I’ve been thinking lately about how obsessed society is by ‘The Body’
and what people do with theirs. I am firmly of the opinion that what you choose to do with yours is really none of my business, but some would disagree.
The sense of the body being a source of both shame and desire has shaped Western civilization for at least 2000 years, since that story about Adam, Eve and an apple took hold in the West’s consciousness. In the European tradition, Classical mythology, with its ‘debauchery’, became an acceptable pretext for a bit of titillation, with its distance of time and religion. Then in late-19th-century France artists began to be a bit more open about the use of prostitutes as models, using their status to look into society. And so, we have this:
Aah, Olympia. Manet was a genius painter of many beautiful artworks, but this one is up in my Top 10 ever. Why? Well:
First of all, it’s nice to know what’s going on in this painting. Olympia is a Parisian prostitute, clearly the centre of attention here. She’s being presented with a bunch of flowers from – well, presumably, you. For the way she’s looking out of the picture suggests that somebody is standing right there, in your place. Somebody she’s been expecting, but isn’t particularly interested in.
This is what I love about this painting – the way she isn’t trying to please. I’ve read articles about Olympia which have said she is being somehow coquettish, but I just can’t see it. Looking into her eyes I see no desire and no attempts at playing into her client’s fantasies. She knows exactly what this meeting’s about, and it may not be a situation she’s particularly happy about, but she’s staring straight into the face of reality. Manet does tend to paint women like this – who know exactly what the men around them are thinking, and who are responding to those feelings in quite personal ways.
It’s the same with the way she’s reclining on the bed – there’s not really anything ‘come hither’ about it. I almost feel as though she is sitting up – as though she was perfectly relaxed, and then you came in. And now she’s seen you, she’s not going to make any special effort. Compare that to Titian’s Venus of Urbino, a big influence on Olympia. On first glance it looks very similar but with consideration, this Venus is much more languid than Olympia, her gaze more coy. She’s playing the coquette in the way that Olympia is supposed to, but without being fatigued by having to do this to pay the bills.
Whatever you might think that she’s thinking or feeling, one thing I am convinced doesn’t even cross her mind is shame. It may not be an equal relationship, but Olympia isn’t spending any time feeling embarrassed by situation. Indeed, I read something accusing in the way she looks at you. Manet’s society was outwardly disgusted by prostitution – but many (most) men used their services. Olympia is aware of this hypocrisy, and even if she has nothing else – no money, power or status – at least she has nothing to hide.
I hope that I’m not making it seem that I think Olympia is some sort of feminist icon because she’s absolutely not. She’s utterly controlled and oppressed by men, and Manet was no angel himself – although this is not the only painting in which he seems to demonstrate an empathy with women (for another post, maybe). But this is a famous and important work of art, and it’s not straightforwardly coquettish. And that is worth something.