By Al Lim, Yale-NUS College ’19 – See bio
“I paint what I see and not what others like to see.“ -Edouard Manet
“Olympia” by Edouard Manet in 1865 proved to be just as sensational to its audience as a Lady Gaga concert would be today. I am not intending to parallel the painting with the pop icon, but rather depict the scope and impact that this painting had.
Manet was a hipster. Back in the day when there wasn’t Tumblr or Instagram, there were exhibitions and one of chief notoriety: the Salon des Refusés in 1863 by Napoleon III. You guessed it. All the “rejected” art went there. “The Luncheon on the Grass” or “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” was rejected by the Paris Salon, and displayed in the Salon des Refusés. As a result of its subsequent popularity, the Paris Salon displayed “Olympia” in 1865. A good summation of its immediate impact would be the Salon having to place it extremely high and hire guards to prevent physical damage by the outraged Parisians.
The implications of this painting could be stratified on various levels. Some would claim that the model would be a pastiche (copy) of its predecessors such as Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Ironically, if anything, this would parody the hallmark piece.
Firstly, what exactly are you looking at when you observe “Olympia?” The model is Victorine Meurent. She is naked and lying atop a bed, propped up by pillows. She has a flower (an orchid) in her dark brown hair, a ribbon tied around her neck with a pendant, a golden bracelet and golden slippers. There is a yellow shawl underneath her and an African servant holding a bouquet of flowers behind the bed. There is also a black cat with an arched back towards the bottom of the bed. The background features a dark, curtained room with patterned details on the wall.
Now is the time to dig. First stop: historical context. Socially, prostitution was becoming a problem. From the high society courtesans all the way down, the ubiquity of this trade provided numerous societal issues. In addition to this, the associations with the name of “Olympia” abound in allusions. Beatrice Farwell suggests that “Olympia” was a pseudonym used amongst nineteenth century prostitutes. Dumas’ La Dame aux cameliás also portrays a courtesan by the name of “Olympia.” This informs the viewer that this painting is obviously not intended to depict a graceful or idealized figure in a mythological or Arcadian setting, but rather a contemporary woman. Here is an unrepresented side and reality of Paris which crossed the temporal line of moral decorum.
Manet’s realism comes to play here in the painterly qualities and composition. This woman is naked, not nude. The flat edges and harsh use of light creates a more photographic feel to the painting. Her skin is a sickly yellow and the color scheme is decidedly dissonant. The placement of her hand also proved controversial, held with a tension over her pubic region. The present is the focus in realism and Manet has captured the moment where he is clearly interested in his interpretation of the modern woman with a disregard for the understood social norms of nineteenth-century Paris.
The psychological and iconographic influence deepens the significance of the painting. The direct and calculative look with the impossible position of her head is an assertion of independence. She held her own in a misogynistic society. The dynamics of the viewer-subject relationship is also inverted to an extent. There is a jarring viewer involvement and a skewed power balance where voyeurism was the norm. The viewer’s attention is “demanded,” yet “already occupied” as Michael Fried states.
Fried also calls Manet the “first post-Kantian painter” for whom “self-consciousness” was “the great subject of his art.” Much as Hamlet is arguably the first modern character in theater, so is Olympia the first modern woman to emerge without pretense. This is realism at its finest.