Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Olympia and her sisters

Urbino Venus ~ Titian ~ Uffizi, Florence

Further to my previous post, I re-read my own short story 'Olympia' about Manet's painting 'Olympia' to remind myself of how I'd done it.

I already knew, when I started writing, what I wanted to say about it, knew at least that it would have to incorporate or hint at the facts of the artist's life; his studio practice, the model herself, the clothes and language and manners of the era. I read a little Zola to tune my ear to the tone I wanted for the narration, and read one of those Eyewitness Guides which looked in some detail at the paints he used, the textures of canvas, the period during which he was painting this particular work. It helped me to realise how much Manet (like many artists) was borrowing from extant images, and how in this instance he was re-intepreting a classical Venus, and deliberately setting out to alter the effect of a female nude on the sensibilities of the viewer. (That was stuff I thought I knew already, but it helps to have a firm foundation on which to build a fiction, especially when writing about so famous a work of art.)

Because the story is narrated neither by the artist nor the model, I had to find a way to inform the less-informed listener (or reader) a little, without spelling it out so that the actual narrator (the studio cat) sounded intelligent, and of his time, but wasn't giving a lecture. Tricky. Here's one para of the story, to give a flavour of the result:

"Some years earlier [Manet] had painted a study of the Urbino Venus by Titian, and this he hunted out from an old portfolio, and studied as the basis for his composition. At first, he directed Victorine to lie with her left hand on her knee, the near leg drawn up, the fingers of her right hand toying with a twist of hair. But after one drawing, it was clear that this pose did not altogether please him. He tugged at his moustaches, scratched a brush through his beard, paced the room, stopping before the Titian copy. There, the Florentine courtesan lies languid on crumpled sheets with her head turned in coy invitation, a bunch of flowers dangles casually from her right hand, while her left, at the meeting of her thighs, alludes to the source of her power. At her feet lies curled a sleeping spaniel and, beyond, two serving women occupy themselves with items of clothing in a pillared hall."

If you'd like to read the rest of the story, it's in Furthermore

p.s. - I like these two paintings which also play with the notion of the classical Venus. Manet was himself influenced (as seen in his portrait of Zola) by Japanese art, so it's rather pleasing that a later Japanese artist was sufficiently influenced by Manet to attempt an Olympia, in a way which brings the two distinct styles into one painting. Of the Cezanne, I just love the playfulness, the dream effect of that plump woman on her cloud, and the nods to Titian again with the maid, the flower arrangements and the attentive dog, and the upended top hat casting its shadow on the couch.

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