Wednesday, July 29, 2020

#AuthorInterview: Historical Fiction Interview with Lilianne Milgrom, author of L’Origine: The Secret Life of the World’s Most Erotic Masterpiece

Genre
Literary Historical

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Welcome to Historical Fiction Reader, Lilianne. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us about L’ORIGINE. 
In 1866, maverick French artist Gustave Courbet painted one of the most iconic images in the history of art: a sexually explicit portrait of a woman’s exposed genitals – no head, no arms, no legs. Audaciously titled L’Origine du monde (The Origin of the World), the scandalous painting was kept hidden for a century and a half. Today, it hangs in the world-renowned Orsay Museum in Paris, viewed by millions of visitors a year.

L’ORIGINE is an entertaining and deeply researched work of historical fiction that traces the painting’s extraordinary odyssey, replete with French revolutionaries, Turkish pashas, and nefarious Nazi captains. But L’ORIGINE is more than a riveting romp through history—it also highlights society’s complex relationship with the female body.

What drew you to this painting and why did you feel its story needed to be told?  
As an artist, I was vaguely familiar with this controversial work, but it played no role in my art practice in any way. In 2010 I was in Paris for an extended stay (I am Paris-born but live in the US) and when I laid eyes on the painting, I experienced a powerful kaleidoscope of emotions. I was at a point in my life when I was questioning my sexuality as a woman of ‘a certain age’.  The Origin of the World cast a spell on me! Courbet and his infamous painting are part of French lore and I was very motivated to expose English-speaking readers who operate outside of the confines of the academic art world. There’s a lot more to this painting than meets the eye, so to speak!

You had a special and unique experience with Courbet’s L'Origine du monde. Can you tell us a bit about that? 
Through a series of serendipitous events, I became the first artist authorized by the Orsay Museum to re-create Courbet’s The Origin of the World. As its copyist, I was thrust into the painting’s intimate orbit, spending six weeks replicating every fold, crevice, and pubic hair. The experience was so profound that it inspired me to share my story and recount the painting’s riveting clandestine history. 

Courbet’s approach to feminine sexuality has challenged private and public viewers of the painting throughout its history. Did this legacy shadow or influence your writing process?  
The painting was kept hidden for close to a century and a half. It was actually first publicly exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum in 1988, and ever since it has sparked contentious debate surrounding the female body. Modern art criticism has largely vilified this controversial painting as the very symbol of the exploitative male gaze so prevalent in art history. But after copying Courbet’s painting and immersing myself in its remarkable history, I think my book throws new light on the painting, leaving the door open to fresh dialogue on constructs such as feminine identity, sexuality, beauty, and empowerment. What I kept in mind all through the writing process was the fact that it’s essential to put the work in context before judging it. 

Do you have a favorite scene in L’ORIGINE? 
Some chapters just write themselves while others take time to take shape. I read a lot of books and primary sources on both Gustave Courbet and the painting itself, but it was still hard to get into Courbet’s head and understand what led up to his own eureka moment – the moment when he actually visualized the painting and why he chose such a taboo subject. When I came across a few sources that compared the painting of L’Origine du monde with a number of paintings Courbet did around that time of the dark cave near his home in Ornans that is the source of the Loue River, it seemed clear that he was smitten with the idea of origins and sources and the idea of a woman’s body as the source of all creation seemed like a natural progression. That’s when I was able to write the chapter and scene of his aha moment.

Authors are often forced to make sacrifices when composing their stories and I always wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor. Is there a character, scene, or concept you wish you could have spent more time on while writing L’ORIGINE? 
What a great question!!! The first manuscript took the form of alternating chapters between Courbet’s arrival in Paris and his trajectory, and my own arrival in Paris as a mature artist. Part of me still likes that idea, but the further I went, the clearer it became that I actually wanted to write about the painting itself. I had to pivot for the sake of the story. The painting became the protagonist.

What do you hope readers take from their experience of L’ORIGINE?
I hope they will discover a painter and a painting they were unfamiliar with and would perhaps never have come across. If they were familiar with Courbet’s Origin of the World I hope they come away with an understanding of how context shapes artwork – we can’t make rash conclusions through the lens of our contemporary mindset and societies. I studied French History at university in Melbourne, Australia, and I have been an artist all my life, so my book brings all these pieces together. But ultimately, I hope readers enjoy the book without realizing how much they learned about history and art and artists!!

What’s next for you? Any new writing projects in the wings? 
As you know, I am primarily an artist and I do miss being back in the studio. However, I have several ideas floating around in my head – one of them is a children’s book called ‘Monsieur Pourquoi Pas’ (Mister Why Not?) based on a real-life character I met in France last year….

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