: Vantilt, 2012
Hirs, Rozalie: Geluksbrenger. Amsterdam: Querido, 2008.
Hustvedt, Siri: De vlammende wereld. Vert. Auke Leistra. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij, 2014
Janssen, Sasja: Ik trek mijn species aan. Amsterdam: Querido, 2014
Jellema, C.O.: Verzameld werk (essays). Amsterdam: Querido, 2005
Le mirroir d’Origine. Op: Second Sexe, 2 juni 2014. http://secondsexe.com/magazine/le-miroir-de-l-origine.html
Hustvedt 2014, 5
[iii] As could be expected, Youtube removed the clip. At first, it was spread through other sources. After some fights, it is pubished permanently on Youtube, with an age restriction.
[iv] Janssen 2014, p. 11
[v] Janssen 2014, p. 35
[vi] Deborah de Robertis, Facebook update, August 15, 2014
[vii] Jellema 2005, p. 247
[viii] In Janssen’s poem ‘Enough writing about ‘I’ also
[ix] Bataille 1993, p. 198
[x] Van Dijk 2006, p. 39