My Hero was a Prostitute
That same Gender class that introduced me to John Berger was the inspiration for my love of an early impressionist painting that, to the students hanging on Professor Siewert's every word (and those napping in the last row), became the embodiment of defying, or at least subverting, the male gaze. As someone who enjoys studying art, it never ceases to provide me with a deeper meaning. This is one of the most influential paintings in the history of Modern Art, which I would argue makes the woman depicted one of the most influential women in the history of Modern Art.
"Olympia" is a nude woman immortalized in oil by Édouard Manet, surrounded by symbols that identify her as a prostitute, in a time where nude women were only painted if they were part of mythology or someone's mistress (and then they were called Venus...). Believe it or not, but nude modeling was not the most well-regarded profession at the time, often only done by prostitutes (or someone's mistress). Manet does not give mythological context to the painting, instead making it an everyday scene of a naked woman lying on a bed. What's more, if that woman is someone's mistress they must be a glutton for punishment.
Olympia almost glares at the viewer, her body language is stiff and unreceptive, emphasized by the placement of her hand. She is clearly comfortable with nudity, but the viewer can't see everything for nothing.
A women with all the right elements of beauty who refuses to be beautiful throws the male gaze on its head. Judging by the reaction of the art world at the time Olympia was presented (decidedly negative), those interested in viewing nude women for the sake of beauty do not find Olympia enjoyable. I wont go into the "academy" and "salon" business because this post is already too long; suffice to say the art world had very strict rules at this time, most enforcing the presence of a male gaze, and Manet was breaking most of them.
It isn't Olympia's body or beauty we appreciate in this painting, it's not even the first thing we notice. Maybe it's the white pillow or pink flower, or any number of artistic techniques, but it's her gaze that we see first. We see a woman challenging us to objectify her and it makes us uncomfortable to do so.
Further clues lead us to understand that she knows objectification (I can't speak from experience, but I figure that prostitutes feel objectified at least on occasion), and the fact that she is the object of a painting confirms that even more. Yet possibly being a object of a painting makes it easier to own objectification. I love to imagine this woman sitting for the painting, knowing ahead of time that she is an object, as I did, and having agreed to be so. Since she knows people will be viewing her, she is able to ignore them. The acceptance and agreement to objectification (granted, in a slightly different context) by a model aids her in owning it. The model is the object of the painting, but as I wrote before, she is not powerless; she is not a solely receptive being. Olympia meets our eye with the same unreceptive stare that makes her appear completely above it all.
It's not her beauty that I and many others love about her. It's her spirit. It's her complete control over the situation, how she actually does own her power, making us see and acknowledge it.The power of a real, human woman so blatantly spread over a canvas offended those who at the time believed women in paintings should be paradigms of womanhood or exotic fancies: goddesses, mysterious harem dwellers and idealized brides. Olympia is none of these things, not looking away or even at, but through the viewer, impervious to gaze, to judgement, and even to hero worship.
The model brings something to the painting, be it bad or good, and Olympia brought something traditionally bad but culturally wonderful. She gives models, prostitutes, and all objectified women an example of how to own and thus defy objectification, to make viewers fall in love with their spirit rather than beauty.