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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet”, by Otto Friedrich

329 pages, HarperCollins Publishers, ISBN-13: 978-0060163181

The late Otto Friedrich had a number of unpopular opinions, one of which is the title of this book from 1995. The painting Olympia by Édouard Manet, first exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon, Friedrich thinks, gazes back at every admirer “with a look of casual indifference, of recognition, of sadness, of courageous defiance”. This was not the received, modern view of this painting; rather, the view expressed in the article Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal by Charles Bernheimer claimed that the hidden source of Manet’s inspiration was not so much Titian’s Venus of Urbino but the stereoscopic photographs of women, undressing or pulling off their stockings, which were widely available in mid-19th Century Paris. Manet’s Olympia is just another poor street-girl, obliged to display herself for the male spectator. This modern interpretation of this still-controversial painting led (in Friedrich’s opinion) architect Gae Aulenti and curator Françoise Cachin to remove Olympia from her altar-like position in the Jeu de paume and consigned her to a side wall in their new Musee d’Orsay. As all the figures in this art-world dust-up have shuffled off this mortal coil, we will perhaps never know their true motivations.

This is one of the ways in which Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet is so very enlightening. Using a wealth of detail to challenge our clichéd view of bohemian Paris, Otto Friedrich paints a verbal portrait of Manet’s life with his wife and Berthe Morisot, and creates a powerful portrait of Victorine Meurent (the model of the portrait), who turns out to have been nobody’s fall-girl or pick-up, but an artist in her own right (even when, as a wizened old lady, she took to drink and was seen singing for coins outside the great retrospective exhibition including Manet’s glorious portrait of her at 18, she was still doing it her way). If we want to think about victims, there is Manet himself, racked with syphilis and dying in agony when his gangrenous leg was amputated. Perhaps more chillingly, there is Degas, the real portraitist of Parisian prostitution, forced in old age to protect his failing sight with what Friedrich calls “an ominous contraption” which left only a tiny slit, like a key-hole.

Friedrich’s one great mistake, though, is trying to give us the whole of the Second Empire and its aftermath, politics and culture. Despite his undoubted talent for organizing huge quantities of material, there are times when such disparate stuff refuses to gel and dissolves into anecdotalism. But if it is true that we see what we know, then this massively researched book is a very useful aid. The author does wax on about the beauty of the Olympia painting, but there is no doubting the controversy that to this day surrounds this work: so odd, so striking, so flamboyant – so French!

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