If Manet Was Modern, Titian Was What?

Manet: The Difference Between Nude and Naked by Steven Gambardella

I read the article —eye-catching title, not to mention the teasing cover image. So his thesis was: Manet was modern and Titian was what? Titian did have Manet beat by three centuries, but most times when you say ‘modern art’ there’s a different expectation. Perhaps modern because Manet came toward the exhausted end of the French academy? Perhaps.

I’ll grant it’s hard discussing painting, and Gambardella does yeoman’s work.

At one point before the Western world went crazy with futurism, one could go step at a time from ism to ism and art, if not life, seemed was moving in a clear direction.

I believed. As an architect student, I read Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age — great book — and began sorting the world between ‘old European’ and a new world view. But art, like life, just isn’t so clear. Painters among artists in particular.

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Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” from Google Art Project

The writer claims Manet didn’t hide his art from ‘modern’ issues like prostitution. Modern? And how could you tell? Well, she’s named Olympia (supposedly a Parisian working girl’s name) and there’s a black cat sitting on her bed — devil worship? stray kitty looking for handout? Clear symbols?

However, if you follow the flow from the flower by her eyes, then along her body to the small embroidered flowers spilling off the bed, what is that to symbolize? And you’ll notice she’s practically floating about the mattress, not weighing it down — angelic levitation, perhaps?

The very dark skinned servant’s offering of flowers, is it meant to reinforce the white angel’s heavenly status? Might that be the modern ironic? I thought modernists didn’t do symbology. Modern prostitutes look you straight in the eye, Gamberdella declares. Maybe he knows about these things.

“The nudes of academic painting were archetypes of ideal feminine beauty rather than women that could be imagined to be real. They were fantasy women of myth, posed by anonymous young models whose natural beauty is heightened further by the painter’s brush. They are submitted to the gaze of the painting’s viewer (presumed to be male) without much agency of their own. Classical nudes are there to be looked at and not to look back.

So perhaps Titian was modern as well, since his nude has as direct a gaze as the so-called modernist’s — actually an appraising gaze making one wonder who she was sizing up. “So what do you think of this, honey?”

The major differences are painterly composition. Titian’s is a deep perspective — with a decidedly odd background of two house servants near an open window opening out on a starry night. Or one servant and her supervisor. A hanging tapestry behind the standing servant suggests a medieval period — or Oriental as the Middle Eastern cultures were broadly referred to in the West And there’s no making sense of the small dog curled asleep on Venus’s sheet. Is her hand covering her genitals meant to call attention to her modesty? It seems more a reminder of her nakedness.

In Manet’s painting, his model’s firmly planted hand declares the limit to what she’ll tolerate being seen.

Manet’s scene could be of a shallow alcove at best. The smooth, invisible brush strokes of the 16th Century artist had given way to the 19th Century brusque yet still sheen-quality. Gambardella says the piece by Manet is a flattened perspective; seems it’s just a tighter focus, condensed to a lesser depth of field, to use a photography term. Cutting to the chase — or the chaise.

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Titians Venus of Urbano photo by Google Cultural Institute

We’re told that Manet helped to usher in modern painting. His work moved toward rougher strokes, foreshadowing Monet and Renoir. He himself added to Impressionism in later work. So in linear progression, he’s closer to the modern era than Titian, but I don’t see where the true subject matter is much different in the truest terms.

Truth is, I don’t see either as prostitutes, nor anything illicit, in spite of what’s been claimed about the paintings and their artists. One is a goddess and the other a young woman, both beautiful, both aware of who they are. The rest is awe and licentious thought.

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A practicing writer and architect, he is now squandering hours making a mess from writing.

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