Olympia - Édouard Manet
A nice quick analysis of the painting in the gif and the 7 minute video linked, but sadly the discussion of Olympia’s maid is pretty much limited to noting the contrast between light and dark spaces. Olympia’s black maid is significant in the composition and she was certainly part of the public disgust when the painting was shown. I even learned about the painting last year in class, we called it ‘Olympia’s Maid’ not ‘Olympia’, which certainly changes the subject of the painting, though many other places seem to call the painting ‘Olympia’.
ANYWAY. The race of the maid IS significant - Manet made the choice to paint her as black, when he could easily have made her white. Manet plays on people’s expectations and turns them around in this painting - as the gif notes, Olympia is looking directly at the viewer, and not coyly away, and the broad brush strokes call attention to the fact this this IS a painting we’re looking at, not reality. Many in the 1860s believed black women were hyper sexual, the dangerous opposite of virginal white women. As a fully clothed and non-sexualized maid, she denies the viewer’s expectations by standing in such a stark contrast to Olympia (pretty obvious here - light/dark, unclothed/clothed). At the same time, stereotypes and her important placement in the image (she vertically divides half the painting and takes up a lot of space, in contrast to the woman in the background of ‘Venus of Urbino’) led many to speculate that there were also some shady lesbian themes goin’ on in the painting.
The very fact that Olympia’s maid takes up so much space in the painting and doesn’t fade into the background was contraversial. Though orientalist paintings that came in the next 20-30 years contrasted black and white female bodies, the black women in those paintings were depicted in much more clearly subservient positions by bathing or dressing the white women who were meant to be looked upon as the subjects. While Olympia is still the subject in this painting, the addition of a black woman to an already offensive painting really pushed things over the edge for many art viewers.
I just want to add something. You have to understand the immense scandal this painting was. It wasn’t merely shocking for the theme, it was PERCIEVED as obnoxious. The symbols that tell us that this is a prostitute were not factual, they were percieved as such, seeing as the model is Victorine Meurent, the impressionist muse (and who worked with Manet quite a lot, being also the shocking woman in another scandalous painting, Déjeuner sur l’Herbe). It was a shock that came both from theme and technique. The flattened surface made people believe the white woman was bald, while the placement of the collar was so shockinf because it cut her neck abruptly. The embroidery the black woman is holding? At the time the painting was exhibited, it was believed to be worked on a sheet of newspaper, a habit common among prostitutes. So you have to undertsand that it wasn’t about a prostitute de facto, it was percieved at such, by the societal norms and the symbols here presented. And these symbols are not here to present Victorine as a prostitute, but to present the Modern Woman, and present Manet himself as the Modern Painter, just as Baudelaire wanted so much.
A great way to have in perspective what a shocking painting this was in the face of Academy ideals is to see it side-by-side with Alexander Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, which was curiously exhibited in the same year, and greatly awarded. You have to understand how violent a cut from tradition this is. Gustave Courbet himself would laugh at this painting and humiliated in plain Sallon. People would come to the Sallon to see this and laugh. Manet wasn’t quite sure of why this was happening seeing as he was following his BFF’s advice, Baudelaire, while Baudelaire was applauding himself for seeing a Modern Painter finally come to life. And the level of absolute shock was so great in 1863 Paris that NOBODY at the time realized that Manet was evoking Titian. It took like 50 years or so to realize that.
This painting is like the greatest art history scandal of western Europe, it’s fantastic, I mean, only Ruskin can top this shit.
A.F. Vandevorst spring—summer 1999.
For A.F. Vandevorst a garment that has been worn, has more ‘spirit’, more ‘soul’. An opinion they assimilated in their Spring-Summer 1999 collection by proposing clothes that look as if they have been slept in. The show took place in an old dormitory, and the clothes were presented by models sleeping in iron hospital beds. Lauded by the international press and fashion world, the duo received the Venus de la Mode award for most promising designer.
Hirofumi Kurino: Having seen a fashion show too many, I sometimes feel exhausted. It all seems a big waste to me then. I presume others must have the same feeling but still, they always seem ready for another show. I am fed up with this craze, this talk about fashion, the irresponsibility of journalists just chasing news. This ‘fashion for fashion’s sake’ is quite meaningless.
But there are moments of magic. Many people will agree with me when I mention the three A.F. Vandevorst shows, in 1998 and 1999. Knowing these were their first presentations, we were more than amazed; I felt healed, saved, rescued.