R4: On Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde



I presented this half-hour documentary on L’Origine du Monde for BBC Radio 4 on the 150th anniversary of Courbet’s painting — and in the wake of a big court case against Facebook in Paris about censorship. A century and a half after this work was first created, it’s still causing controversy: if you post it on your Facebook wall, your account can be suspended because it activates the pornography sensors.

Recording for this programme with producer Natalie Steed was a lot of fun. We spent two days at the Musee d’Orsay, where the painting has been exhibited since 1995, interviewing tourists and museum visitors about their reactions in front of the canvas. They were everything from excited and impressed to indifferent and blasé to passionate and, in one memorable case, “aroused”. (A very eloquent young Chinese gentleman who spoke beautiful English. I will not forget him in a hurry. I had to take a break after recording his interview because I couldn’t stop laughing. At least he was honest.)

L’Origine is just one of a series of artworks – and other images – causing problems on social media sites who struggle with the distinction between art and obscenity. I wrote about this for Sunday Times New Review. My favourite example is the lady who had the picture of her simnel cake removed from Instagram because the marzipan balls looked too much like nipples. Not quite the same as censoring great works of art, perhaps, but just as pointless.


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