"Shocking" was the word used to describe Edouard Manet's masterpiece when it was first unveiled in Paris in 1865. Olympia and the controversy surrounding what is perhaps the most famous nude of the nineteenth-century are the focus of The Shock of the Nude: Manet's Olympia. Debuting on PBS Wednesday, January 26, 2000 at 10:30pm (check local listings).
Although the nude body has been visual art's most enduring and universal subject, it has often spurred conflict. The Shock of the Nude explores the power of the nude, Manet's use of the subject in Olympia, and how his century-old struggle affects the work of contemporary artists like a New York artist who recreates Olympia in the film. Like the artwork it examines, the film -- shot in Paris and New York -- is captivating, featuring powerful imagery from the past and the present, and compelling interviews with leading artists and scholars. Interviewees include Musée d'Orsay director Henri Loyrette; curator at the Paris Research Laboratory for French Museums, Anne Roquebert; Manet biographer Beth Archer Brombert; and art historians Eunice Lipton, Jann Matlock, Anne McCauley, and Linda Nochlin.
Olympia is a painting of a reclining nude woman, attended by a maid and a black cat, gazing mysteriously at the viewer. Why were visitors to the Paris gallery, already quite familiar with art featuring the naked body, so outraged by the painting that the gallery was forced to hire two policemen to protect the canvas? The objections to Olympia had more to do with the realism of the subject matter than the fact that the model was nude. While Olympia's pose had classic precedents, the subject of the painting represented a prostitute. In the painting, the maid offers the courtesan a bouquet of flowers, presumably a gift from a client, not the sort of scene previously depicted in the art of the era. Viewers weren't sure of Manet's motives. Was he trying to produce a serious work of art? Was Olympia an attempt to parody other paintings? Or, worst of all, was he mocking them?
Modern scholars believe Manet's technique further inflamed the controversy surrounding Olympia. Rejecting his traditional art training, Manet chose instead to paint with bold brush strokes, implied shapes, and vigorous, simplified forms. "The paint sat there on the surface of the canvas...It wasn't just the fact that she's a nude and she's a lower class nude, but also the fact that she was painted in...what many people read as almost childish or unskilled fashion," explains art historian Anne McCauley in the film. "Olympia shocked in every possible way. That is to say formally, morally, in terms of its subject matter. It had the whole range of outrage," adds art historian Linda Nochlin.
The Shock of the Nude presents a complex view of Manet. A member of Paris's upper-middle class, the artist was the only one of his contemporaries who didn't have to sell his paintings to earn a living. He enjoyed the benefits of his social position -- living where he chose and keeping company with cultural icons of the time. "He felt that French culture was his culture. What was in the Louvre was part of his history. The Comedie Française was his history. It belonged to him," notes scholar Eunice Lipton.
With all his privilege, Manet was still driven to prove himself to his father, who wanted his son to study law. The artist was an ambitious man, who also sought acceptance at the Salon, France's annual, government-sponsored art show, and the National Art Academy, the Academie des Beaux-Arts. In 1863 -- the same year he painted Olympia -- Manet submitted his painting Déjeuner sur l'herbe, or Luncheon on the Grass, to the Salon. This large, provocative painting, depicting clothed men picnicking outdoors with a naked woman, was rejected by the jury. When it was finally shown publicly that same year, it elicited a similarly negative response from the masses. Manet waited two years before submitting Olympia to the Salon.
Much to Manet's surprise, the jury accepted his bold, new work. Many scholars believe that Olympia was admitted to the Salon because jurors didn't want to be accused of censorship following the strong negative reaction to Déjeuner. Instead, they decided to expose the artist and his work to the wrath of the real critics -- the public. As expected, Manet was vilified by Salon-goers. Although he succeeded in his goal to change the face of French painting, Manet was devastated by the merciless criticism. "They are raining insults on me. Someone must be wrong," the artist wrote to his friend, French poet Charles Pierre Baudelaire.
In The Shock of the Nude, Musée d'Orsay director Henri Loyrette explains that in Manet's time, "If you wanted to become a great painter you had to vie with old masters." For example, Manet based Olympia's composition on The Venus of Urbino, one of the famous masterpieces by the Italian painter Titian. Modern-day New York artist Mike Bidlo bases his artwork on past masterpieces as well. The film follows Bidlo as he recreates his own version of Olympia -- a piece he titles A More Modern Olympia. Like other vanguard artists, Bidlo seeks to extend the boundaries of art.
The Shock of the Nude: Manet's Olympia is written and produced by Richard P. Rogers. John Lithgow narrates.
For more information, read the Olympia Flashpoint on the Culture Shock Web site.
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