How Does Today’s Museum Goer React to a Modern ‘Olympia’?

By Abigail Dandurand, MMoA Education Intern

In 1863, a pioneer of the avant-garde, Edouard Manet, stunned the Parisian public with his painting Olympia. The painting, which depicts a nude courtesan, broke away from the ideal aesthetic nude. The work was met with harsh criticism surely due to its realistic portrayal of the subject and her confronting gaze.  Spectators of Olympia are met with her harsh, knowing stare.

In contrast, Alexandre Cabanel’s The Birth of Venus, also created in 1863, was much more widely accepted. “Beautiful” Venus, the goddess of love, reclines at the break of a wave. Her pale outstretched body, welcomes the eyes of the viewer.

Yet to compare Olympia to contemporary artworks, the twenty-first century viewer may find that the former has lost much of its shock value. Consider a work by painter Betty Tompkins. Her large-scale paintings, illustrating genitals and penetration, dance upon the line between fine art and pornography.

Joan Semmel, an artist in her eighties, produced a ‘Self-Image’ series. These photo-realistic paintings of her own aged nude body were drawn from her personal perspective, looking down at her breasts and pubic area. Semmel is also known for her colorful erotic portrayals of intercourse.

Aside from Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, female genitals were hardly depicted in Manet’s time. While the modeling and placement of Olympia’s hand brings attention to her sexuality, her genitals are nonetheless covered.

Contemporary artworks which graphically illustrate the anatomy and act of sex are not categorized as ‘fine art’ by everyone. So how should an institution showcase work by Tompkins and Semmel, perhaps two creators of our modern-day ‘Olympias’, without offending their loyal patrons and donors?

Read Further: Public Responses to Nudity and Sex in the Museum

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