It’s a question for the ages whether Sigmund Freud was right about anything he said of women. He seemed to acknowledge that he didn’t have a clue when he wrote that the erotic life of a woman is “veiled in impenetrable obscurity.” If anyone can be said to have cut through the veil, it’d be Edouard Manet when he painted “Olympia.” Unlike the traditional painting of a reclining female nude, such as “Venus of Urbino” in which Titian described a woman gazing seductively at the viewer, the woman in Manet’s version isn’t the fantasy goddess anymore. She doesn’t indulge ogling eyes. She challenges them by staring back.
Making a difference
"Olympia" hit French society hard when it first showed in 1865. The French press slammed the painting as "excrement," saying that Manet vulgarized Titian's painting. He had to flee to Spain to escape the hullabaloo. What wrong did he commit? He depicted a role reversal. Rather than pose a woman for the viewer to appraise, he showed the woman appraising the viewer. No longer passive, she became an affront. No longer a nude supplicant, she was a person with a mind of her own. How revolutionary was that depiction? Gustave Courbet, the 19th century realist, suggested the answer when he famously said that an artist who marries isn't an artist, that he's only a jealous man who says my wife the same way he says my umbrella.
All that said, you have to wonder what artist Deborah de Robertis of Luxembourg was thinking this year when she laid down in front of Manet’s “Olympia” at the Musee d ‘Orsay in the same pose and same state of undress (and arrested by the police because public nudity is against the law in France). Given the things she told the press about her intention, it’s clear that she doesn’t understand what Manet tried to do. She said her aim was to reverse the relationship between the viewer and the model, as if that switch didn’t already occur in “Olympia” some 150 years before.
Birth of an idea
Two years ago De Robertis reenacted Gustave Courbet’s 1866 “Origin of the World,” a photo-real view of female genitalia at Muses d’Orsay. And just like the painting, De Robertis exposed her sex in front of the painting and upon her arrest insisted she wasn’t an exhibitionist. Instead, she said she improved on Courbet’s exterior view of “the origin of the world” by revealing the actual entrance to the birth canal.
It’s not certain what reenactments of visual #Art accomplish. There doesn’t seem to be any value in bringing to life already lifelike images such as “Olympia” and “Original of the World.” This isn’t to say that reenactments can’t be artful. Last year models acted out Gustave Klimt’s paintings in a fashion show for an HIV/AIDs charity event. The photographs taken by Inge Prader, far from literal takes of the paintings that De Robertis tried for, became their own art form.