BOOK REVIEW / Manet's girl who did it her way: Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet by Otto Friedrich, Aurum pounds 19.95

David Sweetman
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:31

OTTO FRIEDRICH suspects a feminist plot. He sees it in the way architect Gae Aulenti and curator Francoise Cachin took down the goddess Olympia from her altar-like position in the Jeu de Paume and consigned her to a side wall in their new Musee d'Orsay. Whatever the truth behind that rehang, it is certain that Manet's portrait of the naked Victorine Meurent has had a rough time recently. Gerald Needham's Manet, 'Olympia' and Pornographic Photography claimed that the hidden source of Manet's inspiration was not so much Titian's Venus of Urbino but the stereoscopic photographs of women, undressing or pulling off their stockings, which were widely available in mid-19th-century Paris. Manet's Olympia is just another poor street-girl, obliged to display herself for the male spectator.

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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments