Picasso’s and Manet’s Depiction of Women
Female nudes have always been one of the most popular themes in the art of all epochs. There are impressive Paleolithic figurines depicting nude goddesses of fertility, Greek and Roman statues of Venus and other female deities, and many later paintings of mythological character. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the artists began to reject the classical tradition of representation of female nudes that dominated Western art for centuries and offered new interpretations of this theme. The proposed essay will be devoted to the analysis of two paintings that revolutionized the representation of nude women in modern art – Manet’s Olympia (1865) and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907).
Edouard Manet (1832 –1883) is a famous French painter whose work is considered to belong to the transitional period between realism and impressionism. He rejected the academic tradition and had created many works that marked the beginning of truly modern art and opened paths for new artistic movements (Armstrong 11).
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) is a Spanish artist who worked mostly in France. His contribution to this sphere influenced the development of cubism, boosted artists’ interest in collage technique and other forms of avant-garde art. Picasso is considered to be one of the most influential painters of the twentieth century (Tinterow et al. 9).
The fact that both works marked a watershed in the history of modern art and had a profound impact on its development in general as well as representation of female nudes in particular stipulates the choice of these artists and, respectively, their paintings. Moreover, these paintings have much in common that would allow conducting more profound comparative analysis. One of the most important similarities is the artists’ approach to the representation of female sexuality. These works of art represent new ideas about human sexuality and reflect important social and cultural changes of the corresponding historical periods.
The formal analysis of the chosen paintings allows exploring many thought-provoking analogies and, at the same time, impressive differences. First of all, they can be compared and contrasted regarding the composition, which the artists selected. Manet used the classical one that can be seen in many previous works depicting lying female nudes such as, for instance, famous The Venus of Urbino by Titian and others. The general impression, which the distribution of figures and main elements of the painting create, is very stable. The bed forms a solid basis for the woman that also refers the viewer to classical ancient sculptures.
On the contrast, Picasso’s approach to composition is far more radical. He squeezes the figures of five women into the limited space making them occupy almost all surface of the painting. The atmosphere, which this approach creates concerning the composition, is almost claustrophobic since it seems like the power of the women pushes the frames of the painting inside. The bodies form a certain square in the middle of the picture but it is fragmented and disjoined. The draperies that serve as the background and the bed sheets that the women hold intensify this effect. It is also important that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is rather large painting measuring 243.9 cm × 233.7 cm. As a result, the figures of the depicted prostitutes are as tall as an average person is or maybe even taller. This approach allows Picasso
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to create an illusion of equality between a viewer and the women even despite the fact that they are painted in the cubist manner rejecting all the norms of realism. At the same time, the scale of the painting makes the effect of even more aggressive composition than it could be if the work was smaller.
The same striking difference can be seen in the way the artists chose color schemes for their masterpieces. Manet preferred the color and tones, which could stress the general contrast of the painting, – the whiteness of the woman’s skin and the bed sheet as well as the darkness of the background, the skin of the black servant, and the fur of the little cat near Olympia’s feet. The colors that the painter used for her body depiction are probably even too pale for the tone of healthy skin that proves that Manet did not want to paint an idealized nude woman as it was usually done, for example, during the Renaissance period. In general, the colors of this painting are rather soft. It is clearly seen on the flowers that the servant shows to Olympia. There are flowers of different colors there – red, blue, white – but the dust of the prostitute’s boudoir softens them. The colors, which Picasso chose, look much warmer than those of Olympia but they do not produce the impression of coziness or energy as it usually happens with this color scheme. The combination of different flesh tones is quite aggressive and provocative especially contrasted with small elements of cold blue and gray. It is also interesting that the artist uses two sets of flesh colors to portray the women. In addition, he even mixes these palettes while depicting one and the same female as in the case of the leftmost woman whose head resembles Iberian mask. Picasso also adds darker colors while painting the heads of the standing women.
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Despite the seeming softness of Manet’s painting, the lines play an important role in this work. First of all, it is the contours of Olympia’s body, which the little shadows create, and the lines that the folds of the bed sheet form. These lines make significant contribution to the general composition and guide the viewer’s gaze along the white woman’s body attracting attention to her nudity. The string around her neck is also a contrasting black line on the white body that functions as an impressive accent on the painting. Despite the above-mentioned differences in composition and colors, Picasso uses the similar approach to lines as Manet does. The contours of the female figures are also outlined but naturally, it is provided in a bolder and more aggressive manner. Picasso also uses short dark lines to show the shadows on the faces of the woman just like it is done, for example, with the faces (or masks) of two females standing closer to the right edge of the painting. The specific use of lines in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon helped Picasso to create the impression of shattered glass that dominates the painting. Even the bodies of the women that are supposed to be curvy actually have angular lines.
Regarding the perspective and flatness of these works, they should be treated as different stages of the same process. While Picasso’s work is striking and two-dimensional one, Manet preserves the illusion of three-dimensionality. It is interesting that the critics contemporary to Manet often blamed Olympia for being too flat. They claimed that the white woman created the impression that a piece of paper was cut from the painting (Brody 99). Her body is obviously much less modeled and shaped than the fold of the bed sheet or the paper wrapping the flower but this approach allows Manet to make the woman’s body look expressive on the background of the general composition of the painting shocking the audience and forcing the viewers look directly at her body. Picasso employed the same strategy while painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon but he exaggerated it even further. The artist totally rejected the perspective and made all the figures very flat. The standing woman at the upper right corner is, for instance, holding the drapery that forms the background for all other figures but it does not look like she is standing behind all of them. By this complete rejection of three-dimensionality, Picasso marked the transition to new avant-garde forms of art.
Manet and Picasso used different techniques for their paintings. Manet was interested in all prima painting. This technique was different from traditional approaches, according to which the desired color was received by creating a large number of semi-transparent layers that produced a more complex tone. Manet mixed the colors from the very beginning to reach the desired effect. Witkin mentions such distinctive features of Olympia as “the cultivation of flatness, the suppression of modelling and interaction, the use of dense allusive cultural reference, and the adaption of foreign and exotic pictorial techniques” (101). Picasso’s technique was different. He made a huge number of preparatory sketches for this painting but did not transfer the final variant to the canvas using a pencil or charcoal. He made the sketch with oil paints first and then completed and polished it. At first, he marked the dark areas and then moved to the lighter bodies of the women. In addition, there are many places where the ground is still visible after finishing painting. The general texture of the work, thus, became rather violent and uneven.
The issue of materiality is, probably, the most important aspect when talking about the transition from the traditional art to the modern movements. The painters of the earlier periods tried to conceal the actual painting process whereas modern ones do not attempt to argue that painting is the reality. Materiality is a very complex notion that refers to the style of the brushstrokes, the surface of the painting, and other aspects but, in fact, it is more about the general visibility of an artist’s work. Therefore, comparing Manet’s Olympia and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, it is possible to argue that Manet is much more connected to these classical traditions. The body of Olympia looks almost like a photograph with very gentle and almost invisible brushstrokes whereas the texture of the white bed sheet is slightly more visible. Picasso was more concerned with the materiality of the painting that can be seen in the contours of the bodies or in the way the artist modeled the shadows by layering lighter colors over the darker ones. All these stages of the painting process are clearly visible in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in contrast to Manet’s work.
The contextual analysis of these paintings shows that they, to the certain extent, can be treated as two stages of the same process – the development of social attitude towards the human body in general and female sexuality in particular. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, when Manet and other painters began to challenge the academic traditions, female nudes were mostly depicted in mythological or exotic contexts as, for example, oriental odalisques. What is more, in most cases, they did not look directly at the viewer. Therefore, it created the impression that it was “safe” to look at them as they did not notice it. Thus, the female nudity was often “covered” with mythological themes creating certain metaphorical border between the reality and the naked body of a woman. However, Manet was one of the first who rejected those traditions and portrayed a nude who was not only contemporary to the artist but also working as a high-class prostitute. Olympia gazes directly at the viewer, and she is not ashamed of her body. She offers it as a commodity to her customers. Manet organizes the painting in the way that the viewer feels like if he is a client of this prostitute and enters the room where she lies on the bed. The flowers that the servant shows to Olympia may also be a present from the client who has just come but the woman seems to be indifferent to them. She knows the real purpose of his visit, and romantic illusions do not deceive her. In other words, Manet depicts Olympia as a woman who fully understands the power of her sexuality and is not ashamed to use it as a sort of commodity in different cases.
Picasso also portrays women from a brothel but Les Demoiselles d’Avignon does not have any hint of luxury and exclusivity that are presented in Manet’s painting. Those prostitutes, which Picasso depicts, are quite unlikely to work for the elite of the society. On the preliminary canvas, which he made to explore the perfect content and the composition of this painting, he also painted a medical student and a sailor who were the clients of those women; thus, it is possible to make a conclusion that these prostitutes worked for lower and middle-class customers. In general, it would not be a mistake to claim that Picasso depicted women in a way no one did before. That painting shocked even those artists who usually appreciated his works. Henri Matisse argued that Picasso tried to diminish the value of the modern art and humiliate its main principles (Chave 603). However, it would be fair to say that Les Demoiselles d’Avignon is a radically new aggressive interpretation of the theme that is present in Manet’s Olympia. This painting, which Picasso created, was an “epochal shift to a new kind of engagement with sexuality, one whose immediacy was unprecedented in the history of painting” (Florman 769). At the same time, it is necessary to highlight that both artists turned to the previous works of different painters as certain “sources”. Manet, for instance, referenced to Titian and Goya, and Picasso “quoted” Matisse, Cezanne and, probably, even Manet.
Both paintings include important symbols that define the artists’ attitude towards the interpretation of the female sexuality. The woman on Manet’s painting looks straight into the viewer’s eyes that makes her rather bold. She seems to control the situation and uses her sexuality as a crucial factor in determining how the relations between her and her clients will develop. Olympia’s hand is resting on her body covering her genitals. This gesture is not similar to the way the nude women on the earlier paintings on mythological subjects cover their bodies. It is neither coy nor timid. Olympia shows that despite the fact that she is a prostitute and earns for living by having sex with men, she is the only person who controls that part of her body and her sexuality in general. Another interesting and thought-provoking symbol of Manet’s painting is a small black cat sitting on the woman’s bed. Earlier artists often depicted female nudes with little dogs as it was done, for instance, on the above-mentioned The Venus of Urbino by Titian. These animals were considered to be the symbols of fidelity. Manet breaks this tradition and places a cat, an animal that serves as a reminder of such feelings as wild desire, inconsistency, and independence on the painting. Several art historians also believe that the raised tail of the cat is also a mockery of traditional phallic symbols often included into the paintings representing female nudes (Brody 111).
Picasso also uses certain phallic symbols, for instance, the protruding sharp triangular of a table that is painted at the bottom of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The table is laid with fruits that are always considered to be the symbols of sexuality, lust, and fertility. Taking into account that both paintings analyzed in this essay treat a viewer like a male customer coming to the prostitute, art historians suggest that this table may be interpreted like a phallus showing in the direction of the chosen woman (Tinterow et al. 76). Thus, both paintings explore the topics of female body and sexuality through the prism of male interpretation since in both cases, the viewer is supposed to be male. Although Manet and Picasso showed the changes that occurred in the society towards these concepts, they still depicted women exclusively from the male perspective.
Manet’s Olympia and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon certainly complement each other by showing important stages of the development of social attitude towards female body. While Manet’s work marked the first attempt to treat women in art as those who are empowered to express their sexuality without disguising it, the Picasso’s painting was a symbol of transition to the contemporary, more aggressive sexuality that is currently considered a norm in the society, especially fuelled by mass media and other leverages of popular culture. Picasso adds to the theme analyzed in Olympia by showing a different aspect of human sexuality and the new approach to female body in general. Critics and artists often mentioned that sexuality in that painting was too aggressive and even shocking.
However, they highlight that this aggression is a two-way movement. Picasso “attacks” female bodies by disassembling them into typical cubist forms but, at the same time, it is possible to feel “a tidal wave of female aggression” or “explosion triggered by five nudes who force their eroticized flesh upon us with a primal attack” (Chave 597). In fact, Picasso shows the same situation as Manet does: a woman offers her body as a commodity to a client but Manet makes it in a more reserved and elegant way. The women from Picasso’s work look at the viewer as Olympia does but their power is corrosive and destructive. Therefore, Picasso was free not only to “talk” about human sexuality in his works but also show particular controversial aspects of that notion.
In conclusion, Manet’s Olympia and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon are significant marks both in the history of art and in the way people treat female body and sexuality. These works are crucial for understanding of important processes occurring in the Western world but, talking about their visual and ideological characteristics, I find Manet’s Olympia more interesting and thought-provoking. This painting, in my opinion, addresses the theme of female sexuality in a more symbolic way that I always appreciate in art. At the same time, Manet manages to talk to the audience in a very honest way and without hiding the occupation of the woman or her ambitions. This combination seems to be rare and precious. Therefore, I can say that Olympia has become a painting that I would like to see in the original. I am sure that this work of art may reveal even more than it does if seen as a copy on paper or computer screen. However, it is obvious that in both cases, the artists managed to reach such a high formal quality level of the paintings that the message they wanted to send to the audience is perfectly rendered.