Saturday, 16 April 2016

Manet, Zizi, and Olympia's Cat

Olympia's Cat, oil on board, 12" x 17", Steven Rhude


"Like the prostitute, the cat was discrete but not respectable, neither bourgeois nor working class but rather a bohemian figure flaunted by artists and intellectuals who enjoyed the ‘independent, almost heartless’ character of the cat." -Jody Berland

 "Olympia reclines coolly on her chaise lounge, surveying the viewer (her next client) with a look as clinical as the exchange that's about to take place. Though boasting a fine art-historical pedigree, based as it is on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, the painting caused outrage for rendering its model not as an idealised, ancient goddess but as an unashamedly contemporary whore from Montmartre. Inspired by the Realism of Courbet, as well as Baudelaire’s call for artists to paint “modern life”, Manet said matter-of-factly: “I just paint what I see. Could anything be plainer?”

This, though, was surely a little disingenuous. He must have known he’d inflame matters by substituting Titian's faithful dog, asleep at Venus’s feet, for a livewire black cat – with its tail raised, back arched and eyes firmly on us. Black cats, of course, had satanic overtones, dating back to their association with witchcraft in medieval Christianity (in 1233, Pope Gregory IX even issued an edict for their extermination, along with that of their female owners). And then there’s the fact that the word “cat” in French slang means female genitalia – much as a word for cat in English slang means the same."

“Why the devil is that big red woman in chemise called Olympia?”
“Perhaps it’s the name of the cat.”

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS

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