When Lilianne Milgrom contacted me about reviewing her novel, L’Origine, I was astonished at the perfect fit of subject matter and time period with my sensibilities. A mutual acquaintance steered her my way, and I couldn’t wait to receive and read Milgrom’s book. I was right to anticipate it.
In 1866, Gustave Courbet painted one of the most provocative paintings ever painted, L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World). The painting depicts a breast-down view of a faceless, naked woman with splayed legs, an unheard-of subject for its time.
Milgrom, an accomplished painter herself, opens her novel with her experience copying Courbet’s famed painting. I found her account of the process of getting permission to be a copyist at France’s Musée d’Orsay and her painstaking copying of L’Origine just as riveting as the novel portion of the book.
The author begins the novel proper with the controversial painting’s origin (no pun intended) and traces it through the history of each of its owners. Its journey through the world, through historical events such as Nazis asking for a ransom for its return, and on to its current home at the d’Orsay, is captivating.
It’s not surprising that the book is at times lusty, from individual encounters of painters with lovers to the, ahem, private uses of the resultant painting. One wishes the men so taken with the carnal nature of the painting would have spent more time dwelling on the metaphorical nature of it, on the deeper meaning of a woman’s vagina being the origin of us all, but that is a historical, societal shortcoming and not the author’s.
Milgrom’s fresh idea of following the painting’s sojourn mimics the physical act of birth, the passing on of power and life from one generation to the next, fitting in beautifully with what I believe to be the artist’s intent. Having once stood before the painting in contemplation myself, I was thrilled to read such a careful, loving account of it.
Rich with accurate historical detail combined with a creative imagining of what happened with the painting behind closed doors that no one could possibly know but that everyone wants to, Milgrom skillfully encapsulates the story of a painting with her discerning, artistic eye. Brava.
Nota bene: Milgrom obviously chose not to use Courbet’s controversial painting for her book cover, but it’s only a google away.