Looking with 21st Century eyes, it’s difficult to believe that the paintings of Eduard Manet once provoked such an outcry. To contemporary eyes Olympia looks hardly radical or provocative; a reclining nude painted in a realistic fashion. The walls of national collections of Western art the world over are crowded with such paintings. Even at the Salon des Refuses in 1865, at which Olympia was exhibited, the female nude was a perfectly acceptable subject and in previous years works like Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus had been exhibited without an eyebrow being raised.
Yet when Olympia was first exhibited in Paris, the popular press raged and stormed in a way that would make today’s tabloid hysteria over a priapic golfer seem measured by comparison. The painting, and by implication the artist, was, according to the journalists, both incompetent and immoral. The fury was not just limited to writers and critics, the exhibition visitors were also so enraged that the organisers were forced to put guards on the painting to stop it being torn to shreds.
As far as Manet’s incompetence was concerned, the writers drew attention to the apparent slapdash application of paint; great splodgy sweeps of paint appeared to have been smeared onto the canvas. The brush strokes were visible on the surface rather than being disguised by the repetitive and meticulous painting and under-painting of heavily diluted paint that was prescribed by the state-sponsored Art Academies and studios in which all painters learnt their crafts.
The case for ‘immorality’ is slightly more complex. Unlike Cabenel’s Venus, Olympia wasn’t a mythological fantasy, she was a contemporary woman, but not just a contemporary woman. Her shoes, bangle and choker identified her to the critics as a prostitute probably from the Batignolles suburb of Paris – a well known destination for gentleman of the middle classes looking for entertainment. In fact the model was Victorine Meurent a close friend of Manet’s who went on to become a painter herself, but it’s clear that the critics’ interpretation was what Manet had intended. For the establishment of late 19th Century Paris such a woman was not a suitable subject for a large scale work of art, which were normally reserved for noble themes from mythology, history or the Bible.
The offence of the subject matter was compounded by the fact that the clear source for the composition of Olympia was Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The nude was posed in a similar way and the picture space was divided by a screen. Manet’s alterations to the orginal subject piled offence upon offence in the eyes of the critics, the dog that lies curled up at Venus’s feet, representing loyalty, was replaced by black cat, recognized as a symbol of licentiousness, back arched and hackles raised, staring beadily at the viewer. While Venus’s left hand rests, almost beckoning, on her groin, Olympia’s is taut, protective and entirely in control.
It was this assertion of Olympia’s self determination and control of the depicted situation which caused most problems for the critics. The classical and academic nudes that were a staple of the Salon never made direct eye-contact with the viewers, they stared into the middle distance or looked up coyly through their eyelashes offering their bodies as art objects to be admired in a morally uplifting way. Any suggestion that the enjoyment that might be gained by the frock-coated and top-hatted men who attended the Salon and perused the nudes of Cabanel might have been more sexual than spiritual were easily dismissed by appeals to the noble subject matter at hand. But a modern woman, a prostitute at that, staring directly at the viewer with a questioning expression on her face allowed no room for such ethical dodging. It’s entirely possible that the men who expressed their outrage at Olympia may well have been leaving the Salon to attend an assignation with one of the many barmaids or laundresses of Batignolles a comfortable distance from the high society of Paris and their homes. Olympia collapsed that distance.
Manet had painted a modern woman in a modern way. He’d brought real life into the unreal world of the art gallery, showing up the hypocrisy of the great and good of Paris’s fashionable set and ruling classes in the process. He paved the way for the Impressionists who followed hot on his heels and all of those modern artists who came in their wake. It’s perhaps a bit of stretch to call him the father of Modern Art, there are too many other precedents to take into account, but the father of Modern Art as Outrage? I’m prepared to give him that one.