When Deborah de Robertis walked into the Musée D’Orsay in Paris and threw off her fur-collared coat in front of Édouard Manet’s painting Olympia to reveal her naked body underneath, it wasn’t meant as a fleeting publicity stunt. She wore a GoPro camera strapped to her head to capture what unfolded.
The result is a short film, Olympia, pieced together after her release from police custody with footage shot from friends’ phones. The nine-minute video, soundtracked with a provocative trap-rap beat, shows chaotic scenes as museum guards quickly move to cover De Robertis with coats and hide her from gallery-goers with blankets.
At one point, a stretch-belt barrier and two posts are put up separating her from the crowd, but, says De Robertis, this only authenticated her performance as a genuine work of art, as the melee inches alarmingly close to the priceless Manet on the wall behind her.
Her embodiment of Olympia was part of the Musée D’Orsay exhibition, she tells the Guardian, sitting in a cafe in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. “I brought something to this exhibition. They should be happy. They should thank me.”
De Robertis has repeatedly used her own nudity as a statement in her work and says her latest performance was a serious attempt to represent the women, models and prostitutes who have been the subject of countless male artists over the years – to give them a voice and a real-life incarnation.
Olympia, an attempt to bring Manet’s infamous 1863 painting to life, was also a direct challenge to Guy Cogeval, director of the Musee D’Orsay, after the gallery halted her 2014 performance, in which she held open her labia in front of Gustave Courbet’s painting l’Origine du Monde.
De Robertis chose the Orsay’s Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution 1850-1910 to deliver her response: a letter read aloud as she stripped a second time and which she describes as her “right of reply” to the museum.
She says she always knew she would “do something with that painting”, but was catalysed by the museum’s recent marketing campaign plastered over the ParisMétro network, encouraging parents to “bring your children to see naked people”. A photography exhibition at the museum entitled Who’s Afraid of Women Photographers? only spurred her on.
As she undressed, she felt like Olympia herself, says De Robertis. Manet’s parodic glorification of a prostitute shocked the 19th-century public with her direct gaze. The artist’s headcam intended to challenge onlookers in a similarly confrontational way. “I usually take the position of the model, but here I am both the artist and the model, or the model with the camera,” she says. “The viewer thinks it is me being viewed, as a naked woman. But actually I am viewing them.”
In both stripping incidents, De Robertis broke French laws on sexual exhibitionism, but she counters, saying that by failing to acknowledge her work as art and labelling it a crime, the museum has broken the unwritten code of respect and understanding between artists and art institutions.
The footage shows her inviting Cogeval to come and see her performance, before insisting they allow her art to continue and shushing the audience so she can deliver her speech. Finally, a plain-clothed policeman appears, blocking her camera lens. De Robertis demands to see his badge.
Later, under arrest at the police station, she was sent for psychiatric assessment. “They treated me like a sick person. They listened to me explaining art and the doctor said she knew nothing about art,” says de Robertis. “It was a big mistake – you don’t bring an artist to a psychiatric ward.” When a second doctor “more familiar with impressionism” assessed her the next morning, De Robertis says she began to feel less medicalised.
Is she prepared to serve prison time for her art? “I hope I never have to, but yes,” she says. Her lawyer, Tewfik Bouzenoune who also represents the ex-Femen activist Eloïse Bouton, who protested topless in a Paris church in 2013, is fighting to change the law on exhibitionism.
“He wants to introduce the notion of intention,” says De Robertis. “I support this fight. There should be no confusion between destructive acts and constructive acts. The exhibitionism law should not apply to my work or that of any artist or activist using nudity to say something. When we use public spaces, it is no longer private or intimate, it’s a public nudity. It becomes a uniform – like a cop.”
To journalists who label her work as submissive – simply giving men what they want – De Robertis quotes from Geneviève Fraisse, the contemporary feminist philosopher who writes about “political nudity”. “One way [to criticise the patriarchy] is to analyse and denounce stereotypes and domination,” says De Robertis. “That is the way traditional feminism has worked up until now. This way contributes to making those stereotypes exist, it helps them and feeds them. The other way is to criticise domination by choosing to stand in the field of emancipation.
“I can walk into the Musée D’Orsay and sit down in front of l’Origine du Monde. I don’t have to ask. I do it without screaming or asking twice – I just take the position, I just do it with my body. That’s how I feel free.”