When asked publicly if he was in possession of Gustave Courbet’s painting of the female sex, L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World, 1866), Jacques Lacan did not give a clear answer, which was characteristic of the psychoanalyst. German artist Sebastian Utzni (b. 1981) used a well-known quote from one of Lacan’s televised seminars—”Je dis toujours la vérité . . . pas toute” (I always tell the truth . . . not all)—as the title for his exhibition, which took a sidelong view of Courbet’s painting to consider its movement through the world as it was hidden and exposed.
The show opened with a small green velvet curtain, behind which an empty box frame was revealed to those who looked. L’Origine was said to have been commissioned by Ottoman diplomat Khalil Bey, and it is rumored that he kept it shrouded this way in his home. After the painting was sold to cover Khalil Bey’s debts, it passed through a number of private collections, eventually landing in the Musée d’Orsay in 1995; yet it was already notorious by the end of the 19th century.
Along with the velvet curtain, Utzni hung 17 unframed black-and-white oils on canvas on both sides of three freestanding open-timber scaffolds reaching to the gallery ceiling. These paintings re-create pages from publications in which Courbet’s work was reproduced. There were many illustrations of it even before its whereabouts were public knowledge. For this cycle, Utzni photocopied all the illustrations he could find of L’Origine, then reproduced the pictures and accompanying text on canvases the same size as Courbet’s original. (The works, all dated 2013, are each titled after these dimensions in centimeters—55×46 or 46×55—along with the source from which the depicted illustration was culled.) His sources are mostly art history volumes, though the reproductions are frequently imperfect. A copy purportedly by Magritte was photographed and reproduced numerous times. Magritte’s version has disappeared, but the slight difference in the placement of the sheet over the torso reveals whether an illustration was taken from the original or Magritte’s copy. Utzni also includes a few nonacademic examples, like a page from a 2013 edition of Le Monde (where the work is cited as an image censored on Facebook), or a page from a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi.
In addition, there are two framed paintings. One looks like a stylized Asian landscape on wood but actually reprises a sketchy linear version of L’Origine made by André Masson at Lacan’s request. The wood slides aside to reveal a blank canvas behind. The second is a copy of a landscape painting by Courbet, which is in a hinged frame that opens to reveal another empty canvas. Both paintings represent ways L’Origine was kept during its time in private hands. A safe built into the gallery wall (which is where the canvas spent the Second World War) and a sign urging visitor discretion (the artist’s imagining of the piece’s presentation at American museums) completed the exhibition.
Utzni’s canvases invite us to consider how different contexts transform a work. Depending on the situation, Courbet’s painting has been treated as either a tour de force or pornography. Regarding art, psychoanalysis can be most interesting when it considers the viewer, not the artist. Did Lacan get more from the painting by owning it than those who could only imagine it? Did he take a perverse satisfaction in having it to himself?