BOOK REVIEW / Manet's girl who did it her way: Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet by Otto Friedrich, Aurum pounds 19.95
Sunday 13 December 1992
Otto Friedrich disagrees. Olympia/ Victorine, he thinks, gazes back at every admirer 'with a look of casual indifference, of recognition, of sadness, of courageous defiance'. Using a wealth of detail to challenge our cliched view of bohemian Paris, he maps out Manet's life with his wife and Berthe Morisot, and creates a powerful portrait of Victorine herself, who turns out to have been nobody's fall-girl or pick-up but an artist in her own right. Even when, as a wizened old lady, she took to drink and was seen singing for coins outside the great retrospective exhibition including Manet's glorious portrait of her at 18, she was still doing it her way.
If we want to think about victims, then there is Manet himself, racked with syphilis and dying in agony when his gangrenous leg was amputated. Perhaps more chillingly, there is Degas, the real portraitist of Parisian prostitution, forced in old age to protect his failing sight with what Friedrich calls 'an ominous contraption' which left only a tiny slit, like a key-hole.
Friedrich's mistake is to try to give us the whole of the Second Empire and its aftermath, politics and culture. Despite his undoubted talent for organising huge quantities of material, there are times when such disparate stuff refuses to gel - and dissolves into anecdotalism. But if it
is true that we see what we know, then this massively researched book is a very useful aid.
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