We’ll Always Have Paris…


     That’s Manet’s Olympia and it came to mind for several reasons.  First, while following an Economist online debate* over the legal status of prostitution, the tone and argument of some of the sex workers who weighed in made me realize that the range of their experience is extreme.  For some (like those I wrote about below 5/21/10) it’s a living hell while for others (like lady above) it’s a hell of a living.  Fulfilling even.

  Seventy-seven percent of respondents were in favor of legalization.  The moderator cited the following main reasons: “governments should not … legislate for morals; …part of human nature; …decriminalization would make it easier to apply laws against sexual violence; criminalization distracts from real problems – trafficking, abuse, disease etc; and people become prostitutes for a variety of reasons, including voluntarily.”

  Manet presented the painting to the Salon in 1865**.  There was some praise, but much scorn.  Why? Paternalism.  Nudity has been part of art since stick figures were first scratched in the dirt.  Issue with Ms Olympia was her exudation of confidence and self assurance.  Comfortable in her birthday suit, further familiarity would be by her choice and hers alone.

  I first saw a representation of this picture during a lecture in college.  Beautiful I certainly thought she was.  However, that experience couldn’t have prepared me for an in-person take during a 1972 term abroad.  The picture hung by itself on a wall at the end of a rectangular room in the Jeu de Paume on the grounds of the Louvre.  Pulse way quickened, I returned many times.

  A decade or so later, I was in the neighborhood with my father who I knew would enjoy an introduction.  That painting and the rest of the Louvre’s Impressionist stuff by then had moved to a remodeled train station now called the Musee d’Orsay.  Initially overcome by the scale and expanse of the new space I used a map to hurriedly escort Dad to Manet’s masterpiece. 

  We rounded the corner and – I’ll never forget it – she looked like a pole dancer on break. I found myself apologizing for the big build up.  What could have happened?  It was obviously not the painting that had changed and I’m here to tell ya neither had my, uh, joie de vivre.    

  It was a whack in the side of the head.  I began to realize just how critical are placement and context.  My inchoate understanding was greatly aided by Victoria Newhouse in her Art and the Power of Placement.  Casually looking through that book I was shocked to find a chapter that began with that exact experience: “Forced out of what was to a generation of viewers Olympia’s flattering ‘dress’, the painting was suddenly thrust into something hideously unbecoming”.

  Simply put, the soft and intimate conditions of the Jeu de Paume had made for a transcendent experience.  At the d’Orsay paintings are hung on the walls of brightly lit masonry rooms like decorations on those of a columbarium.  Oh well, we’ll always have Paris – err, The Jeu de Paume.****  

*http://www.economist.com/debate/overview/182 There were more than 300 comments; some instructive and some very interesting.  The effective difference between decriminalization and legalization for example.

**The same year the Civil War ended and the Matterhorn was first climbed.

***If you don’t get the allusion, you should.

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