In her art performance near Manet’s Olympia in Orsay Museum, earlier this year, Luxembourg artist Deborah De Robertis delivered a clear artistic, social and political message. Like in her previous performance in front of Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde in the same museum, she brought the painter’s model to life. Both times, De Robertis was arrested and prosecuted. Dutch poet Edwin Fagel, present at the performance, shows the urgency of the performance, and explains why the response on the performance is worrying.
Prosecution of female nudity
The guards of Orsay Museum were well prepared, when on January 16th, 2016, Luxembourg artist Deborah De Robertis entered the exhibition Splendour and Misery. Pictures of prostitution 1850-1910. At that moment, the artist was naked underneath her long, green coat. She drew attention because she wore a wig in the colour of Manet’s Olympia.
Once she arrived at the room where Manet’s masterpiece was hanging, there was a lot of security present. Thus De Robertis’ art performance near the painting was almost immediately interrupted by the guards. The artist was to be an incarnation of Olympia (or Manet’s original model Victorine Meurent) by looking straight at the audience, just like the nude on the painting,. The events in the room were registrated by the Go-pro camera she wore on her head, and by film clips made by the audience.
A video of the performance was published on the internet. One can see how the artist, in response to the guards, almost immediately stops trying to take her pose. Instead, she reads a statement. To do so, she puts on the coat. Still, the security tries to hide her from the audience, her reaction is to take off the coat again: “If you hide me, I’ll undress,” she says. The clip closes with the arrival of the police and the arrest of the artist.
As a result, De Robertis had to spend two nights in a police cell. The museum charged her with ‘indecent exposure’. After her release, she spoke in several interviews of the double moral of the museum. Female nudity was recommanded during the exhibition (“Take your children to see completely naked people!”). Real female nudity, on the other hand, is prosecuted.
It is not the first time this artist took on a performance like this in Orsay Museum. On May 29th, 2014, she brought to life the model of Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde by showing her sex in front of the painting. Then, also, she was arrested and charged for indecent exposure. This new performance is a reaction to the previous arrest. The artist takes, in her own words, the ‘right to respond’.
If you do a Google search with the words ‘artist’, ‘nude’ and ‘arrested’, you will see that the charges against De Robertis are no exception. It is however problematic that the guards tried to stop the performance, and that the artist was arrested and charged. In this essay I want to show this by explaining the artistic value of the performance, and the intrinsic urgency of it. I will also try to show that the reactions to the performance (by the guards as well as the press reactions) show an attitude towards female nudity which at the least can be called worrying.
The object of desire
In short, one could caracterize the work of De Robertis as a protest against the (misogynous) sexualisation of society. But this interpretation is too short and too simple. To understand the performances, one should first answer the question what happens when female nudity is exposed. What exacly was it that Manet did when he painted his Olympia, and how should one understand the performance of De Robertis near the painting?
‘The object of desire is an image’, says Giorgio Agamben in his Profanities. With ‘image’ he means: no substance, but an accident which does not exist in itself, but in something else. So an image does not exist in itself, but is produced at every moment, simultaneous with the presence of the ones who look at it (compare it to a mirror).
After this statement, he speaks of what he calls ‘the special being’. According to Agamben, this ‘special being’ is absolutely non-substantial: “The image is a being whose essence is to be a species, a visibility or an appearance. A being is special if its essence coincides with its being given to be seen, with its aspect.” (translation by Jeff Fort).
The desire would not be a real desire if one doesn’t constantly search for the appearance of it. The realisation of the image. That is why we worship relics. That is why prostitutes have customers. That is is why art is being made. That is why Manet painted his Olympia.
The desire is used to make money with. In her performance, De Robertis pointed out the dominant vision on the female body. The woman (on tv, the internet, in commercials) is the object of desire. This is also visible in art history, and that has to do of course with the male dominancy in (amongst others) art history.
By ‘an image of desire’ I mean: an image on which our desires are projected. ‘Desire’ is a multiple and ambiguous concept. When I say our desires are projected in this image, I also mean our fears, our lusts, our hopes, our despair, and so on. It is much too easy forgotten that the woman herself is a person with desires, fears, lusts, hopes, despair.
'Olympia' by Manet and by De Robertis.
The model looks back
Orsay Museum did not take this into account when it organized an exhibition on prostitution in western art history between 1850 and 1910. On the contrary, the museum used images of female nudity to promote the exhibition.
The performance by De Robertis is an explicit answer to this usage of the female body. The artist allows the model to look back at the audience. That is confrontational, because the audience itself becomes an image. The model projects her desires on the audience, and as a consequence her gaze is also demanding. In the video that was published after her first performance, near Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde, a voice-over says (on behalf of the model): “[…] I am all women. I want you to recognize me. I want you to see me.” With ‘to see’ is meant a look beyond the surface. The audience is asked to be open, not to the image, but to the human being. Not to the desire but to the woman. The ‘seeing’ of the female body for what it is also means the emancipation of it.
Following the first performance, I wrote an essay for Dutch literary magazine Revisor (‘The divine cunt. Art and poetry as a mystical act’. In:Revisor 8 (January 2015)). I interpreted the previous performance as a mystical act. More precise: the appearance of De Robertis near Courbet’s l’Origine du Monde was exacly that: an appearance, a revelation. And, like any appearance, she had her reasons to appear in that spot, at that moment. In the essay, I have tried to formulate what I think those reasons are, and that they are important, because they deal with art in society, with femininity, and with faith – and that these notions are connected.
It is no coincidence that De Robertis chose two paintings which were controversial in their time. The paintings were controversial because they used the same, provocative power De Robertis uses in her performances: that of the naked, female body. Manet’s Olympia was controversial because the goddess was painted as a prostitute. The statement De Robertis read during her performance, showed how much the artist values the use of one’s own body by artists and activists, as a way to reflect and to break down borders.
The performance is clearly a reaction to Manet’s Olympia and the exposition on prostitution, and with that it is an artistic, political and a mystical act. That is why the charge for indecent exposure, which Orsay Museum now filed twice against the artist, is so worrying.
As said, Manet’s Olympia was an image of desire. The Olympia of De Robertis is the materialisation of that image: the image has become flesh. The performance was also an echo: of Manet’s painting, but also of her own, previous performance. But this time it was no silent appearance in a golden dress. This time it was a nemesis.
The clip which was published on the internet, is the registration of a confrontation, which mostly has its value in the context of the former performance. As a soundtrack, Orffs Carmina Burana was used, in a remix with Work that pussy by DJ Idem and Moo by Pooney. In the closing credits, the guards are thanked for their cooperation by playing their role. This is funny, and important because the artist transformed the room into an artwork with her performance. The guards did exactly what was to be expected from them.
The clip is the registration of a confrontation. De Robertis fights to deliver her message, the guards to prevent that. It’s a confrontation which in the essence comes down to censoring the artist. In this respect, it’s a fight on life and death: the birth of Olympia was almost immediately made impossible. De Robertis put the rules under discussion, and tested them.
Of course, the performance only could take place in the context of Orsay Museum. The artist broke the rules of the museum. While reading her statement during the performance, she demanded the guards to be quiet (who were yelling at the audience to not film or photograph, which could be seen as censoring the audience also). Thus she showed she did not recognize the authority of the guards.
I am all whores
Also in Profanities, Agamben puts forward the thought that in the museum the analogy between capitalism and religion becomes apparent. “The Museum occupies exactly the space and function once reserved for the Temple as the place of sacrifice.” (translation by Jeff Fort) To understand this remark, one should realise that Agamben views the sacrifice as an utensil which crosses, as a result of a ritual, the border to divinity. The contrary is also possible: the divine can be given back to the humans as a result of a ritual. In capitalist society, this movement has become impossible: objects are meant to be consumed and the divine doesn’t exist. Applied to the events in Orsay Museum in May 2014 and January 2016, the performances can be understood as rituals, maybe even (reversed) sacrifices: the art object is made human, the human is made an art object.
De Robertis looked like Manet’s Olympia and explicitely stated: “I am the whores hanging on the walls of this museum. I am Olympia.” This is an echo of “I am all women” during the former performance. This has implications. Of course, De Robertis (or better: Olympia) does not state that all women are whores. She says that women, in art and society, are forced in the position of the whore: her appearance is used (mostly by men) to make money with.
This is not recognized, and therefore the artistic (and political) value of the performance is not recognized. In times, in which politicians constantly make racist, misogynous and violent statements without being punished, a woman who uses her body to state the opposite is arrested, locked up and prosecuted.
De Robertis paid tribute to Manet’s Olympia. Orsay Museum tried to stop her. De Robertis made an artistic, political and feministic statement by using her body. Orsay Museum tried to hide her. De Robertis showed her faith in art. Orsay Museum called the police. De Robertis asked the persons in the room to believe in her performance. Orsay Museum filed charges against her.
As said, the guards were well prepared for the arrival of De Robertis. Why could this preparation not consist of allowing the performance to take place? To prevent a precedent? What’s wrong with art in a museum?