TRANSCRIPT Ep. 285: The Audacity of Authenticity: Manet/Degas

THE INSPIRATION PLACE PODCAST

Miriam Schulman: Manet’s Olympia was met with so much ridicule, so much. They actually moved it up higher in the salon so that people wouldn’t have to look at it. And it never sold during his lifetime. So this is a great example of embracing your inner weirdo, because this painting is absolutely an icon. It’s a lesson that should resonate with every artist who cherish and stand by your unique voice, even when it goes against the grain.

Speaker 2: It’s the Inspiration Place podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. Welcome to The Inspiration Place Podcast, an art world inside a podcast, full artists, by an artist where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the art. And now your host, Miriam Schulman.

Miriam Schulman: Well, hey there, Artpreneur! Welcome to The Inspiration Place. This is Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration, and you’re listening to episode number 285. I’m so grateful that you’re here. So I record things way in advance, just in case people are wondering, “Gee, how is she able to continue to put out so much content even as the world is heavy?” And I know you’re listening to this in December, and I don’t know what the world’s going to bring over the next six weeks since the time I’m recording and the time you’re listening. I have been, except for that one episode, largely silent about my feelings on the developments in Israel, the rise of anti-Semitism worldwide. I’m in a lot of pain, and I have a personal philosophy, business philosophy that I follow, which is when you’re sharing from your personal experience and you’re sharing from your pain, that you should do so from the scars. From the scars, not from the wounds. Right now, I’m very much in the wound of what is happening. So I’m not in a position to be a beacon of hope and inspiration about it. It’s not that I want to pretend that things are perfect with me; it’s just that I’m not in that place yet where I can speak in a way that’s going to be helpful to you in the audience.

So instead, today we’re going to talk about a museum exhibition that I saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s still on exhibit when this recording goes live because it will be up until January 7th, and that is Manet/Degas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have actually got to visit it twice. Both times I went through fairly quickly. If you’re not able to go to New York, you can go to metmuseum.org, and there is a great YouTube video embedded on the site that will take you through a lot of the highlights. It’s very well done. I think you should watch it even if you are coming to New York because it will really help you form a deeper understanding or give you some different angles on how to appreciate it. And you can also see photos of every single artwork that’s in the exhibit on the museum’s website. And there’s a podcast there as well. So there are so many resources for you. However, I am going to talk to you about the exhibit. I’m going to share with you some of what I want to unpack about it. There are so many concepts here, but there were certainly some things I wanted to highlight for you. So let’s get started. In this episode, you’ll discover how to champion one’s unique artistic voice, even in the face of criticism and ridicule.

You’ll discover the tangled relationship between these two giants of Impressionism, Manet and Degas. And we’ll also explore the role of women in art, both as subjects as well as creators. But first, these words.

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Miriam Schulman: All right. So welcome back. This exhibition provides more than just a visual treat. It tells a tale of friendship and rivalry, ambition and rebellion, all set within the lush backdrop of Paris during the height of Impressionism. It’s a dance between Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. It’s very interesting and fascinating. I think for the curators, it was a little bit of a stretch, though, to say that there really was much of a friendship here. It seemed much more in the roles of Manet being kind of more of a superstar in his time, and Degas kind of being more as a wannabe of Manet. That was the impression I was left with. They met at the Louvre. But they didn’t collaborate, and they weren’t really friends. They were more like maybe frenemies. So in the center of this exhibition is Olympia. We’re going to get back to that in a moment because it’s such a huge part of this exhibition. And it’s the first time that Manet’s Olympia has come to the US. So this was a big deal. It was the second time I got to see this painting because I did get to see it in Paris. So we’re going to talk a lot about Olympia.

But before we do, I want to talk about how they weren’t really even friends. So they met at the Louvre. And Manet was never part of that circle that called themselves the Impressionists. He wasn’t.  Now, Degas painted Manet many times, but Manet never reciprocated. And we can’t forget this very dramatic episode that is part of this exhibition. Degas painted a portrait of Manet and his wife. So apparently, Degas had, like, a photographic memory. He had visited Suzanne Manet playing the piano while her husband was reclining on the sofa. And apparently, Degas went home and painted it. I don’t know; I don’t think—they did have cameras then, but they didn’t have Polaroids, so it’s not like, I don’t know. I don’t think he used a camera, but it was very much that kind of feeling that we would take a picture of that now, this very candid look of them. So he went home. He painted the scene as a gift for the couple. But what happened next? Nobody really quite knows why. The historians don’t seem to know why. But Degas later went back to their apartment, and they saw that the canvas had gotten slashed and cropped off the face of Mrs. Manet. Why? I don’t know. Did Madame Manet not like her profile? Did Édouard Manet not like the depiction? Nobody seems to know. But Degas was pissed. Totally pissed.

So he took the painting back. And then he returned the painting that Manet had given him, which was not a portrait. It was just like a small, still life of knots. And that was pretty much it in terms of their friendship. The other thing that colored their interactions, Manet was very progressive, very progressive, while Degas was conservative. And in fact, this is kind of a thorn in my side because as an artist, I love Degas, but I did not love his politics. He was a known anti-Semite that sided with the anti-Dreyfus affair. He was against Dreyfus, so he was very vocal about his anti-Semitism. That said. So they were very different politically. And when it came to their art, even though politically Manet was very progressive, he craved the recognition from the conventional salon, while Degas championed the alternative Impressionist exhibitions. And they tried to get Manet to join that group, and he never wanted to be a part of it. We’re goinna now talk about the painting, Olympia. But first, these words.

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Miriam Schulman: Welcome back. We’re going to talk about Manet’s audacious masterpiece, Olympia. Now, when this painting first came out, it was met with disdain. It was met with shock. It was met with criticism. Anyone who’s taken art history 102 or modern art history has learned about it.

And this was 1865, Paris. And even today, it is still a little bit shocking when you look at it. When I went to the— Actually, I didn’t go to the exhibit with my husband, but I think we were watching the YouTube video that I mentioned earlier. So you can grab that video on YouTube. It’s fantastic. When he looked at it, he was like, “Oh my gosh. It’s a sex worker. It’s a prostitute. I mean, she’s so obviously a prostitute.” And my husband completely forgot that we had seen. I said, “Oh, no, we saw this already in Paris.” He’s like, “Oh, I don’t remember.” Anyway, she is very white, not has that dreamy look of a goddess or that look of a Madonna, but you know, she is looking at the viewer. She’s got that ribbon around her neck and the flower in her hair. She has that look like, “F*** you if you want to f*** me.” She has her hand covering her vajayjay, but it’s kind of like, “Oh, you want me to move my hand?” And then she’s kind of has one shoe on and one shoe she kicked off. So it’s like she’s kind of undressing right in front of us. But here’s the thing. Olympia is not the only woman in this portrait. And here’s what makes this painting once again so modern. So in addition to Olympia, who is the woman who represents the sex worker, and it’s also kind of ironic that he gave her the name Olympia because it’s basically trying to make her into some sort of sex goddess. Olympia.

 

But meanwhile, it’s so obvious she’s not a goddess. So the other female besides the cat in the picture is her servant. And this was modeled by Laure. She’s painted in a way, she almost blends in with the background, but there’s a lot of tenderness in the way Manet painted her. So she’s not just like made to be an object in that painting. I think that’s been an interpretation of a lot of art historians, by the way, that she’s just this object, and it’s to emphasize the whiteness of Olympia and that we only look at white women or only sexualized white women. But that’s not completely the full story here. There is a lot of tenderness in this portrait of Laure. And it’s very interesting the way this painting is so close to another painting in the exhibit by Degas. And the curators of the show, I don’t know if they did this on purpose or not, but they didn’t say anything about this in the wall message or whatever it’s called. So the painting by Degas that I’m referring to, it’s the same year, 1865. It is a painting of a woman next to a bouquet.

And I remember learning about this painting. And what made it interesting was that the–it’s a portrait, but the woman is not in the center, the flowers are in the center. And so there’s something about this painting that reminded me of the maid with the flowers. But also I had a new perspective of Degas’ painting, because now I’m a similar age as the woman in the painting. And in fact, she’s probably younger than me. But, you know, a woman in her late 30s in Paris, before hair dye, before Botox, before everything else, is kind of like a woman in their 50s in 2023. So I’m 54, and this woman is clearly in the autumn of her life. And Degas is making that point in many different ways. First of all, the flowers that are in the vase are dahlias, they’re asters, they’re flowers you would see in a late summer, early autumn. They have those colors about them. Then the woman herself also is dressed in those colors and the browns tones. She’s very covered up. There’s no cleavage, there’s no décolletage.

She has kind of a rumpled, pensive look about her. And the flowers also have a rumpled, pensive look about them. So now, as a woman who’s 54 looking at this painting, I see this more as a commentary on women’s aging and how as women grow old, they become less of the center and less visible and more pushed to the side. So I had a much different take on it. With Manet’s Olympia, the black woman, is also kind of pushed to the side, and she’s directing her attention to the white woman. So that’s definitely a statement. I used to always rub me the wrong way in my art history classes in college. There was this one guy, I don’t remember his real name, but I will make up a name for him. Let’s just call him Bruce. And Bruce would always say, yeah, but isn’t that just that? Wasn’t he just painting what he saw? I was like, yes and no. I mean, the artists always are putting in or taking out and making choices of what they are depicting. And especially when it comes to models, they’re telling the models where to look. So there is no accidents in these paintings at all. If you look at the painting and if you want to look at this online, it’s called “A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers”.

That is the name of Degas’ painting. And we think it is Madame Paul Valpincon. Done in about 1865, same year as Manet’s Olympia. So if you look at it, you will see there is a pitcher of water on the table and the water pitchers only half full. Or half empty, depending on how you’re going to look at it, but it’s only halfway. So there’s something about middle age that’s being depicted here. There is a crumpled kerchief on the table. Again, not an accident. He didn’t have to put that on the table if he didn’t want to. He could have taken it off. Nothing is an accident in these paintings. Okay, so let’s get back to our main topic. One of the things that was such a great lesson for us is that Manet’s Olympia was met with so much ridicule. So much. They actually moved it up higher in the salon so that people wouldn’t have to look at it. And it never sold during his lifetime. So this is a great example of embracing your inner weirdo, because this painting is absolutely an icon. It’s a lesson that should resonate with every artist who cherish and stand by your unique voice, even when it goes against the grain. And he did enjoy financial success during his lifetime as an artist, even though this painting didn’t sell.

All right. When we come back, I want to dive deeper into some more psychology behind the portraits. But first, these words.

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Miriam Schulman: One of the things that struck me the most about this exhibition were Degas’ portraits. They were so rich with an emotional life. The emotions were so rich in them, and one in particular moved me. It was a portrait of Degas’ sister. Her name is Therese. It’s a double portrait of she and her husband and it was done right after she had a miscarriage. So she has a lot of anxiety on her face. Her hand is on her face. She looks very worried, very fragile. Her hand is on his shoulder and he also looks very disappointed. And so I just loved this painting because of the psychology that was in it. There was just so much that the artist was saying in this painting. Degas impressed me with another painting that resonated with me very deeply. And that was a painting of rape. It was originally called The Rape, and I think they had renamed it The Interior. And you see a woman kind of hunched in a corner and a man very foreboding, looking on one side. So that one really resonated deep with me.

A painting that Degas did that was a complete failure, on the other hand, was a painting he submitted to the salon the same year that Manet submitted Olympia, and it was dreadful. It looks nothing like the paintings we all know and love of Degas. It wasn’t horses, it wasn’t dancers. It was some–it was very strange painting, and not even in a good way. So yeah, there was that too. The Degas’ painting I’m referring to, if you want to look it up, it’s called “Scene of War in the Middle Ages”. It got no recognition at the salon. He’s lucky it was accepted. I think it was just dreadful. Very strange. Tell me what you think about it. And if you go and look at the metmuseum.org and check it out and let me know. And you can let me know what you think about any of these paintings. If you’re listening to this as a podcast on YouTube, you can leave a comment right underneath. If you are listening on your podcast app, you can message me @SchulmanArt, S-C-H-U-L-M-A-N-A-R-T over at Instagram, or you can even just email me miriam@theinspirationplace.net. I love to hear from my listeners. It lets me know when I’m on the right track, and it really helps me put out better content when I know what it is you like, what it is you don’t like.

Don’t worry, I have a very thick skin. I can take it. It doesn’t really bother me at all. All right, there was one other thing I wanted to talk to you about. So women definitely play a central role in this exhibit as subject matter. But here’s where it rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t mind Olympia. I didn’t mind the these other portraits. What did I mind? Well, there were a lot of paintings of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, and I really didn’t like that the curators chose to kind of invent this relationship, which was very thin at best between Degas and Manet. There’s like no letters really, between them. Degas seemed to like fan boy Manet, but the feeling wasn’t reciprocated. And really, there was a friendship between Mary Cassatt and Degas. I much rather had seen paintings by Mary Cassatt than of Mary Cassatt, and shown that relationship. And the other alternative exhibit that I would have loved to have seen is Manet with Berthe Morisot. Berthe Morisot is, by some, considered the mother of impressionists, but in this exhibit you would never know it. You would just think she was a pretty friend. Because there’s several paintings of her, and not much is said of her as her own right of being a giant in this art movement.

So I found that part very disappointing. And this is really a criticism of the curating of the show. That you put for the headline basically the patriarchy, Manet and Degas on the top. And we only have like a couple sketches of Mary Cassatt and some paintings of Berthe Morisot, and not much is said of them, even though they’re the ones who were really friends with these other painters. So there’s my rant. If you go to look at Amazon and you look at what my negative reviews are, they’re all about my rants of the patriarchy, which I actually found was very funny because in my book Artpreneur, I only mentioned the patriarchy once, and the only time I mentioned the patriarchy is actually in reference to another author who wrote about the patriarchy, and it doesn’t really appear until like page 200 and something. So there really isn’t a lot of that politics in my book. I mostly are highlighting women artists without saying, I’m not saying anything bad about men. I’m just saying here are some women artists you should also know. And that’s kind of how I feel about this exhibit. You know, there’s nothing wrong with Manet and Degas, but they weren’t really friends, so like to make a whole exhibit saying this is their friendship? I found that a bit weird. I found it a bit weird.

And guess what? A lot of the other art critics with the show, they didn’t go as far as what I said about why not Mary Cassatt and Degas or Berthe Morisot and Manet, but they were also like, “Uh, they weren’t really friends. I don’t quite get it.” You know, it’s kind of like, “Yeah, the Met wants to sell tickets and Musee d’Orsay”. But hey, it was a great show. Regardless, there’s a lot of really good art there. And like I said before, as much as I did not want to like Degas as much as I did, I always loved Degas growing up because my mom was a dancer, and she loved the ballet dancers. And when I learned about his politics, I didn’t want to like him as much. But I have to tell you, when I go to see the exhibit, those were the paintings that moved me, were ones by Degas. There’s something that just brings an emotional response to me over and over and over again, and I really appreciated that in this show. With Manet’s work, a lot of it to me felt more studio-produced. And I appreciate what he’s doing, especially with the one with Olympia. I mean, there’s no question it’s a groundbreaking work. And he really redefined modernism in that painting, what it meant to be a modern painter. However, in terms of like his technique and my own emotional response, I just didn’t get it as much from Manet as I did from Degas.

All right. So I think that covers everything that I wanted to talk about. As we wrap up, remember our journey as artists. It’s going to be filled with highs and lows. It’s going to be filled with acceptance and rejection, admiration and critique. But through it all, it’s our passion, our authenticity, and our belief in our art that guides us forward. So take a page from Manet’s Book. Stay true, be daring, and your art will find its place. All right, my friend. We’ve included links to everything in the show notes. If you’re on YouTube, it’s right below you. If you’re listening, you can hop on over to SchulmanArt.com/285. We have a lot more good stuff coming your way. Make sure you hit the follow or subscribe in the podcast app, and you do not want to miss a thing. Trust me. All right, my friend, thanks so much for joining me here today. I’ll see you the same time, same place next week. Until then, stay inspired.

Speaker 2: Thank you for listening to the Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at facebook.com/schulmanart, on Instagram @SchulmanArt, and of course on schulmanart.com.

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