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'Origin of the world': Facebook on trial over Courbet's vagina

Sébastien Bozon, AFP | Gustave Courbet's "L'Origine du monde"

Did Facebook conflate art with porn when it shut down a Paris teacher’s account? Accused of censorship over a 19th-century oil-on-canvas vagina, the US social media giant has a court date - if not a fine art lesson - in France on Thursday.

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The trial in the French capital comes seven years after Facebook shut down a Paris teacher’s personal account without notice on February 27, 2011, after the art lover posted a photo of Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting “L’Origine du monde” ("The Origin of the world”) on his virtual wall. The photo in question was hyperlinked to a video reportage about the artwork’s history.

Frédéric Durand-Baïssas posted the painting days after Facebook had similarly shut down Danish sculptor Frode Steinicke’s account on the site for the same purported infraction of the social network's rules barring nudity. Steinicke's account was eventually reactivated, sans the offending artwork.

Claiming freedom of expression, Durand-Baïssas sued Facebook in October 2011 to get his own account reactivated. So began a five-year jurisdiction battle with the California-based firm, which argued it was accountable to California law and could only answer to a US court.

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“On the one hand, Facebook shows a total permissiveness regarding violence and ideas conveyed on the social network. And on the other hand, [it] shows an extreme prudishness regarding the body and nudity,” the aggrieved Facebook user’s lawyer, Stéphane Cottineau, told the Associated Press in 2016, after winning the right to have the case heard in France.

Courbet's iconic nude, a canvas likely commissioned by the Turkish-Egyptian diplomat Khalil-Bey, its first owner, entered the Musée d’Orsay in 1995, 40 years after its last private purchase, by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

“The anatomical description of female sex organs is not attenuated by any historical or literary device,” the Paris museum describes the work in an online blurb. “Yet thanks to Courbet’s great virtuosity and the refinement of his amber colour scheme, the painting escapes pornographic status.”

(With AFP and AP)

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