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Modern and contemporary art

Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: There's a long tradition of the female nude represented in the most erotic, sensualist way. Clothed by mythology or clothed by sheer beauty. Beth: It's a tradition that goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans in sculptures, for example, of the goddess Venus, modestly covering her body after her bath. And Manet in this painting that we're looking at here at the Musée d'Orsay, is clearly drawing on those traditions but doing something radically modern. Steven: The immediate model for Manet was Titian's Venus of Urbino, except that he's stripping away the academic technique of the representation of space, of the turn of the body, but he's also stripping away that veil of mythology. Beth: And here at the Musée d'Orsay, we can see in traditional nudes as Venus painted in a traditional way, clearly the images that Manet's Olympia is speaking to. Steven: So by academic art, we're talking about the kind of art that was sanctioned by the official Academy that was associated with the government of France. Beth: It didn't challenge, particularly, it satisfied. Steven: Well for a couple of reasons. For one, because it had the stamp of the official state. These were the leading artists of the time, they were saying this art is of quality and so of course it had a ready market value. But at the same time it was art that was formulaic, that was expected. Beth: Well there was an idea that there was a definition of great art and there was no point in looking for what was new or different because great art was self evident, great art was based on the classical and the Renaissance. And what someone like Manet is doing is challenging those very established ideas. Ideas that seemed as natural as the sun coming up in the morning. She's not a Venus, her name is Olympia and she looks very much like a real woman in a real apartment in Paris. Steven: So wait a minute, so how do you know she looks like a real woman, as opposed to a Venus? We don't know what a Venus looks like. Beth: Her features are not idealized. They're not perfected. When we look at ancient Greek sculpture or Renaissance paintings of the nude we have a woman who is perfectly beautiful. And you can see her face is asymmetrical and her lips are a little bit too thin, she doesn't have that perfection. Steven: In addition, the representations of the academic artists always show Venus or other nudes in a coy way. This woman is looking directly at us. She is sentient, she is thinking and she's confronting us even as we look at her. Beth: And so there was a real problem I think for the viewers of this painting. There's no way to look at her and pretend that it was about beauty. One was confronted by her sexuality, there was no way to say, "I'm just looking at the ideal image of Venus, of the idea of beauty." Here the reality of a nude woman is present. Steven: And it's even coarser than that because this woman was recognized as a courtesan, that is a kind of prostitute. Beth: The name Olympia was common for prostitutes at that time in Paris. Steven: And what we're seeing here is Olympia's servant handing her flowers that presumably have just come from one of her patrons, one of her customers. We must have, as the customer, walked into the room and startled the cat at the foot of the bed, as well as the two figures. And so there is this vulgarity here, there really is doing even more than just stripping away the mythology that's confronting 19th century Paris with its own corruption. Beth: When we use the word prostitute we think of a figure of much lower class and here we have a woman who is obviously a higher class prostitute. Steven: The reaction of the press was pretty vicious. Beth: The press said she looked like a cadaver. She looked like she was dead. Manet outlined her in black and hardly modeled her flesh. Steven: What's interesting is that some of the caricatures that were made of this emphasize the shadow on her hands and feet, and some of the press actually spoke of her hands being filthy. It's interesting that those are the only areas where there's significant modeling. Beth: Where one would expect to see modeling on the female nude would be in the abdomen, around the breasts, and here Manet's kept that really flat and you're right, the areas that we do see shadow are unexpected so the press interpreted her hand as drawing attention to her sexuality even though nudes for centuries had shown women with their hand placed across their genitals. Steven: You mentioned the kind of flatness of her body and some art historians even said she's a bit of a paper cut out, but Manet of course in so much of his work really does reject the clear articulation of represented space and confronts the viewer with the complexity of painting on a two-dimensional surface. And an area where you can really see that are, for instance, in the way the toes peek out from under her slipper. There is this awkwardness that reminds us that all of this is illusion and that in fact there is just this two-dimensionality of this canvas. Beth: There's a kind of unmasking. Manet is saying, "I'm not going to pretend that my painting isn't paint. "I'm not going to present you with this perfect illusion," the way that academic artists are doing where you don't even see a brush stroke. So he's insisting on unmasking that illusion and then he's insisting on unmasking the illusion of our own interests in looking at these images. He's reminding us that our interest here is a sexual one. Steven: Right, in so many traditional representations of the nude because the figure is not looking out at us, we can comfortably look at her. But here we're confronted by her gaze and by her thinking and there is a much more problematic experience here. Beth: And that's in the fact that she's a real woman, she's contemporary and the way she picks her head up, the way she looks out at us, the angularity of her body, it's in all those things. And people at the time, 1865, recognized it. Steven: So this is a painting that is only partially about the nude. This is a painting about art making and about the kinds of conventions that exist in art and making us, the viewer, aware of those conventions even as we look at this painting. Beth: Manet is saying let's be honest about the materials, let's be honest about the subject and our motives and desires, and I think that that is a really interesting thing for art to do. The great poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire called on artists to paint the beauty of modern life and I think Manet is taking up that call. Steven: Manet is inventing what beauty could be for the modern world. (piano playing)
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