Friday, January 4, 2013

Manet's OLYMPIA in Books and TV

manet's olympia
Olympia, Edouard Manet, 1863, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Ahoy, mateys! Major rant ahead...

Edouard Manet is one of my favorite historical crushes. Just check out the interview I did with him if you don't believe me. A nineteenth-century avant-garde artist, Manet inspired the Impressionists and was one of the first modern artists. But he's definitely not as famous as any of the Impressionists, including his bestest frenemy, Edgar Degas. And that's perfectly fine with me. Manet is my historical crush; get your own!

It's kind of weird that in the past few months, I've seen Manet's Olympia given the art history shout-out treatment twice: once on TV and once in a book. And both times it was totally anachronistic. The first instance was on the BBC America series Copper, which is about the NYC police department during the Civil War. On the show, the wealthy Elizabeth Haverford has Olympia hanging in her drawing room. Okay, it's not the ACTUAL Olympia (I can just imagine what they'd have to pay the Musée d'Orsay to get away with that), it's just "very reminiscent of" Olympia according to the show's own blog.

elizabeth haverford's painting from copper
Screenshot of Elizabeth Haverford's painting. C/o BBC America blog.

I don't have a problem with a TV show creating its own version of a famous painting, but I do have a problem with Copper using Olympia. It's horribly anachronistic and drove me crazy. Yes, Copper is set in 1864 and Olympia was painted in 1863, but:

  1. Manet didn't exhibit it--in Paris--until 1865, so how would Elizabeth have gotten her hands on it, hm?
  2. Even ignoring the whole exhibition thing, seeing how the painting isn't "really" Olympia, in order to get a painting like it, Elizabeth would have had to travel to Paris. In the middle of the Civil War? I don't think so.
  3. When Olympia was first exhibited it was WAY avante-garde. It took the French public nearly 30 years to accept Olympia as a masterpiece. The US was generally about twenty years behind Paris in the visual arts (at least in the 19th century), so by my calculations there is no way an American would have anything resembling Olympia until the 1910s at the earliest. BUT...
  4. When I say "Americans" I actually mean American men, since if you haven't noticed there's a naked prostitute in that there picture (that's what made the painting scandalous, by the way--also, it's pretty badly painted). Not the sort of thing a respectable woman would own, let alone have hanging in her drawing room. Even William Bouguereau's Nymphs and Satyr was considered too risque for women to look at, for heaven's sakes!

For the above reasons, although I of course love Manet, I found the presence of Olympia on Copper very annoying. Whenever I saw the painting in Elizabeth's house I was thrown out of the story. Fortunately Corky got pissed off and slashed the painting near the end of the first season, so I won't have to look at it in season two. Yay!

The second instance was in The Importance of Being Wicked by Miranda Neville, which I'm currently reading. Naturally one cannot see paintings in a novel, but I'm pretty sure the portrait described at the beginning of the book is Olympia. It's of an "almost naked [later "stark naked"] woman, reclining on a satin-draped divan." The figure has short, red hair and a bold, direct gaze. Also: Caro wears a ribbon around her neck like Olympia. But most of all, the painting is modeled after a Titian. A Titian like this, for example?

the venus of urbino
The Venus of Urbino, Titian, 1538, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

BOOM. Manet totally modeled Olympia after The Venus of Urbino. This is the only Titian where the subject is 1. a female nude who is 2. lying down, 3. a ginger, and 4. looking at viewer, so it must be the Titian Caro's husband bought and her friend Oliver later copied, using her as a model.

Again, while I enjoy art history shout-outs, this is pretty anachronistic. The Importance of Being Wicked takes place in 1811 at the latest (likely earlier), and again there's no way a woman of the time would have a painting like that hanging in her drawing room, no matter how daring she was.

What I wonder is, why Olympia? It's a pretty famous painting--even if you don't have an art history degree you've probably seen it--so it's not as if no one would recognize it. I get it, Elizabeth Haverford's a whore (like every single other female character on Copper) and that's why there's this ugly painting of her in the drawing room; but I'm pretty sure there's only about a bazillion paintings out there that could convey that fact more cleverly and effectively than Olympia AND be historically appropriate. Even a Madame X type of portrait would make more sense than Olympia.

With The Importance of Being Wicked, I don't have to look at the painting while I'm reading, so that makes it less annoying than Copper. But the characters show an anachronistic tendency towards "modern art" (term actually used in the book) by reviling the dramatic poses and allegorical works that were popular at the time. That just doesn't shake out in the context of the time period: what we consider "natural posing" doesn't make sense without photography. Not to mention, since the novel IS set in the late 18th century, that London was the Scandalous Portrait Capital of the World! For realz, it's not as if the most famous women in English history at the time had their portraits painted when they either wanted to become famous or shock their family, or both. OH WAIT they all did that, my bad. Modeling a portrait off one of the (many) paintings of Kitty Fischer, Sarah Siddons, Lady Sarah Lennox, or Lady Hamilton would make much more sense. It's not as if there isn't a lot of options to chose from.

Art is a reflection of its place and time, and thus is a great tool for writers and filmmakers to enhance the setting of their story and add depth to their characters (a great example is the use of the Bird Lady on True Blood). But not if the art used is inappropriate! In that case all one winds up with is a sad mess that doesn't mean anything to anyone, least of all to the people who might appreciate the reference the most (such as myself).

Further Reading:


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