Family Politics: Elinor Carucci's 'Eden Peeking' (2008)
by Aaron Schuman

Summer 2013

This essay was originally published in Photoworks (Family Politics Issue), 2013.

     In 1866, the champion of Realism, Gustave Courbet, was commissioned by the flamboyant Ottoman diplomat and art collector Khalil-Bey to produce a painting for his personal collection of erotic pictures.  The result, entitled L’Origine du Monde (The Origin of the World), explicitly depicts a reclining woman’s torso as seen from below; her legs spread wide, her genitals, stomach and right breast fully exposed.   For nearly a century and a half, the painting has caused controversy due to its frank and forthright nature – most recently, in 2011 Facebook drew criticism as well as a formal complaint from the French judiciary, when they disabled an artist’s account after he posted it on his profile – despite the fact that after Khalil-Bey sold the painting to cover gambling debts two years after its commission, the artwork passed through various private collections and wasn’t publicly exhibited until 1988, or publicly owned until the Musée d'Orsay acquired it (from the estate of Jacques Lacan, no less) in 1995.  Although it remained largely hidden from public view for much of its existence, L’Origine du Monde – not unlike its subject matter – ‘epitomized the paradox of [something] famous…that is seldom actually seen.’   
     Initially, when in 2008 Elinor Carucci set out to make a photograph of the ritual that she and her four-year-old son, Eden, enacted before bathing every night, the intent was clear – to produce an image of intimacy and quiet maternal care, to capture a tender moment between a dutiful mother and her vulnerable young son.  ‘Because of recent adenoidectomy surgery’, she explains, ‘he couldn’t take a shower without earplugs.  So my original plan was to capture the evening ceremony of him putting his head on my lap, and me putting his earplugs into his ears.’  But Eden was in a playful mood that night, and just before resting his head, he decided to peak inside his mother’s underwear – to look for something that is seldom actually seen.  ‘He was being silly, and just looking to see what was in there; he just did it.  But when I got the film back, I realized that he’d given me a much more interesting picture than I’d originally intended.’ 

     Although reminiscent of L’Origine du Monde in many ways – the closely-cropped frame bounded by the subject’s breasts and the upper thighs, the tangle of black pubic hair serving as both the composition’s focus and central axis, and so on – Eden Peeking is not only striking because of its realism, openness, and candor, but also because of how it reflects entirely differently upon our inherent fascination with the female body, and this specific realm in particular.  (It might come as no surprise that, ever since the Musée d'Orsay first publicly displayed L’Origine du Monde in 1996, it has been the museum’s second most popular selling postcard. )  Of course, as Courbet’s own title suggests, he may have had more general allegorical aspirations for the painting itself, which stretched beyond the immediate titillation of his patron.  But given the circumstances of its commission, and the unsettlingly inert passivity of his model, it’s difficult to judge the sincerity of his caption.  That said, by transferring the gaze from that of a lover or suitor to that of her young son, Carucci finally succeeds in capturing the true spirit of Courbet’s original title, and transforms the female body – importantly, in this case, her own – into a genuinely astonishing source of life, rather than an object of desire.  In sharing Eden’s brazen downward glance as he playfully peels back the elastic border, the viewer becomes conscious of their own gaze in a powerfully disarming way, and is encouraged to marvel as Eden does, rather than overtly sexualize the encounter.  ‘Children want to know everything they can – about their bodies, about their parents’ bodies, about who we are and where we come from,’ Carucci reflects, ‘and they don’t have the inhibitions that we have as adults.  So for me, this image isn’t provocative in any way; it’s about the beauty of curiosity.’

          Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that this is not only a photograph of Eden, but also a self-portrait of the photographer – one who, as a subject, is not inert but actively engaged in both the moment and the photograph, even triggering the shutter with her right hand – and in a sense, it could be read as a profoundly invested self-reflection on motherhood in general as well.   Over the course of the last two decades, Carucci’s work has resolutely centered upon herself, whilst simultaneously investigating of the various roles that she, and many women like her, inhabit in relation to others throughout their lives – firstly as a figure of entertainment, desire and fantasy in Diary of a Dancer, an autobiographical series exploring her career as a professional belly-dancer in the late-1990s, and then subsequently as a girlfriend, wife and daughter in portfolios such as Crisis, Closer and Comfort.  Now, in her soon to be released monograph, Mother (Prestel, October 2013), and as seen in Eden Peeking, she takes on the maternal role wholeheartedly.

     Whilst engaging with this particular image – as a son, a husband and a father – I myself found that could entirely empathize with and appreciate the raw curiosity captured by Eden Peeking, but recognizing that it contained more than that, I admittedly became increasingly frustrated by the fact that I struggled to fully tap into the maternal experience so delicately captured within the image.  So I asked my wife what she thought of the photograph, and her immediate response was revelatory.  ‘It’s about ownership’, she said. ‘As a mother, especially of small children, you surrender yourself and your privacy; children assume that your body is entirely theirs, and they can do what they like with it.  So as much as it’s about his curiosity, it’s also about her surrender, about being entirely laid bare.’  This insight struck me to the core, and I was immediately reminded of a comment that Carucci made to me in an interview in 2009, less than a year after she made Eden Peeking.  ‘What having a child does to a woman is very different from what it does to a man…For a woman it’s a total kind of experience; it really takes all of you, from your body, to your mind, to the erotic and sensual parts of you.  It all goes to the children.’  Perhaps rather than Courbet’s candidly anatomical sexuality and tokenistic title, it is the conflagration of the innocent curiosity and maternal surrender found in Carucci’s work that marks one of the true origins of the world, and one which is is genuinely ‘seldom actually seen’.


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