Voyage du tableau

Art is a language on its own and painting, a form of storytelling is worth a thousand words. Making art as a living is never easy but for the courageous ones, they pursue their own most creative lives as they embrace their callings. Through the artwork and legacies that these fearless artists had left behind, we are able to draw inspirations and learn about lives and humanity throughout centuries.

A BOOK REVIEW

Lilianne Milgrom

L’Origine written by Lilianne Milgrom is a historical fiction about L’Origine du Monde, a controversial piece of artwork that has elicited conflicting emotional responses whenever it is presented. The scandalous artwork by unorthodox Gustave Courbet continues to court attention and passionate responses from art aficionados and viewers. In L’Origine, its author, Lilianne Milgrom who is an artist and painter herself shares her personal experience and journey in tracing and learning about the secret past and hidden lives of the painting and the changing art scenes beginning from the nineteenth- century.

Back then thousands of hopeful young artists migrated to Paris every year but very few succeeded as well as the “self-proclaimed” renegade, Gustave Courbet. He was intent on taking Paris by storm and he did with the mantra that  his dear grandpapa had instilled in him “ Walk tall and shout loud”. ’Courbert was the realist master of art. To the distaste and in defiance of the preference of the Parisian elites, he portrayed  ‘downtrodden peasants from his village engaged in the gritty prosaic act of burying one of their own’ instead of ‘insipid, bucolic scenes of the peasants frolicking gaily in perfectly manicured  landscape.’

Courbet’s  artwork  was considered immoral and unacceptable at the time. The  condemnation and rejection by the standard- bearing Paris salon brought more art collectors flocking  to his door. In 1865, one winter day, Khalil Bey,  an art enthusiast, the Ottoman diplomat who hailed from Constantinople ( Istanbul)  had commissioned Courbert to do a piece of painting after viewing Courbert’s Venus and Psyche that had already been sold. That marked the birth of L’Origine du Monde which is a portrait  of a female torso and woman’s genitals. The painting stirred controversy for almost two centuries and it continues to elicit debate about the emotions that the painting would evoke.  L’Origine du Monde is perched on a wall in the Musée d’Orsay ( Orsay Museum) in Paris.  

Lilianne Milgrom was born in Paris, grew up in Australia and presently lives in the United States. In 2011, Lilianne, a painter herself became the first authorized copyist of  Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World). She managed to produce a near-identical copy of Courbet’s masterpiece. In her book, L’Origine, Lilianne takes us through history on the journey of the controversial iconic portrait. She describes how she became transfixed and spellbound by the painting that she found herself approaching the reception and applied to become a copyist for L’Origine du Monde at the Orsay.

The author muses :

The experience of copying L’Origine had left me feeling stripped and exposed, yet oddly empowered.’

Aside from copying the painting, Lilianne investigated and researched on the background and motivation that inspired  Gustave Courbet to paint The Origin of the World and why the eccentric perspective and who the model was. In her book, she takes us on a journey of the controversial artwork  from nineteenth century to twenty-first century. The book is divided into parts. Part One is for the period  1865 -1978, Part Two is for the period 1879 – 1948 and Part Three 1954-2014 and in the prologue, Lilianne tells us how the project sprang about. L’Origine is very detailed and its author is imaginative in putting forth a fabulous historical fiction that spans from 1865 –  2014 and across continents. Lilianne has also given a vivid description of how Gustave ended up living  in exile  in La Tour-de-Peilz,Switzerland after being imprisoned for having publicly identified the Vendôme Column- a soaring obelisk glorifying Napoleon I’s victory in Austerlitz – as a blight on the nation’s history during the Commune meeting.  Gustave died in January 1878. He left all his worldly possessions to his sister, Juliette.

Lilianne Milgrom‘s language is visual.

As her children had flown the nest and with her husband away more often than not, she refused to hole up in her studio in Washington, DC and lament about the passing of her youth. In her words, ‘trying to come to terms with the somewhat abrupt realization that I’d reached an age that qualified me as a “ woman of a certain age” and with that came looming prospect of diminishing sexual appeal – a most unappealing thought. I was not prepared to take this injustice lying down and had begun to examine the subject of sexuality and aging in my studio practice.’

It then dawned upon Lilianne  one morning that ‘Paris, the city where French men still wax lyrical about octogenarian Brigitte Bardot,  would be the perfect place to pursue the subject  as Napoleon himself remark : “ Give a woman six months in Paris, and she knows where her empire is, and what is her due.” ‘ 

Despite being classified as a woman of a certain age, through her perseverance, she found  the mysterious Madame G. who would offer her artist residency on the outskirts of Paris. So then she was all set to get the creative juices flowing in her seven weeks’ sojourn in Paris and realize ‘her youthful fantasies of the artist’s life in some seventeenth-century garret on the Left Bank

L’Origine  by Lilianne Milgrom is a work of fiction based on the author’s fastidious research and find about the harrowing journey of the painting through the centuries and across continents. As the author concludes in  her Epilogue, ‘You taught me to be fearless in my art and to follow my heart. And you proved to me once again that art speaks a universal language.

The author has certainly  embarked on an adventure. Her fiction is definitely an excellent read for readers who are interested in art and history.

L’Origine   is indeed a fascinating read. Splendid.

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