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A Discussion of Two Controversial Works of Art

Autor:   •  November 10, 2017  •  2,653 Words (11 Pages)  •  289 Views

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Manet’s unconventional and expressive composition was received with public outrage and indignation. Comments evoked feelings of shock, ridicule, vulgarity and indecency. Critic Louis Etienne describes it as:

A nonchalant bréda [prostitute] . . . completely naked, impudently lounges between two dandies dressed up to the nines. They give the impression of two students on holiday who are behaving outrageously, to try and give the impression of real men . . . It is either a young man’s idea of a joke, or it is a festering sore, unworthy of comment. (Katz & Dars, 2000).

Even though friend and writer, Emile Zola, came to Manet’s defense, using words like: ‘brilliant, inspiring, greatest, powerful,’ Manet was so distressed he complained that “the abuse was raining down on him like hail.” (Katz & Dars).

Despite the hoopla, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, still maintained traditional qualities. An Old Master aspect of conventional representation remains, which discriminates it from true Impressionistic work. Yet Manet’s techniques are ‘anything but classical,’ is the most commonly expressed complaint. Both critics and public alike thought his work to be ‘slipshod,’ with brush strokes broad and visible. Most prominent tones were flatly applied and unusual. The forms; however, are not produced of simply flat, blended color. Under even light, one can see the brush followed the roundness of the form. There are slight variations in color throughout. Unique characteristics of Manet’s style were by using one single color and strokes of paint standing for more complex reality. He also typically omitted intermediate values between extremes of light and dark that produced vivid contrasts. (Sayre).

In Déjeuner, the sense of space was distorted, creating disproportionate scale and the figures do not relate in any conventional or psychological sense. There is an almost mystical feel of isolation and secrecy.

Manet’s traditional rejection and break with the past was completely intentional. He wanted to convey a changing, contemporary world. He saw conditions of modern life and social values with eyes wide open. It was no longer filled with the beauty and goodness depicted in traditional art. His world was less heroic, its ideals less grand (Sayre) and he painted how he saw it.

Image Two

Olympia, by Edouard Manet, 1863, oil on canvas, 51 x 74 ¾ inches.

Although painted in 1863, Olympia created an even bigger uproar than Déjeuner, when first exhibited in 1865. Inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Olympia is another example of how Manet took liberties of using respected works by Renaissance artists and updating them with a contemporary flair that was all his own.

The painting is of a reclining nude woman, gazing mysteriously at the viewer, attended by a maid who is holding a bouquet of flowers. Like in Déjeuner, the background is dark, almost black, but this with a sense of it being nighttime, with strong implications Olympia is a ‘lady of the night.’

In many representations viewed, the maid’s dark face is hard to distinguish from the background. It could simply be due to the sources having poor color separation techniques, or possibly Manet did this purposely, wanting the maid to be merely a faceless image, blending in with the background. However, one image was finally found where the maid’s facial features are unmistakably pronounced. She glares directly at the nude woman, with a scornful look, not quite one of blatant disgust, but though she is looking down her nose at her. One can almost hear her thoughts, as she might be thinking, “I may be nothing more than a servant, but you lay here, in all your glory, with that smug look on your face, for all the world to see!”

Olympia’s haughty gaze suggests she sees a male visitor, maybe the bearer of the flowers. If animation were added to the sequence, it’s almost possible to imagine the next scene – Olympia raises her left hand in a motion to ‘dismiss’ the maid, without giving her so much as a glance.

Again, as with the nude in Déjeuner, her pale body appears flat in relationship to the rest of the painting and lacks depth and dimension. Likewise is the shadow reduced to band-like outlines. It certainly doesn’t have the flawless curves and smooth innocence noticeably present in Venus of Urbino.

Here Manet seems to take distortion of perspective to a new magnitude. The bed Olympia reclines on, despite being intricately explicit in the subtlety of precision and detail, appears to be not much wider than she is. It is thoroughly out of balance with the rest of the painting and while it has a massive feeling quality, as it takes up about one half the image, there is no correlation or accuracy in proportion. The bed seems to be almost floating in air. Even the black cat, barely visible on the far right, lacks proper perspective. It is smaller than Olympia’s delicate foot, yet doesn’t seem representative of a kitten.

What originally shocked and disgusted viewers of Olympia, had little to do with it being a painting of a nude woman. While many classic precedents of nudes existed, Manet’s painting clearly portrayed her as a courtesan or prostitute. Olympia was even a name commonly used by Parisian prostitutes of the time. (Cole & Gealt). A number of details, such as the orchid in her hair, bracelet, earrings and black ribbon around her neck, identify her as a ‘demi-modaine.’ Even the shawl on which she lies and mule slippers are symbols of sensuality. (Wikipedia).

Olympia’s defiant gaze and positioning of her left hand, suggest sexual independence and emphasize a seductiveness of an improper nature. Manet adds ‘fuel to the fire,’ by replacing the little dog [a symbol of fidelity] in Titian’s painting, (Wikipedia). with a black ‘pussy’ cat.

Some believe Manet’s technique added to the controversy. Rejecting his traditional art training, he chose to paint using bold brush strokes, implied shapes and vigorous, simplified forms. Art historian Anne McCauley explains (as cited in Culture Shock; The TV Series & Beyond, 2000). “It wasn’t just the fact that she’s a nude and she’s a lower class nude, but also the fact she was painted in . . . what many people read as almost childlike or unskilled fashion.”

Manet chose to paint a woman of his time – not a feminine ideal, but a real woman, flaws and all, with an independent spirit, and a courtesan at that, a woman whose body is a commodity. While gentlemen of the time may frequent courtesans, they do not want to be confronted with one in a painting gallery. A real woman


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