It was me, a handful of Germans, a Dutch family, two Russians, and a large woman of indeterminate background breathing heavily on the back of my neck. We all stood there together, staring at the vagina. Actually, it was more like we were staring into the vagina, so lushly rendered was the anatomical detail. Some of the Dutch children tittered, the Russians muttered something that sounded vaguely approving, and the weight of the woman’s breath increased. Then we moved on—sideways, like crabs—allowing the next scrum of tourists to take our place.
L’Origine du monde, by Gustave Courbet, is perhaps one of the frankest depictions of female genitalia in the fine art canon. To the puritan sensibility, it may well border on the pornographic. Yet the painting hangs in Paris, on a wall at the the Musée d’Orsay, and enjoys a relatively uncontested position in the Realist pantheon. There are no warnings of graphic content, no heavy curtains through which only consenting adults may pass. Courbet’s vagina, so to speak, is there for all to see—accompanied only by a placard translating its title into English: The Origin of the World. Next to those words, the image becomes noble, reverent, and beautiful.
Imagine if it had been called Power Pussy.