Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Week 14: Alias Olympia, by Eunice Lipton

As often happens, I had stopped by Lorem Ipsum (the used bookstore near my apartment) after work one day when I saw this book. Immediately I recognized the woman on its cover. She is the star of Edouard Manet’s masterpiece Olympia. I love Manet and consider him one of my all-time favorite artists. I remember being an art student and first learning about Olympia; I was fascinated by the piece. It was considered incredibly controversial. In fact, when it first debuted in the Parisian Salon in the late 19th century, an angry mob armed with umbrellas and walking sticks attempted to destroy it, and it had to be cordoned off. Why? Because details of the painting indicate that Olympia is a courtesan or prostitute. Equally notable and perhaps even more striking is Olympia’s confrontational, almost glaring look back at the viewer.  Olympia is not a passive, idealized figure of a woman to be fawned over. She flips the male gaze on its ear with her proud, blunt stare. Back in the day, this was unheard of and considered extremely vulgar. For Manet to choose such unseemly content for his painting was very provocative; one could say that it was revolutionary that Manet deemed the reality of street life to be worthy of any depiction at all. Manet’s model for Olympia was a redheaded beauty named Victorine Meurent. He used her as the model for several of his major works (including another controversial painting, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe). In each of the paintings that she is featured in, she showcases the same bold presence. Eunice Lipton’s book, Alias Olympia, chronicles her quest to learn more about the intriguing and enigmatic Meurent. A feminist art historian, Lipton travels to Paris to find out what became of the model, and in the meantime, she learns more about herself and becomes inspired by Meurent. One major detail that she unearths is that Meurent was not just simply a lower-class street girl, she was also an accomplished painter herself. As Lipton hunts down the facts, the book almost takes on the feeling of a mystery novel and the reader becomes swept up in her search. It’s not just an art history book, it’s filled with engaging personal accounts and stories. Add in the beautiful backdrop of Paris, and the tale truly becomes enchanting. Lipton is the type of woman that I would love to meet. She is a bold feminist, sharply intelligent, and someone who adores art. I became emotionally invested in her story and was rooting for her the entire time. I finished the book smiling, even more in love than before with Meurent, Manet, Paris and art in general.

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