‘Olympiad’ celebrates modernist masterpieces

Last weekend, Yale played host to a veritable “Manet mania,” as the history of art department’s “Olympiad” conference was aptly dubbed by Art News, a global art magazine.

The department, along with the School of Art and French department, hosted an array of panels and presentations, which took place on Saturday and Sunday, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Édouard Manet’s “Olympia” (1863) and “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (1863). An accompanying exhibition of contemporary work, “Lunch with Olympia,” opened Friday night at the art school’s 32 Edgewood gallery. Through a collection of 34 paintings and four video installations, this exhibit pays tribute to both “Olympia” and the “Déjeuner,” works many scholars agree helped define the modernist avant-garde.

The show includes a Wild West-themed iteration of “Déjeuner,” complete with sombreros, gun-belts and flaming red cowboy boots, as well as an “Olympia” from the outback, whose 10-year-old sitter — the artist’s daughter, who just so happens to be named Olympia — sports weathered Keds and a bright pink gingham dress in lieu of the original’s nudity. There are works by household names (Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne), as well as contemporary painters (Manon Elder; Agnès Thurnaeur) alike. Throughout all, however, the breadth and depth of Manet’s influence is evident, which seems only fitting for an artist described by history of art professor Carol Armstrong, the exhibit’s curator, as “one of the all-around best painters in the world.”

Still, it was not merely painting skill that inspired “Lunch with Olympia” — the exhibit was born from a series of conversations between the School of Art and the French and history of art departments, along with professors’ perceived need for a revival of interest in 19th century French painting, Armstrong said.

“People have begun to say that French 19th-century painting is old hat, that’s it’s not really relevant anymore, that there’s nothing left to say about it that hasn’t already been said,” Armstrong explained.

She added that she hopes “Lunch with Olympia” will prove otherwise by displaying the vast body of work inspired by “Olympia” and “Déjeuner.” School of Art Dean Robert Storr agreed, citing the “living works” on display as proof that the pair of paintings is still current, a representation of the “dialogue” occurring between artists that, in Storr’s mind, is not often acknowledged.

Among this compilation of visual proof is Thurnauer’s “Olympia #2” (2012), which depicts a representation of Manet’s painting overlaid with a series of French terms of endearment — for instance, “mon amour,” “ma chérie,” “ma toute” (my love, my dear, my everything). Thurnaeur, who was present at the opening, explained how painting escapes all constraints, including time and place, and that her desire was to represent Olympia in the same way, as someone who escapes all definitions placed upon her — in this representation, literally.

Manon Elder, another featured artist in attendance, discussed her “Olympio” (2013), a precisely to-scale reproduction of “Olympia” — with one critical distinction. In place of Manet’s sensual female nude, Elder has painted a male figure that retains Olympia’s trademark gaze of blasé disinterest.

“Gender has always been important in my painting,” Elder noted, explaining that the piece was an artistic experiment of sorts, to see whether or not viewers would find the replacement of female with male shocking. The result? “No, we, [as viewers], don’t really,” Elder said. “And I think it’s because [Olympia’s] expression is one we’re so used to seeing in representations of men.”

Viewers’ reactions to works such as these jibed well with Armstrong’s desire to revive 19th century painting’s relevance to a contemporary audience. Noa Battu, a high school student who dropped by the exhibit, appreciated the opportunity the show afforded “to see ‘textbook’ work reborn in a more modern context.” Other spectators, such as Jo Kremer, said she hoped the works at 32 Edgewood would further their appreciation of the symposium’s other events.

Those offerings included a variety of speakers drawn from across the globe. Saturday morning began with Armstrong delivering the conference’s opening address — “Ceci n’est pas une prostituée” (“This is not a prostitute”) — which emphasized the fallibility of the historical rumors circulating about Olympia’s streetwalker status. The talk was followed by Musée d’Orsay curator Isolde Pludermacher’s exploration of the links between Titian and Manet, Yale history of art student Izabel Gass’ GRD ’15 examination of the critical writings of Théophile Thoré, a lesser known contemporary of such 19th century luminaries as Charles Baudelaire and Émile Zola — particularly as they pertained to his evaluation of Manet — and the Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre/École du Louvre’s Baptiste Brun’s presentation of Jean Dubuffet’s 1950 rendition of “Olympia.”

The afternoon saw a keynote address by Anne McCauley of Princeton considering the significance of “Olympia” in an age of comparative anatomy and a panel dealing with issues of sex and gender in such paintings. The Manet marathon continued on Sunday with Elder and Thurnauer speaking about their featured works and a second keynote address by Segolène Le Men of the Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre, lasting well into the afternoon with a series of panels focusing on the contemporary resonance of Manet’s work.

“Lunch with Olympia” will be on display at 32 Edgewood Avenue through November 21.

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