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  • NaHyun Kate Park

[EN] Olympia : T.J. Clark’s “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865” and his regar


Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Olympia, 1863, Huile sur toile

H. 130 ; L. 190 cm, Paris, musée d'Orsay

Olympia : T.J. Clark’s “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865” and his regard to Ravenel’s criticism

박나현 NaHyun Kate Park

In his essay “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865”, Tim Clark regards a “reading” of contemporary criticism as important for an explanation of Olympia. He believes this mass of disappointing art criticism can provide an opportunity to say more about the relation of a text to its spectators. He supposes that his reading of Olympia will be produced as a function of the analysis of its first readings. He does not claim that this gives it some kind of objectivity, or even some privileged status “within historical materialism.” However, he believes that it provides the reading with certain test of appropriateness, or it presents the reading with a set of particular questions to answer, which have been produced as part of historical enquiry. He says that the reading addresses the question such as “what is it in the image which produces, or helps produce, the critical silence and uncertainty one has described?” or “What is it that induces this interminable displacement and conversion of meanings?”

So what does it mean by “discourse” and “text” in the realm of Clark’s

criticism on Olympia? When he introduced the notion of discourse on Woman in the 1860’s, he includes the “nude” as one of its terms. Certainly it deserves to take its place there, but the very word indicates the artificiality of the limits we have to inscribe – for description’s sake- around our various “discourses.” He says that the nude is indelibly a term of art and art criticism: the fact is that art criticism and sexual discourse intersect at this point, and the one provides the other with crucial representations, forms of knowledge and standards of decorum.

Furthermore, Clark identifies the “discourse” as being raised by Olympia. He wants to know which set of discourse Olympia encountered in 1765 and why the encounter was so unhappy. He thinks it is clear that two main discourses were in question: a discourse in which the relations and disjunctions of the terms ‘women’/ ‘nude’/ ‘prostitute’ were obsessively rehearsed, and the complex but deeply repetitive discourse of aesthetic judgment in the Second Empire in France. These are immediately historical categories, of an elusive and developing kind; they cannot be deduced from the critical texts alone, and it is precisely their absence from the writings on Olympia- their appearance there is spasmodic and unlikely form- which concerns us the most. So we have to establish, in the familiar manner of the historian, some picture of usual functioning; the regular ways in which these two discourses worked, and their function in the historical circumstances of the 1860’s.

Clark characterizes critical responses to the painting in certain ways. He says that the critical reaction to Olympia was decidedly negative. Only four critics out of sixty were favorably disposed to the painting, and that figure disguises the extremity of the situation. If we apply the test not merely of approval, but of some sustain description of the objet in hand – some effort at controlled attention to particulars, some ordinary mobilization of the resources of criticism in 1865 – then a response to Olympia simply does not exist, except in a solitary text written by Jean Ravenel. Although there is also some real investigation of Olympia in three caricatures, each with elaborate captions, by Bertall and Cham, that caricature can have truck with Manet’s painting in a way which art criticism cannot, points to one aspect of the problem.

There are reasons why Clark regards Ravenel’s criticism as “effective.” He thinks that Ravenel’s treatment of the painting’s relation to the poetry of Baudelaire is effective. Ravenel’s text is the only one in 1865 that could possibly be described as articulate and somehow appropriate to the matter in hand. But it is an odd kind of articulacy. Ravenel’s entry on Olympia comes at the end of eleventh long article in an immense series he published in L’Epoque, a paper of the far left opposition. It comes in the middle of an alphabetical listing of paintings which he has so far left out of

account, and not allotted their proper place in the extended critical narrative of the first then installments of the Salon. The entry itself is a peculiar, brilliant, inadvertent performance; a text which blurts out the obvious, blurts it out and passes on; ironic, staccato, as if it’s aware of its own uncertainty.

Ravenel – it is the achievement that first impresses us- breaks the code of Olympia. He gets the picture right, and ties the picture down to Baudelaire and Goya; he is capable of discussing the image, half playfully and half in earnest, as deliberate provocation, designed to be anti-bourgeois; he can even give Olympia a class identity, and call her a petite faubourienne – a girl from the working class suburbs – or a fille des nuits de Paul Niguet. But getting things right does not seems to enable Ravenel to accede to meaning: it is almost as if breaking the codes makes matters worse from that point of view; the more particular signifiers and signifieds are detected, the more perplexing and unstable the totality of signs becomes. What, for instance, does the reference to Baudelaire connote, for Ravenel? There are, as it were, four signs of that connotation in the text: the ‘school of Baudelaire’ leads on (1) to the disturbing perfume of a fleur du mal; then (2) to two verses from a short poem from the first book of Baudelaire’s collection, entitled Le Chat, a poem precise in diction, spare and lucid in rhythm, deliberately decorous in its intimations of sexuality; and then, in passing, (3) to the description of Baudelaire as le peintre le plus avancé de notre époque, where the ironic underlining of avancé does not make the meaning any easier to pin down and finally (4) to the nightmare ride of the Goya quatrain from Les

Phares, the fetid stew of cooked fetuses and devil women, the self-consciously Satanic Baudelaire, the translator of Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

The discovery of Baudelaire does not stabilize meaning. On the contrary, for a reader like Ravenel it destabilizes meaning still further, since Baudelaire’s meanings are so multiple and refractory, so unfixed, so unmanageable, in 1865. We are face to face with the only text equipped and able to take on the picture’s central terms of reference; and this is how it takes them, as guarantee of its own perplexity, its opinion that the picture is a stew of half-digested significations. Perhaps guarantee is too weak a word in this connection: the code, once discovered, compounds the elusiveness; it speeds up the runaway shifts of connotation; it fails, completely, to give them an anchorage in any one pre-eminent, privileged system of signs.

Clark argues that Olympia refuses to signify – to be read according to the established iconography or codings for the nude, and take her place in the imaginary. So what does it mean exactly by “fail to signify and beaks the codes? “ Clarks says that although Olympia refuses to signify, if the painting were to do anything more than that, it would have to be given, much more clearly, a place in another classed code – a place in the code of classes. She would have to be given a place in the world which manufactures the imaginary, and reproduces the relations of dominator/dominate, fantasizers/fantasized.

One could almost say that nude is the mid-term of the series, which goes from femme honnête to fille publique: it is the important for in which sexuality is revealed and not revealed, displayed and masked, made out to be unproblematic. It is the frankness of the bourgeoisie: here, after all, is what Woman looks like and she can be known, in her nakedness, without too much danger of pollution. This too Olympia called into question, or at least failed to confirm. One could put the matter schematically in this way. The critics asked certain questions of Olympia in 1865, and did not get an answer. One of them was: what sex is she, or has she? Has she a sex at all? In other words, can we discover in the image a preordained constellation of signifiers which keeps her sexuality in place? Further question: can Olympia be included within the discourse on Woman/the nude/ the prostitute? Can this particular body, acknowledges as one for sale, be articulated as a term in an artistic tradition? Can it be made a modern example of the nude? Is there not a way in which the terms nude and fille publique could be mapped on to each other, and shown to belong together? There is no a priori reason why not.

Bibliography

T.J. CLARK “Preliminaries to a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865”

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Edouard Manet (1832-1883)Olympia1863Huile sur toileH. 130 ; L. 190 cmParis, musée d'Orsay

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