A long-running dispute about the requirements for censorship from Facebook came to a head in the French court. How should Facebook decide what's art and what's pornography? The social network denied that it had banned user because he published a photo of a 19-century female vagina oil painting.

L’Origine du monde (Origin of the World) still has enough power to scandalize the censors at the social media giant, Facebook. It is being sued for allegedly suspending a user who posted an oil painting by the realist artist Gustave Courbet.

Frederic Durand-Baissas, a primary school teacher in Paris, has sued the powerful social network in French court, claiming Facebook violated his freedom of speech by abruptly removing his profile.

Durand-Baissas’ account was suspended hours after he posted a photo of Gustave Courbet’s “The Origin of the World,” a painting that depicts female genitalia. He claimed that its status as a cherished work of art did not stop Facebook from shutting down his account because of its ban on nude images. He accuses Facebook of deactivating his account "without warning or justification" in February 2011.

“L’Origine du Monde” (“The Origin of the World”), an 1866 oil painting by the realist painter Gustave Courbet, might hang on the walls of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The painting, one of several female nudes completed by Courbet, shocked the stiff bourgeois society of his time.

The painting "The Origin of the World" by Gustave Courbet in the Musée d'Orsay

Photo: www.20min.ch

Durand made repeated attempts to have his account restored but Facebook's lawyers said it was technically impossible, since it keeps data from deleted accounts only for 90 days.

He promptly sued the company in the name of freedom of expression, but the case came to court only after years of legal wrangling over jurisdiction.
It was not the first time in 2011 that Facebook has puritanically suspended accounts because of sexual and nude image content. Once Facebook removed photographs of the painted breasts of 25 post-mastectomy breast cancer survivors that are part of the Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting Project, then censored a gay kiss photo. After all, Facebook also removed an image of Katsushika Hokusai‘s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, an 1814 woodblock print that was posted on the wall of Jerry Saltz, the famed New York Magazine art critic and Bravo TV judge for the popular Work of Art reality show. And if the last image was pornographic enough to warrant removal, all the others were no more than expressions and iconography of factual life.

But at least, Facebook made rule changes in 2015 clarifying that depictions of nudity in artwork were acceptable.

Left: Caricature of Etienne Carjat "Gustave Courbet", published in the newspaper Le Boulevard on June 7, 1863. National Library of France. Source: arzamas.academy

Durand wants his account restored and £17,500 (20,000 euros) in damages. He had posted a link to an article exploring the history of the painting which used the famous image as a thumbnail.

His lawyer Stephane Cottineau had previously acknowledged that Facebook banned nude content at the time, but argued that the painting was a "major work" which is "part of France's cultural heritage".

The Musee d'Orsay, which has held the painting since 1995, says on its website that the work "escapes pornographic status" thanks to "Courbet's great virtuosity and the refinement of his amber colour scheme".
And if in 1866, when it was painted, neither genitalia, nor opinions about them were on display, today anyone can take part in the debate. 

At the time Courbet was working on the painting his favourite model was a young woman, Joanna Hiffernan, also known as Jo.

The commission for L'Origine du monde is believed to have come from Khalil Bey, an Ottoman diplomat, former ambassador of the Ottoman Empire in Athens and Saint Petersburg who had just moved to Paris. Sainte-Beuve introduced him to Courbet and he ordered a painting to add to his personal collection of erotic pictures, which already included Le Bain turc (The Turkish Bath) by Ingres and another painting by Courbet, Le Sommeil (The Sleepers), for which it is supposed that Hiffernan was one of the models.

Left: Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl by James Whistler, another painting of Joanna Hiffernan

Caricature by Cham from Le Charivari, 7 April 1851, reproduced in Courbet selon les caricatures et les images.
"Monsieur Courbet consults with the gravedigger about his painting about the funeral in Brittany"

© Bibliothèque nationale de France

Facebook fought for five years to avoid being taken to court in France over the case. The company had argued that under its terms of service, lawsuits like Durand-Baissas’ could only be heard by a specific court in California, where Facebook is headquartered.  

But a Paris appeals court ruled in February 2016 that the case should be heard in France.

It should be reminded, the Manchester Art Gallery took down the painting of John William Waterhouse «Hylas and the Nymphs», depicting naked girls, to «encourage debate» about how such images should be displayed in the modern age. The institution asked users to share their opinion about this action on Twitter.

John William Waterhouse. Hylas and the nymphs
Hylas and the nymphs
John William Waterhouse
1896, 132.1×197.5 cm

A Facebook search today returns numerous uncensored posts featuring images of "L'Origine du Monde", according to Agence France-Presse.

The lawyers of Facebook denied any censorship, saying that after Durand's account was removed, he opened the second, also using a pseudonym where he again posted the artwork of Courbet - and which remains active. The plaintiff did not offer any evidence of a link between the deactivation of the account and the publication of the work of Gustave Courbet," said network lawyers.

They called the claim unjustified and asked for a symbolic penalty against Duran of one euro, although they did not explain why his account was taken down, referring only to "a simple contractual dispute". But the lawyer Durand dismissed this argument.

The civil court’s ruling in Durand-Baissas’ case is expected on March 15.

Title illustration: hyperallergic.com

Based on materials Artdaily.