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One The Founders of Impressionism: Edgar Degas

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Edgar Degas was a French artist who was regarded as one of the founders of impressionism, although he called himself a realist. Degas started his artistic career as a historical painter, with having academic training and studied classical art, but in his thirties, he decided to change his style. He combined the traditional methods he learned, with a more contemporary subject matter. He was said to be a classical painter of modern life. Impressionism was an art movement in the 19th century, that was founded due to opposition and harsh criticism from the conventional art community in France. Impressionist artworks are characterized by open composition, realistic depiction of light, small yet visible brush strokes, and movement and elements of human experience. 

Impressionists went against the conventions of the art society to depict real life and not mythology. Degas was an impressionist and encompassed all of these characteristics in this artwork. In his oil painting, Place de la Concorde 1875 he acknowledges traditions and conventions of classical art, but adapts to these. The painting depicts a cigar-smoking Ludovic Napoléon Lepic and his daughters walking their dog. The family is represented with dull blank faces and do not seem to be interacting with each other. The positioning of the family is bizarre as they are all facing, moving, and looking in all different directions, this composition gives off a sense of isolation. Degas further explores this isolation with the amount of negative space that is painted, with the large empty square in the background and only four figures in the foreground. Degas is known for portraying human isolation in his paintings through the figures and the composition, but this is mainly shown in his portraits. Degas was a keen photographer in his later years, his passion for photography strongly influences his painting Place de la Concorde. The painting as a whole looks as though it has been cropped. The man in the left-hand corner has been cropped in half, and Lepic, his daughters, and his dog have all been cropped so that the bottom half of their bodies are not shown, as well as the building and the horse carriage being cut off. 

In traditional classical paintings, this would not be the case, everything would be shown as a whole, or not shown at all. There has always been a long tradition of the female nude that is represented as modest and sensual. This tradition goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans in sculptures such as the Goddess Venus modestly covering her body after a bath. Dr Steven Tucker, a spokesperson from Khan Academy, states that women were always represented as being “clothed by mythology or clothed by sheer beauty”. Édouard Manet’s Olympia is modeled on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, but he takes away the conventional approach of the portrayal of space, and the positioning of the body, and he also strips away the mask of the mythology behind the Venus and women only being represented as Venus’s. Édouard Manet’s Olympia draws on this convention but also does something radical and modern for the classical and renaissance period. The woman depicted, Olympia, is not represented as a Venus or a goddess but as a real woman in a real Paris apartment, he has stripped away the facade of women being mythical perfect humans. Olympia is not painted to look perfect, her face is asymmetrical and her lips are too thin. 

Manet painted a dark black outline around her body, this made her look almost dirty and as having a patchy complexion. During this period, 1863, this concept of real women being painted was entirely unheard of. What challenges conventions even further is that Olympia was a very common prostitute name in Paris at that time. Prostitutes are seen as being lower-class citizens that didn’t have a real role in society, but the way Manet has depicted her shows that she was maybe of a higher class, as she has a servant waiting for her. Prostitutes were definitely not depicted in art, and if they were they were not seen in the same position as Venus or goddess. 

Julie Rrap is an Australian contemporary artist that uses traditional artworks and adapts them to portray modern conventions. Rap’s works are influenced by the human form and how it is represented in society and media, particularly women in western culture. Rap’s Untitled (after Manet’s Olympia) is influenced by a 1961 performance titled Foto Death by Claes Oldenburg, where a photography session was staged. A family is depicted in front of a backdrop, and each time the photographer attempts to capture the family posing, they would fall to the ground. It is said that his work highlights the embalming process of photography, and further represents history itself. She tends to “poke fun at the stereotypical representations of women” and she uses her body, suggestions of the body, and representations of the body to complete her works. For some years Rrap has been creating a series of works using negative impressions of the body, and these works have either directly or indirectly referenced the history of representation of the human body, mainly the female body. 

In the exhibition Fleshed Out famous paintings by Manet, Gaugin and Courbet were used as a life-size backdrop in which the central figures were digitally removed, and then those central figures re-appeared alongside the backdrops as a negative bronze cast. She applied this technique to Manet’s Olympia, and by taking Olympia out of the painting she has challenged the conventions by using the absence as a sign of the judgement, which takes place in society. By using the technique of the negative cast of her own body in the same position of Olympia, she had portrayed the body as a symbol of betrayal and confronts the judgement of the audience towards the figure, which isn’t there. In doing this, she creates irony through the interference of these recognisable works of early modernism.           

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