Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Titian, Manet, & Berger

Ok, so I'm sure you all know the way Manet's Olympia quotes Titian's Venus of Urbino? I can't sleep, so I'll just bore you all with my take on it.

Here's the Titian:



Here's the Manet:



The obvious difference, as Berger points out in Ways of Seeing (which is a super little book) is the way that Manet's model is intentionally unidealised, and also has closed the door with her spread hand to the gaze. (This is a concise summary, apologies to the original argument). (Better than reading that Sewell fellow wittering about Titian's Venus "fingering her rima" - I knew the word 'rima' because I originally studied geology. It means a cleft. But honestly!) (And of course Titian's Venus broke the mould because she is gently playing with herself as opposed to covering herself for Modesty's sake).

Berger argues that Titian's version was for male gratification (and of course it is), while Manet's is a challenge to the male gaze - it shuts one out. I think this is an over-simplification.

The perspective in the Titian undermines that notion. There is an article I found while seeking evidence to bolster my conviction the other day: http://employees.oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth213/Titian_Venus_urbino.html - it's worth the read, and says lots of wise things.

To summarise: it points out what I had noticed: in Titian's painting we're kneeling before Venus. She appears to be slightly above, or at the same level as our gaze on her couch. The page cited above spoils it's own argument slightly, by failing to measure the perspectival lines properly, and only gets half the story.

Here's my defaced and delineated travesty of the original:



What should be obvious (apart from the really obvious part of the composition, being that part that has been the central part of all art since day dot), is that the perspective of the pattern of the floor, and the wall and tapestries give us two contradictory viewpoints for the spectator.

We are either kneeling before Venus with our eye at the level of her upper eye if we take the pattern of the floor as our guide, or we are kneeling below Venus with our eye at the level of her mouth, if we take the room as our guide. Both points fall on the same vertical line, where we are situated, again, in front of that part that shall not be alluded to, lest I'm accused of doing a Sewell. (On a sidenote, the strong foreground vertical line and the vertical sightline frame that part again... sigh).

What's my point? I think Titian was being rather clever. While his picture was la porn de jour, he played it out so there was an ambivalence to do with whether Venus was the viewer's equal, or better (bearing in mind we're kneeling still in either case). And that ambivalence almost makes her look as if she's nodding assent.

That's all. It was so important, wasn't it?

p.s. edit. The same ambivalence is why we can't quite make up our mind as to whether there is a step beyond the couch into background or not. But I think you'll agree that Titian agrees with the lower viewpoint. Safest policy, when dealing with goddesses, I imagine.

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