Giorgione, Sleeping Venus, 1510
Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538
Manet, Olympia, 1863
Bryan Ferry titled his latest album Olympia, after Edouard Manet's infamous painting. "Olympia was a kind of early pin-up picture and in a sense a forerunner of some 20th century pop art, which I feel strongly connected to," he explains, choosing the model Kate Moss to convey the "glamorous notoriety" of the original Olympia nude.
I find Ferry's art-school reference a poor excuse for a rather boring photograph of a glammed up Kate Moss lying in bed with the "finest linen." There is nothing here that we have not seen before. Manet's Olympia, when it was first exhibited in 1863, was something not ever seen before in the history of painting. Manet's composition referred back to Renaissance paintings of Venuses, notably Titian's Venus of Urbino, which in turn refers back to Giorgione's Sleeping Venus (Titian was Giorgione's student and most likely finished Sleeping Venus when the latter died of the plague in 1510). Unlike the Renaissance Venuses, Manet's nude is not an idealized and mythic goddess, but a flesh and blood courtesan, attended by a maid holding a large bouquet of flowers. Manet painted his courtesan wearing nothing but a pair of mules and jewels, just as Manet's friend Beaudelaire described his lover in these lines:
La très chère était nue, et, connaissant mon coeur,
Elle n'avait gardé que ses bijoux sonore,
Dont le riche attirait lui donnait l'air vainqueur
Qu'ont dans leurs jours heureux les esclaves des Mores.
With her frank expression of sexuality staring back at the viewer, Manet's Olympia was shocking. The painting caused an uproar when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1865. After Manet's death in 1883, Claude Monet organized a public subscription to purchase the painting for the nation of France.
Olympia has had a lasting influence on modern art. Jean-Michel Basquiat referenced it in his 1982 work Detail of maid from "Olympia".
The fashion house Yves Saint Laurent reinterpreted it for their advertising campaign in 1998, replacing the nude figure of Olympia with a fully dressed male model attended by a scantily clad female figure holding a bouquet.
Photograph by Mario Sorrenti, Yves Saint Laurent ad, 1998
Unlike both of these instances, Bryan Ferry's interpretation of Olympia offers nothing new on the original, to which it pales by comparison. Incidentally, in the album, Ferry does a cover version of Tim Buckley's beautiful Song to the Siren. Again, Ferry's interpretation is a slick production, but it misses the point of Buckley's haunting lyrics. I much prefer the version by Mortal Coil, with the lyrics rendered so unforgettable by Liz Fraser's ethereal voice.