In many ways, art cannot be separated from the political environment of its time. As discussed in previous columns, artwork is used as a vehicle for protest everywhere—from Ai Weiwei’s “S.A.C.R.E.D,” to Barbara Kruger’s untitled photograph that states, “Your body is a battleground.” However, an important question remains unanswered: how exactly did art begin to be considered as a platform for opposition? In this final column, I want to discuss Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” as the origin of modern, political art—one that took Paris so off guard that Antonin Proust remarked, “If the canvas of the Olympia was not destroyed, it is only because of the precautions that were taken by the administration [of the 1865 Paris Salon].”
Before discussing “Olympia,” it is important to define the types of acceptable artworks in Manet’s time. Artists were encouraged to paint in the most naturalistic way possible—that is, with three-dimensional depth, careful modeling, and precise forms. In addition to the compositional requirements, the different genres of paintings were hierarchized. Paintings with historical and mythological themes were considered the best, followed by landscape paintings, and on the bottom, still life paintings. Nudes were accepted as a part of mythological paintings such as Titian’s masterwork “Venus of Urbino.” In this painting, Venus lies down on the bed, gazing at the viewer sensuously. Her left arm grasps gently at her pubic region, and she holds flowers with her right hand. A puppy naps on the bottom of the bed. The painting is treated with gradual tonal modeling, indicating spatial relief.
Manet takes Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” and transgresses its paradigms to produce “Olympia.” The similarities between the two are unmistakable. Olympia reclines in the exact same position as Titian’s Venus—her left hand covers her genitals, and the angle at which her right arm bends is the same as Venus’s. In place of a puppy napping, a black cat meows, its tail straightened in hostility. While the paintings share a basic structure, Manet’s breaches the canons of the accepted mythical nude figure. Its harsh, syncopated modeling between light and dark evades perfected illusionism. The subject is nude, but she is not mythological figure—critics widely accept that she is instead a prostitute. Perhaps most startlingly, the figure stares directly at the viewer, confrontational. Through his reshaping of “Venus of Urbino,” Manet seems to defy the strict classification of women and their sexuality, something for which he received great criticism when the painting was first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon.
The categorization of women is further frustrated as Manet doesn’t use the idealizing conventions of portraiture in portraying her femininity. Olympia’s hair is pulled taut, giving her rectangular face a severe outlining. Olympia’s breasts, while voluptuous, are painted so brightly that her nipples are not clearly visible. Soft black brushstrokes appear under her armpit, suggesting that Olympia has armpit hair, unlike contemporaneous paintings that showed women without armpit hair. Her left hand covers her pubic region, denying viewers a clear reference to her gender, and seems to be tense, almost as if Olympia is betraying a sense of anxiety with her sexuality. All of this works together to deny the viewer a portrayal of the ideal nude with a full set of feminine features.
But perhaps most importantly, Manet rebuffs the viewers from envisioning the painting as realistic and getting lost in a simple enjoyment of the nude. “Olympia” is rendered in stark contrasts of white and dark. Gone are the careful, subtle shadows that indicate depth in Titian’s “Venus of Urbino.” Instead, “Olympia” is surprisingly flat—it denies the viewer from entering the imaginary field of the perfected nude. Instead of the ideal nude, real sexuality—in which strict categorization cannot apply—stands in its place.
At first, Manet’s “Olympia” doesn’t seem so revolutionary, except for the stylistic differences from the paintings of the French Academy. However, by replacing the mythological nude with a prostitute and not yielding to the conventional contemporaneous stylizations of women, Manet seems to have used “Olympia” to protest against the categorical portrayal of women in art. By replicating the image of “Venus of Urbino,” Manet acknowledges the past and uses tradition to rebel against it. And he appears to have been ultimately successful—after “Olympia,” the mythical nude never recovered its hallowed position. Manet had started modernism and its inextricable relationship to protest.