Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Modernism (pt. 6)

One more infamous work by the artist Édouard Manet which was also featured in the 1863 Salon des refusés is his painting titled Olympia.
This is a painting of a prostitute, and although we have read about and seen images of nude women posing for male artists, this is the first outspokenly explicit painting to make such blatant references to prostitution.  In a way, this is very similar to Titian's Venus of Urbino except that no masking cover-up (such as Titian's reference to Ancient Roman mythology) exists here to whitewash or disguise the fact that we're looking at a prostitute.  She is naked, lying on a bed of white sheets and an elaborately stitched blanket, in a room of a whore house.  Her jewelry and the flower in her hair furthermore demonstrate the particular line of work she is in, just so that there is no doubt, and her present lack of clothing goes to show that she is in fact currently on call.  Once again, we are meant to feel sympathy for this young woman, as hers is most certainly not a desirable state for the ordinary Victorian woman to find herself in.  Her skin is pale, milky white, and her nude exposure gives her an air of vulnerability.  The black necklace she wears contrasts with the smooth pallor of her skin and almost further objectifies her as somebody captive to her system of life, someone who must be forced to tote herself around in jewelry for the sake of her trade, like a dog wearing a leash.  She's laid out for everyone to look at her—how exploitative and unfair!  And yet, she is, upon closer inspection, not so fragile and not so helpless.  Actually, Manet ingeniously turns the viewer into the victim of this scandal and in turn empowers the woman, as we are about to see.
A maid has entered this private chamber in the artwork to give the girl a bouquet of flowers (probably a gift or a payment from her last customer); she's indifferent to them.  She is looking somewhere else: at us.  Here Manet has broken the fourth wall yet again; the curtain at the upper left hand corner of the frame has been drawn back; and we are once more looking at an intentional display created by the artist, like with The Bar at the Folies-Bergère (which was actually painted many years after this one).  The implication is that we, the viewer, are her next client.  For the upper-class art critics and connoisseurs of Victorian society, this was not just scandalous; this was embarrassing.
For the painting, Manet purposely picked a well-known female model, whom all the other artists would be sure to recognize, in order to put his male viewers on the spot when attending the salon with their friends and family.  They would know this woman, and the stereotype of secret sexuality within the artist-model relationship would immediately conjure up reactions of awkwardness and discomfort.  They had all seen her and may or may not have had romantic affairs with her while employing her services as a model.  When Manet paints her as a prostitute, naked and stripped of all of her individualism to the point of becoming a commodity, he is commenting on the other artists' objectifying act of using this model for their own art.  Here is a vindictively provocative display of her as she was allegedly being treated by her patron artists: as a whore.  The way in which art used people as subjects was something Manet wanted to alter and, if he could, totally reverse.  Here, as I said, the viewer is indicated to be the woman's next client.  By putting the painting's viewers in such an awkward place, it was almost like the woman was exploiting them now as much as they had done to her.  And look at her cold, indifferent eyes staring back at us.  The roles have switched; art is now bored at looking at us.  She gazes out at her viewers as nothing but another customer in her day; and as much as artists and viewers alike wrongfully (according to Manet) exploit her and take advantage of her through images and objectification on the visual level and sex on the physical level, she is as able to peer back at us with a power of her own through a defiantly indifferent, unresponsive stare at the visual level and a brutal indictment on the subliminal level.
Also—I don't know if you can see it in this poorly pixilated jpeg image—there's a black cat on the far right of the painting who's looking out at us, too.  The cat as a feminine feline can perhaps be associated with the scene, since this is a painting of a woman; but its presence bears further significance than a mere environmental arrangement or addition to the room, like a piece of the furniture.  It begs to be noticed, what with its eyes glaring straight out at us and its tail standing on end.  The cat at the foot of the bed replaces the loyal dog, which was a symbol of faithfulness and fidelity (or Fido, in Latin).  The replacement is noted; and I'm not going to go as far as to say the cat is a symbol for Modernism, but it does lend the painting an even more unsettling tone and an overall sense that Manet's artwork is associating itself with a different tradition (I don't say a new one; because this particular symbolism goes back to some of the earliest history we've looked at).
Ever since ancient times, black cats have retained a status of symbolic importance throughout Western culture.  If you recall to mind our discussion of Ancient Egypt (which feels like a long time ago), you remember that the Egyptians worshipped black cats as representatives of the maternal goddess Bast.  Devotion to this goddess led people to routinely mummify and bury cats along with the deceased, placing them with the sarcophagus in the elaborately constructed tombs of the region with the belief that the spirit of the cat would help guide and protect the human soul's journey through the afterlife.  The ancient city of Bubastis in the Lower Kingdom was the capital for this particular cult and was described by Herodotus in his Histories as well as mentioned by the biblical prophet Ezekiel nearly 150 years earlier in his Old Testament book of prophecy.  In Ezekiel 30:17, "Aven" is the Ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, about 50 km south of Bubastis, and in this verse the prophet accurately foretold, nearly 250 years before the actual event, of the destruction of the pagan cult "by the sword" (fulfilled when Alexander the Great conquered this city as part of his Egyptian campaign in 332B.C.).  But cats continued to find significance in cultural symbolism all over the world.
In Europe they became a symbol of witchcraft, superstition, and death and were even hunted down as spiritual enemies.  It is stipulated that the extermination of black cats for these superstitious reasons during the Middle Ages played a primary role in the enlargement of the rat population all across Western Europe that led to the spread of bubonic plague at the onset of the Black Death.  Black cats represented darkness and mystery during the Renaissance, and they were often depicted in relation to witches, as magical helpers in their dark arts.  The famous opening scene of Shakespeare's Macbeth featured such a black cat, Graymalkin, the "spirit familiar" of the three witches.  And the symbolism continues on to this day, to our celebratory traditions of Halloween, when black cats become scary omens and bringers of bad luck.
Whether an allusion to Bast, Graymalkin, or merely the general ill-favored symbol of the animal throughout time, the black cat in Manet's painting conveys an aura of mysterious significance that perhaps means to intentionally elude our understanding.  That, I believe, is the point of its presence in this otherwise single-minded work.  It perhaps has nothing to do with the woman (since I don't think Manet is trying to show that she is a witch or sorceress), but it lends a strange fantasy quality to the work similar to the nude woman in the artist's painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (exhibited the same year).  As we recall from that painting, we are entering the fantastical, irrational, and otherworldly realm of the artist's mind when we look at art.  It is a step from familiar materialism into the whimsical fancy of the artist's mental construction of a subject, and therefore it opens up the door to an altogether unlimited dimension.  The otherwise random presence of a black cat in this already-wild painting further goes to show that the world of the canvas is wholly not something with which we are familiar, though we may think we are.  This is a world of weird fiction and subconscious illimitability.  Prostitution, brazen female nudity, scandal, and dark references to witchcraft and superstition—this painting simply unleashes art as a potential medium for the embodiment of the Absurd and the incarnation of unbridled imagination (in all its glory, terror, and mystery).

No comments:

Post a Comment