Thursday, 14 June 2007

On Olympia

Edouard Manet, while young, once copied Titian's Venus of Urbino, for practice. Later, when he produced one of his most famous and avant-garde paintings, Olympia, he was reminiscent of the old Venetian master: for he based his programmatic female nude on Titian's classical Renaissance Venus, but carefully inverted all the details.

The pose of the nude woman, lying on a bed, looking at the spectator, is the same on the two paintings. However, the Venus has a crouching puppy at her feet, while Olympia has there a cat standing up. Titian's scene has an open, bright background; Manet closed it with a dark curtain. Maidservants are seen on both paintings: Venus has two pale-skinned servants, seen in the background, from behind; the servant of Olympia is dark-skinned, faces the spectator, and is placed in the foreground. The Venus holds flowers; Olympia is about to receive flowers held by her servant. The Venus is in a diurn haze that suits the goddesses; Olympia is in a crude light, evoking a closed place rather than the openness of a Venetian palace.

As I see it, all those inversions are signs employed by Manet to indicate the subject of his painting: down with gods and goddesses, paint the reality. But they also indicate that Manet was seeing himself as part of the tradition, and that he wanted his works to be inserted in a dialogue with the masterpieces of the past. I'd rather be careful not to say too many things about Olympia, since the interpretation of this complex painting is quite difficult, that I will probably change my mind about it a few dozen times in the future, and that I haven't even seen it for real, although I live near the Orsay Museum. Anyway, those inversions are worth being noted.

(On a side note, I remember that Giorgio Vasari reports, in his Lives of Artists, that Michelangelo told him that Titian was a great painter, but that he couldn't draw. The same reproach was made, until late, to Manet...)

No comments: