‘Olympia’, 1863-65, Paris.
A number of years ago I happily managed to be in Paris for two weeks. Being a student, I didn’t have much money, so instead of fancy restaurants, I spent most of my time in the numerous art galleries and museums in the city. On a cold December morning I decided to wait in line for around an hour and a half or so to enter the venerable Musée d’Orsay.
Manet’s ‘Olympia’ hit me squarely between the eyeballs around the 2-hour mark. I didn’t know at the time that Manet’s Victorian contemporaries believed that black women were inherently hypersexual, or that the riveting, contemptuous glare of the courtesan Manet painted would cause the city fathers to choke. She is not portrayed as a passive receptacle, and her black (humble, loyal and clearly not a prostitute) servant is dressed.
And yet I feel distinctly uncomfortable admiring, and being repelled by, this painting: I, a lone black woman surrounded by the smug laughter of (white) Spaniards. I feel pulled by difficult loyalties: the image of the tired, put-upon servant, her skin a foil to the bland whiteness of the courtesan; and yet I am touched by Manet’s resolve and humanity.