Courbet’s Famous Painting of a Vulva Tagged With “MeToo”

Two women tagged the phrase “MeToo” on the protective glass covering Gustave Courbet’s painting “The Origin of the World” (1866), which features a close-up view of a vulva, in a stunt performance at the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France yesterday, May 6. The work was one of five pieces targeted at the museum, where the historically scandalous nude is on loan from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for an exhibition centered on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who bought the painting in 1954.

The action was conceptualized by French-Luxembourger artist Deborah De Robertis, who previously exposed her genitals in front of Courtbet’s painting in a 2014 conceptual performance at the Musée d’Orsay that resulted in her arrest. A photograph of that intervention, titled “Mirror of Origin” and currently on display as part of the Centre Pompidou-Metz exhibition, was among the works spray painted by the performers, alongside a photographic print by Valie Export.

“I violated museums, from the Orsay Museum to the Louvre Museum to the Pompidou Center. I entered them by force, without consent or permission, to claim my place in history,” De Robertis wrote in a statement yesterday, May 6.

A video documenting the intervention showed two women scrawling the words “Me Too” on the protective glass of various artworks while shouting, “Me Too!”

Metz prosecutor Yves Badorc told AFP that the two women who defaced the artworks were arrested. While Courbet’s painting was protected by glass, police are still assessing the damage to the other works. While it is unclear whether the two women currently face charges, De Robertis told Hyperallergic that they have been released. The artist also claimed that the paint can be removed with water.

During the performance, De Robertis also stole an embroidery work by French visual artist Annette Messager, “I Think Therefore I Suck” (1991), according to performance documentation. In another video published to Vimeo, De Robertis appears to remove the work from its frame before stuffing it into a dark tote bag.

Hyperallergic has reached out to Messager and the Centre Pompidou-Metz for comment.

The provocative performance is just the latest museum disruption staged by De Robertis. In 2017, she was charged with sexual exhibitionism for a performance at the Louvre that involved exposing her vagina in front of the “Mona Lisa” while shouting, “Mona Lisa, my pussy, my copyright” through a megaphone. While she was acquitted on the sexual exhibitionism charge, she ultimately received a 35-hour public service work sentence for biting a security guard’s jacket when her performance was forcibly stopped.

She has also been arrested for nude performances at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, and at The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, one of France’s holiest sites in Christian faith.

Artist Deborah de Robertis posing in the exhibition Lacan, l’exposition: Quand l’art rencontre la psychanalyse at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. The photo blurring was done by the artist. (© Deborah de Robertis)

A separate video released in conjunction with De Robertis’s most recent performance appears to show Messager’s artwork hanging in a bedroom where Bernard Marcadé, one of the curators of the Lacan exhibition, is shown lying on a bed while talking to the artist. In the open letter published alongside the performance, De Robertis accuses Marcadé of sexually abusing her when she was 26 years old.

Hyperallergic could not independently verify the allegations and has contacted Marcadé for comment.

The missive also names several other curators, collectors, artists, and historians, accusing them of various abuses including assault, harassment, manipulation, and intimidation.

The museum intervention prompted a critical response from French Minister of Culture Rachida Dati, who wrote on X, “To the ‘activists’ who think that art would not be powerful enough to carry a message on its own, it must be said again: A work is not a placard that can be written on with the message of the day.”

Other artworks were also painted with the words “MeToo,” including Deborah De Robertis’s own “Miroir de l’origine” (2014).

Decrying widespread “patriarchal violence” and a “misogynistic divide” in the art world, De Robertis called on “all women, with or without vulvas, all intersex, trans and non-binary people, and all underrepresented people” to dare to express themselves, citing artists including Ana Mendieta, Orlan, Valie Export, and Louise Bourgeois whose own work has been shown at the museum.

“I really want to point out the fact that people are shocked by a symbolic feminist gesture that actually inverses a power relation,” De Robertis told Hyperallergic.

“Why are we shocked when an artist does a symbolic gesture to denounce systemic violence and abuse?”

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