Featured image: Pascal Guyot, AFP | The painting by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), “L’origine du monde” (The origin of the world), seen on display on June 13, 2008.

This is also the genesis of how this interview came to be. Lilianne sent me a copy of her book – L’Origine. I was intrigued. It started with a painting and that painting, L’Origine du Monde, a painting that anybody who has studied art history for one semester or numerous years can recognise, was the topic of this book. The author seems to have been living under its spell for almost a decade, a copy, years of research cumulated in this book. The promise of a well-research book, still categorised as a novel was fascinating. I read it in a few sittings – it is true that L’Origine is easy to read, facts are intertwined with fiction and autobiographical stories and classified as historical fiction. I would add the word erotic to historical fiction and mention that this book presents subtle sexual innuendo up to explicit and graphic descriptions of sexual acts.

If this isn’t your gem, you might not want to move on with the reading of the book. Furthermore, please bear in mind through this interview as well as through reading the book, if you elect to do so, the era in which most of the story unravel. The 19th century, even in a more liberal France, was still the 19th century in many aspects including women’s conditions and gender relationships. On this note, let’s dive into where it all began, L’Origine.

You are the author of L’Origine, a book about Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece L’Origine du Monde. Almost daily, for close to a decade, you spent time with the painting or the idea of it – how has your relationship with it evolved?
It occurred to me years after my six-week stint as the authorized copyist of L’Origine du Monde that there are very few people alive today who can claim to know this painting more intimately than I. This realization was thrilling to me. My relationship with Courbet’s masterpiece went through an evolution: When I first encountered it, I was stunned by its beauty and the unapologetic portrayal of a part of a woman’s anatomy that had never been the sole focal point of a work of art. When I took on the role of a copyist at the Orsay Museum, I was initially embarrassed and self-conscious to be seen painting a vulva in public – it felt like I was exposing myself. This eventually turned into a sense of liberation and empowerment. After immersing myself in the painting’s riveting history, I developed an even greater respect for the artist and the tableau, and astonishment at its continued influence on contemporary artists.  

L’Origine is a mix of autobiography, research and fantasy – how did you feel about mixing facts and fiction? How did you decide what was going to be facts versus what was fiction? Was it something that came up naturally to you or did you struggle with some parts? 
My intention from the start was to tell the painting’s true story – it had all the makings of a sensuous and thrilling mystery that did not really need much embellishment. The fact that L’Origine straddles different literary genres was born out of necessity. The challenge as a writer arose when the trail of the painting went cold for a number of years on its timeline. What to do? I spent many months researching connections and scenarios that would explain what happened to the painting in that ‘lost’ period of time. I suppose you could call those chapters fantasy, but I see them as plausible conjectures! About eighty-five per cent of the book is based on solid sources.

The autobiographical prologue was a means to connect with contemporary readers so that by the time they began the historical fiction narrative, they were invested in the painting and eager to read about its past. So many readers have confirmed that my intimate adventures with Courbet’s L’Origine du monde got them hooked.

What made you write the book club questions at the end of the book so divided by the gender of the reader? The male versus the female reader – which I feel is reinforcing the division that is made throughout the book – especially today in a world that acknowledges non-binary discourse more and more? What did you hope to achieve?
I’m glad you ask that question because Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World) is one of those iconic works that is often viewed out of context and misinterpreted through our collective contemporary lens. The painting was created in 1866 as a private commission for Ottoman diplomat Khalil Bey – an unapologetic collector of erotic art that included paintings by Ingres, Corot, Fragonard, Boucher and Delacroix. In my book, I trace the arc of Courbet’s decision to paint a portrait of a woman’s genitals. I took into careful consideration not only the time period and the feasible circumstances surrounding the model’s desire for anonymity but also Courbet’s own Realist principles, his natural inclination to break all taboos and his drive to push the boundaries of what an artist is permitted to paint. The painting was not intended to be viewed by millions in one of the most venerable museums in the world. Yet, it belongs there precisely because it is an example of one artist’s personal battle against established mores and boundaries. We contemporary artists owe the likes of Gustave Courbet an enormous debt for forging the road to freedom of expression.

My book club questions are framed in the male/female framework because of my experience interacting with the public during my six-week stint as the copyist of Courbet’s controversial painting. At the time, I was struck by the dichotomy between the reactions of men and women, especially in this fluid world. This aspect of the painting’s impact was particularly striking and I posited these book club questions to readers in the hope of initiating discussion about gender issues–including non-binary discourse–and society’s views regarding female nudity. The male/female divisions throughout the book underscore the historic chauvinism that existed and that still lingers today. As a writer, I did not want to sugarcoat the historic cultural norms of those times–instead, I chose to expose attitudes and behaviours that are incongruent and distasteful to our modern sensitivities in order to appreciate the advances we have made. Slyvia Rodriguez, the co-founder of the Australian Center for Psychoanalysis, grasped this point when she commented: ‘I particularly enjoyed the parallel between the painting’s odyssey and the condition of women throughout history.’

From the inception of your time as a copyist of L’Origine – it seems that you didn’t have any definite path to ‘’measure progress against’’ – or any specific goal in mind – how did you stay motivated through the entire process? What made you keep going, especially when you were no longer sure of why you were on this path?
It’s true that after gaining authorization to copy L’Origine, I was riddled with doubt about my goals and motivations. How would the experience of copying a work of art benefit my artistic practice? What would I gain from it? What insights would I glean about my own sexuality? The truth of the matter is that I am first and foremost a painter. Once I began the actual process of copying and painting, I entered ‘the zone’- a place occupied by my hand, my brush and my intellect. I was focused on the task at hand, and from experience, I knew that the universe works in mysterious, serendipitous ways and that the answers would eventually reveal themselves to me. And they did.  

See Lilianne recreating L’origine du monde the d’Orsay Museum, Paris – click here to access the video

On your website you mentioned: ‘’My diverse cultural background has been influential in shaping a multidisciplinary approach towards my art.’’ – can you tell our readers how so? Can you please give us some examples?
When one lives for extended periods in different countries, one cannot help but absorb the cultural disparities – both obvious and subtle. As an artist, I have (often subconsciously) incorporated the visual sensibilities and esthetics imparted by French, Australian, Israeli, and American cultures. These influences, I believe, can partially account for the eclectic nature of my work – something that I have struggled with in my artistic practice.  

I am equally drawn to the lavish decorative nature of 17th and 18th-century French style and architecture, just as I am also lured by the stark, open landscapes that one encounters in Australia. Many of my paintings have a stark, clean aspect, but decorative elements usually find their way in! The Israeli art scene is very avant-garde and progressive and has given me the courage to develop conceptually. The US, where I reside now, has a plethora of gifted contemporary artists whose work straddles mixed media, something that I am embracing in my recent work.  

What is your favourite part of your work?  
That’s a tough one. I am most at peace with the world when I create. That could be a painting, a ceramic sculpture or shaping an imaginative scene in my new novel-in-progress.  

How do you feel that your practice differs depending on if you are using visual or literal language?
A reader described my book, L’Origine, as a ‘painting in words’. This touched me deeply. I operate best in a visual world so that goes for both my writing and my art practice. Another word that pops up frequently in reviews of L’Origine is ‘cinematic’, which again relates to the visual properties of my writing. Both art and writing require immense focus, concentration and dedication. However, for me, writing is a slower process and a slightly more painful one!! 

If you were at the beginning of your career again, is there one or multiple things you would do differently?  
I might have curtailed my inclination to jump from one subject to another, from one style to another. Several mentors and gallerists encouraged me to do so earlier on in my career so that my work could be recognizable as unique to me. At the time, I was so hungry to embrace and explore all the avenues of creation that I could not slow down enough to consider the negative financial impact of pursuing multiple creative paths. 

What is the best piece of advice you can offer artists on what is vital for them to survive and thrive in the art world? 
-It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: Don’t wait for inspiration to hit. Do the work and it will find YOU.  

-Have the courage to produce art that is an expression of YOU. When you are starting out, identify those artists whose work you admire and gravitate toward. Study them and then take those lessons and observations and make them your own.  

-No matter what field one is in, there is always rejection. But in the creative field, it is a given. Know that art is subjective. Find the collectors and galleries and audiences that resonate with your work. You can’t produce art (or write a book) that appeals to everybody.  

-Put your art out there. No one is going to know about it if it’s tucked under your bed. 

Is there one (false) assumption about being an artist that you would like to demystify?  
That it’s all fun and games. It’s not. It’s hard work, but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else! 

Anything else you would like to add?
What I learned from my journey as a successful debut author is that my unflagging passion for my subject and my determination to get the story out into the world sustained me for close to a decade. I have occasionally experienced that sort of singular, propulsive sense of purpose in my art practice. It’s a feeling I hope to find again.  

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  • The greatest influence in your life (person, theory, model…)
    My mother. Despite being a Holocaust survivor, she had the most embracing, optimistic view of life I have ever encountered. 
  • An object you can’t live without
    My mother’s ring. 
  • Favourite book
    Changes on a monthly basis. This month, my answer would be Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow.  
  • When I say “art”, what is your first thought?
    Paintings that take my breath away. 
  • What’s your idea of happiness?
    Being immersed in art or a good book and knowing that my children are happy. 
  • Your favourite art moment?
    Watching the emotional responses to my installation, Living Without Them, at the American University’s Katzen Museum in DC. The installation recreated the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Baghdad’s bookseller street by extremists.  
  • A myth you would like to debunk?
    I hate it when I hear someone say “I could do that!” about the artwork. The fact is you didn’t do it. The artist did.  
  • What the art world should be more of and less of?
    The art world should be MORE accessible.
    Art itself should be LESS judged by its monetary value.  

About Lilianne Milgrom

Paris-born Lilianne Milgrom is an internationally acclaimed artist, award-winning author, blogger and freelance art journalist. She is a graduate of Melbourne University and the San Francisco Academy of Art. Her artworks can be found in private and institutional collections around the world. In 2011, she became the first authorized copyist of Gustave Courbet’s controversial painting L’Origine du Monde, which hangs in the Orsay Museum in Paris. Milgrom spent a decade researching and writing L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece. Her debut novel has been awarded six literary honours.