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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Preliminaries to a possible treatment of 'Olympia' in 1865: TimothyJ. Clark

Chandana Nirwan


Thesis statement: Olympia's handling of sexuality, and its relation to the tradition of the nude

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But for reasons we can only guess at, he kept the picture entitled Olympia in his studio for almost two years, perhaps repainted it, and submitted it to the jury in 1865.

Painting- accepted for showing-excited public scrutiny .

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If Manet's hesitation had to do with anxieties over what the papers would say, then what happened when the Salon opened was to prove his worst fears well-founded.

Critical reaction to Olympia - negative.

I believe this mass of disappointing art criticism can provide an opportunity to say more about the relation of a text to its spectators.

Verses written along with the painting- were another reason for the critics' contemptuous remarks.

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I intend instead is to sketch the necessary components of such a study( a study of Olympia and its spectators), to raise some theoretical questions which relate to Screen's recent concerns and to give in conclusion, a rather fuller account of the ways in which this exercise might provide 'a materialist reading [specifying] articulations with the [picture] on determinate grounds'.

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I would like to know which set of discourses Olympia encountered in 1865 and why the encounter was so unhappy.

Two discourses- a) relations and disjunctions of the terms Woman/Nude/Prostitute were obsessively rehearsed. B) complex but deeply receptive discourse of aesthetic judgement in the Second Empire.

Aesthetic judgements- missing from the writings of Olympia – present in spasmodic and unlikely form

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Olympia is a picture of a prostitute: various signs declare that unequivocally.

Olympia's sexuality –laid out for inspection – appeared in a vocabulary of uncleanness, dirt, death, physical corruption and actual bodily harm.

The oddity: None of the discourses had difficulty in including and accepting the prostitute as one of the possible categories of art.

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It was some transgression of le discours prostitutionnel that was at stake; or rather, since the characterization of the courtisane could not be disentangled from the specification of Woman in general in the 1860s, it was some disturbance in the normal relations between prostitution and femininity.

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Certainly it ( Olympia)deserves its place there, but the very word indicates the artificiality of the limits we have to inscribe – for description's sake – around our various 'discourses'.

Nude, sexuality revealed, not-revealed, displayed and masked.

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The critics asked certain questions on Olympia and did not get an answer.

Questions like: what sex is she, or has she? Has she a sex at all? Can it be included within the discourse on Woman/the nude/the prostitute? Can it be modern example of the nude?

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It is a matter of tracking down, in the writings on Olympia, the appearance of the normal forms of discourse and the points/topics/tropes at which (or around which) they are simply absent, or present in a grossly disturbed state.

Hand of Olympia- shamelessly flexed, improper, form of a toad, dirty, in a state of contraction.

Olympia's whole body- disobedient, unfeminine.

Critics' unease over Olympia's handling of hair and hairlessness. (Bertall's caricature- a triumph- as cat and flowers place in place of the hand).

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I think it is possible to say that at its first showing Olympia was not given a meaning that was stabilized long enough to provide the framework for any further investigation- for some kind of knowledge, for criticism.

For spectators Olympia failed to establish a relationship with previous forms of representation.

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That Olympia is arranged in such a way as to invite comparison with the Titan has become a commonplace of criticism in the twentieth century, and a simple charting of the stages of Manet's invention, in preparatory sketches for the work, is sufficient to show how deliberate was the reference back to the prototype.

1865- Olympia twice talked in reference to the greater tradition of European painting ( with Titan and Ravenel).

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'This Olympia', wrote Amedee Cantaloube in Le Grand Journal, 'sort of female gorilla, grotesque in indiarubber surrounded by black, apes on a bed, in a complete nudity, the horizontal attitude of the Venus of Titan, the right arm rests on the body in the same way, except for the hand which is flexed in a sort of shameless contraction.'

indiarubber; grotesque.

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For the most part, for almost everyone, the reference back to tradition in Olympia was invisible.


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I have already said that Ravenel's text is the only one in 1865 that could possibly be described as articulate, and somehow appropriate to the matter in hand.

Ravenel's entry on Olympia.

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Ravenel's interpretation:

Olympia- the scapegoat of the Salon- Each passer-by takes a stone and throws it in her face.

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Ravenel – it is the achievement which first impresses us, I suppose –breaks the codes of Olympia.

Reference to Baudelaire and Goya.

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For a reader like Ravenel it(The discovery of Baudelaire) destablises meaning still further since Baudelaire's meanings are so multiple and refractory, so unfixed, so unmanageable, in 1865.

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For the recognition or attribution of class – once again, we are entitled to draw breath at Ravenel's petite faubourienne.

Petite faubourienne : opens to three phrases- a) a working girl from the faubourgs, b) woman from the farthest edges, c) a character out of Eugene Sue's melodramatic novel of the city's lower depths.

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The identification of class is not a brake on meaning: it is the trigger, once again, of a sequence of connotations which do not add up, which fail to circle back on themselves, declaring their meaning evident and uniform.
free play of the 'signifier'

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I suppose it will be obvious that my reading of Olympia will be produced as a function of the analysis of its first readings.

'within historical materialism'

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My reading of Olympia would address the question: what is it in the image which produces or helps produce, the critical silence and uncertainty I have just described?

Olympia's handling of sexuality and its relation to the tradition of the nude.

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The picture turns, inevitably, on the signs of sexual identity.
odd coexistence of decorum and disgrace.

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I shall deal with three aspects of the matter here. a) The question of access and address. B) the in-correctness in the drawing of the body; c) the handling of hair and hairlessness.

One of the primary operations of the nude is, to borrow MacCabe's phrase again, 'a placing of the spectator in a position of imaginary knowledge'.

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In the 1830s, realism had invented a set of refutations of just these placings.
The Bathers.

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But The Bathers broke the rules of the nude in other ways, which were hardly more subtle, but perhaps more effective.

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What Olympia contrives is stalemate, a kind of baulked invitation, in which the spectator is given no established place for viewing and identification, nor offered the tokens of exclusion and resistance.

The woman's gaze- asymmetry of the lids – smudged and broken corner of the mouth….

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(b) what the critics indicated by talk of 'incorrectness' in the drawing of Olympia's body, and a wilder circuit of figures of dislocation and physical deformity, is, I would suggest, the way the body is constructed in two inconsistent graphic modes, which once again are allowed to exist in too perfect and unresolved an equilibrium.

Certain aspects: Olympia's body – emphatically linear; Olympia is too definite, lack of articulation.

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c) The manipulation of the signs of hair and hairlessness is a delicate matter for a painter of the nude.
Hair let down : decent, sign of Woman's sexuality

Hairlessness: a hallowed convention of the nude, ladies in paintings do not have hair in indecorous places.

Olympia does not entirely break these rules.

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Olympia's face is framed, mostly, by the brown of a Japanese screen, and the neutrality of that background is one of the things which makes the address and concision of the woman's face all the sharper.

There are two faces, one produced by a ruthless clarity of edge and a pungent certainty of eyes and mouth, and the other less clearly demarcated, opening out into the surrounding spaces.

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[…] hair , pubic or otherwise, is a detail in Olympia, and should not be promoted unduly.

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Is there a difference- a difference with immediate, tactical implications- between an allowed, arbitrary and harmless play of the signifier and a kind of play which contributes to a disruption of the smooth functioning of the dominant ideology?

Specific positioning of the body.

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It is admirable in 1865 for a picture not to situate Woman in the space- the dominated and derealized space – of male fantasy.

In Olympia, there are signs of the depiction of social identity.

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Let me make what I am saying perfectly clear. Olympia refuses to signify – to be read according to the established codings for the nude, and take her place in the Imaginary.
Imaginary; relations of dominator/dominated, fantasizer/fantasized.

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The picture would have to construct itself a position- it would be necessarily a complex and elliptical position, but it would have to be readable somehow- within the actual conflict of images and ideologies surrounding the practice of prostitution in 1865.

The shift between petite faubourienne and courtisane

The endless exchange of social and sexual meanings.

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In the end Olympia lends its peculiar confirmation to the latter structure, the dance of ideology.

Prostitute: an abject, dominant, equivocal and unfixed term.

An act of unsettling the old codes and conventions.

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I am pointing to the fact that there are always other meanings in any given social space - counter-meanings, alternative orders of meaning, produced by the culture itself, in the clash of classes, ideologies and forms of control.


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A clue to Manet's tactics in 1865, and their limitations, might come if we widened our focus for a moment and looked not just at Olympia but its companion painting in the Salon, The Mocking of Christ.

Purpose of such paintings: to show us the artifice of this familiar repertoire of modern life, and call in question the forms in which the city contrives its own appearance.

art; tradition.

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