Nude, Gustave Courbet (French, 1819—1877) 1864, oil on canvas, BF 810.
Mystery permeates the space between a painting and its viewer – it has always been that way. Of course, the importance of an individual’s response to a work of art has increased in the last few centuries, in the wane of more communal, pre-modern responses to art. But volumes have contemplated this numinous space – revealing the fact that what humans know little about, they’ve expended inordinate amounts of energy in investigating. Likewise, ever since the sexes were separated by a single rib bone, they’ve been incredibly fascinated in knowing more about the Other, by almost any means possible – pryingly and insistently; psychologically and physically. Betwixt these two realities of human impulse we find the painting Nude, by Gustave Courbet. A young woman, wearing little besides a knowing smirk, is reclining on her back on the ground near some woods, putting on (or is it removing?) a white stocking, revealing her thighs and buttocks to the viewer. A dalliance; fore or aft? We do not know for sure – but this is not an innocent Degas or Bonnard baigneuse scene. Courbet, later in his life, began creating erotic paintings – at least one on commission – perhaps signifying his famously intense penchant for anti-establishment action. This is one of the milder ones (the most blatant being The Origin of the World which Duchamp will later reference in a more impersonal and humorously nihilist way). It’s not immediately evident, but Courbet too had a sly, humorous bent in making this painting, not to mention cutting insight into basic human nature. Simply put, by viewing we implicate ourselves. The prime signifier in the picture is a large, implied X which lays smack-dab in the middle. It’s created by the girl’s lower leg and left arm on one side, and her left thigh and right foot on the other. The arms of this X enter the landscape through the upper right corner tree line; the shadow on the bottom right, and her red shoe pointing to the lower left-hand corner. An initial question of an X might be what is the locus? It is not, as one may imagine, the girl’s genitalia – it is rather her bowels, though obscured by her left thigh. (The bowels, incidentally, were considered by the Greeks to be the seat of human emotion.)
An X works both as a signifier (clue) and a blockage (stop) – it proverbially “marks the spot”, and also denotes “this far, but no farther”. Thus, because it simultaneously promises and rejects, this X is a major titillation, moving the picture towards what is euphemistically called “soft porn”. In pornography, there is usually – and sometimes implied – a culpable party, and here it is the viewers (i.e., after the artist, who painted and ran, leaving us with the question of responsibility). Pornography promises gratification – but here it is denied, while Courbet sniggers. Like her left thigh which obscures her genitals, so the large X prevents us from entering any further into the painting; from succumbing to the narrative. We are implicated but emasculated (for the implied viewer is male) without satisfaction; stopped in our tracks by the inapproachability of the figure, and the flaming sword of an X. We’ve tried putting our key into the lock, and it’s broken off in our hand – and now our entry’s been denied. Using our innate curiosity, Courbet has first lured us in, then denied us all meaningful and fulfilling gratification – metaphorically emasculating our desire, making the picture simultaneously saddening and maddening. In one thrust, it is the double-edged mystery of a painting and of sexuality. And ironically, if thought through carefully, it also reveals the futility of seeking further satisfaction through pornography. If we keep trying our keys in dubious locks, we may lose our ability to enter meaningfully altogether.