When looking at Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) and Paul Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau (1892), it is possible to notice certain similarities in these remarkable paintings. The reason is that Gauguin was inspired by Manet’s Olympia in order to create his own proclamation of “indecent” nudity, but he chose another approach to depict this subject. In spite of the fact that these paintings seem to be connected in terms of portraying nude young women lying on a bed, these works have significant differences in their style and messages.
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Summary of Gauguin’s Views on His Painting
In his letter, Gauguin states that his goal was not only to depict a young naked Tahitian woman lying on a bed but mainly to represent her fear of the Spirit of the Dead. Thus, Gauguin claims that there are two levels of meaning and perception in his painting. At the primary level, there is a portrait of a Tahitian female who is afraid of the Spirit of the Dead (the tupapau), which is represented by the artist as the dark figure in the background. The artist notes, “Once I have found my tupapau I devote my attention completely to it and make it the motif of my picture. The nude sinks to a secondary level” (Chipp, Selz, & Taylor, 1968, p. 69). According to Gauguin, the main cause of painting the young woman lying on a bed in such a strange position is not romantic, but it is associated with her fear of the Spirit. Thus, the nude figure is discussed by the artist as the secondary level of the painting, and the analysis of the work only with reference to this aspect seems to be simplistic.
Differences in Manet’s Olympia and Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau
It is important to note that a close look at Olympia and Manao Tupapau allows for identifying some particular differences in these two paintings. Firstly, the positions of the two women are opposite, and their skin is intentional of different colors. Secondly, there are dissimilarities in these women’s looks as Olympia’s gaze is confident and almost indifferent, but Tehura’s gaze is full of fear. Thus, according to critics, “Olympia returns our gaze, stares the male viewer down as if he were a customer” (Bois, Buchloh, Foster, & Krauss, 2004, p. 68). Thirdly, one should note that the presentation of nudity is also not the same in these two paintings. Olympia is created according to the standards of academic nudity when the woman in Manao Tupapau is portrayed according to the principles of primitivism, and the proportions of her body are strange and unnatural.
To conclude, the analysis of Manet’s Olympia and Gauguin’s Manao Tupapau allows for finding many similarities in these two paintings due to the fact that Gauguin’s work was created under the impact of Manet. However, the messages of these art pieces that can be perceived by viewers are rather different. If Manet’s Olympia is depicted as a self-confident prostitute who seems to wait for her next client, Gauguin’s Tehura is a naïve, primitive, naked woman who is afraid of darkness. Gauguin accentuated that he tried to portray this young woman with reference to her fears and beliefs associated with the Tahitian culture and views. Thus, these two paintings can be considered as representing rather dissimilar cultures while using different approaches and techniques.
Bois, Y. A., Buchloh, B. H., Foster, H., & Krauss, R. E. (2004). Art since 1900: Modernism, antimodernism, postmodernism. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson.
Chipp, H. B., Selz, P., & Taylor, J. C. (Eds.). (1968). Theories of modern art: A source book by artists and critics. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.