Here in the 21st century, only the most sheltered among us could be shocked by the sight of a naked body. It would seem that the whole of human history has at least that in common with us: only certain societies at certain times have considered nudity a force worth suppressing. But then, has the problem ever been nudity in general, or rather the context, the nature, and the implications of particular instances of nudity? It’s fair to say that Titian’s Venus of Urbino has scandalized practically no one. Yet three centuries later, Édouard Manet’s outwardly similar 1865 canvas Olympia sent shockwaves through the Paris art world. Why?
The rules of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts at the time dictated that “great art was supposed to convey a moral or intellectual message,” says the narrator of Vox’s video essay on Olympia above. “All acceptable art fell into one of five categories, ranked by their capacity to deliver those messages.” The lesser of these were still lifes and landscapes, in the middle fell genre paintings, and the greatest were portraits and historical works. And “equally important to what was painted was how it was painted,” with more points going to “idolized, prettified visions of the world, smooth and beautiful with no body hair and flawless skin,” all painted in a way “that follow the rules of depth and perspective, meaning it looks like it could exist in the real world.”
The Academy of Fine Arts would pay little regard, then, to the “stark and unnatural colors” of Olympia, its “rough and textured” brushstrokes, and its much “flatter and less complex” look than the Renaissance realism idolized in those days. That Manet would dare give his obvious “homage” to the Venus of Urbino a title like Olympia, a common nom de guerre for prostitutes in 19th-century Paris, caused some seriously ruffled feathers as well. So why did the Academy put Manet’s painting on display in the first place? “It probably had something to do with his growing popularity. You can see his influence so clearly in what came next. He led the charge towards Modernism in the late 1800s, starting with the Impressionists — Monet, Degas — who adopted his penchant for modern themes and lucent brushstrokes.”
A more 20th-century reading of Olympia holds up the painting as proof that “no one entity gets to decide what art should look like.” An episode of the ArtCurious podcast about Olympia goes further still, claiming for Manet’s subject the status of a feminist icon. But even the painting’s contemporary detractors saw something important in it. Émile Zola at first seemed to dismiss the work by writing, “You wanted a nude, and you chose Olympia, the first that came along.” But he also admitted that Olympia captured something more genuine than even the most gloriously realistic paintings could: “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.