Modern Art and Modernism: A Critical Anthology

By Francis Frascina; Charles Harrison et al. | Go to book overview

40 Preliminaries to a Possible
Treatment of Olympia in 1865

T. J. Clark


I

Manet was not in the habit of hesitating before trying to put his large-scale works on public exhibition; he most often sent them to the Salon the same year they were painted. 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. It was accepted for showing, initially hung in a good position, and was the subject of excited public scrutiny and a great deal of writing in the daily newspapers and periodicals of the time. The 1860s were the heyday of the Parisian press, and a review of the Salon was established as a necessary feature of almost any journal. [...] The eighty-odd pieces of writing on the Salon in 1865, and the sixty or so which chose to mention Manet, were thoroughly aware of themselves as members of a family, jibing at each other's preferences, borrowing each other's turns of phrase, struggling for room (for 'originality') in a monotonous and constricting discourse.

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. The critical reaction to Olympia was decidedly negative. Only four critics out of sixty were favourably disposed to the picture, and that figure disguises the extremity of the situation: if we apply the test not merely of approval, but of some sustained description of the object in hand — some effort at controlled attention to particulars, some ordinary mobilisation of the resources of criticism in 1865 — then a response to Olympia simply does not exist, except in a solitary text written by Jean Ravenel. Although there is also, I believe, some real investigation of Olympia in three caricatures, each with elaborate captions, by Bertall and Cham. That caricatures can have truck with Manet's picture in a way which art criticism cannot, points to one aspect of the problem. Their success has to do, I suppose, with the possibilities provided by a very different set of discursive conventions — a discourse in which the unmentionable and indescribable, for art criticism, can be readily articulated in comic form. It was not, incidentally, that the art critics failed to try for comic effect at Olympia's expense; they did so interminably; but jokes, in this case, were rarely productive of knowledge.

I believe this mass of disappointing art criticism can provide an opportunity to say more about the relation of a text to its spectators. I shall regularly use the words 'text' and 'spectator' in this article, for all their awkwardness as applied to pictures. In the case of Olympia the vocabulary is not especially forced, since an important part of what spectators reacted to in 1865 was textual in the ordinary sense of the word:

____________________
Source: Screen vol. 21, no. 1, Spring 1980, pp. 18-41. Illustrations have been omitted.

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