Nudity is taboo. Nudity creates sensation. Yet Nudity is fine arts. Those are among the characteristics that people normally associate with nudity, but oftentimes, art masters have learned to intertwined the different meanings of nudity into their works in order to provoke not one, but multi-layer human emotions: from the excessive nude scenes generating more streaming in the series Game of Thrones to the delicate nude scene representing female sexual agency in Titanic (1997).
Yet, put aside all the popular works today revolving around nudity, in my subjective opinion, two of the best works in Man’s art history, which feature female nudity as their main focus, and which are built upon each other, are Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) and Kozyra’s Olimpia (1996). The two works, similar in general composition as a whole but different in the gaze and posture, are worth comparing and contrasting, for much can be gained regarding the authors’ stories and history’s woman ideals.
To begin with, although the main focus of Titian’s painting is the classical goddess Venus, that of Kozyra’s photograph is an old sick cancer-diagnosed woman on chemotherapy – the artist herself, it is well known that Kozyra’s Olimpia is a photographic replica of Manet’s Olimpia, which in turn based the composition on Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Koryza’s photograph manages to retain many elements in Titians’s work: a nude woman reclining on a couch, her head being propped up by a pillow, her left hand covering the genital, her servant(s) lurking in the background, her pet lying on the bed, and her look piercing through the canvas straight to the viewers’ eyes. These similarities, besides drawing viewers’ attention to the original painting, help dub the photograph a modern parody and a revolutionary work of art, for Kozyra put the classical concept of Titian’s into a wholly new and alien setting: bare hospital ward (compared to an ornate Renaissance castle). This difference in settings lays the foundation for numerous differences regarding the woman’s gaze, the woman’s posture, and the painting’s graphical elements; all of which contribute to the theme of the painting: fighting against cancer.
First, Kozyra’s photograph and Titian’s painting have stark differences in terms of the gaze. On one hand, we have the viewers’ gaze, directed to the genitals of the women in both the painting and the photograph because of the position of the hand, yet the meaning behind this position is slightly different in each painting. While Venus’s hand is curled and to entice, the hand of the photographed woman appears to block, which can be interpreted as independence from the male, granting access to her body only on medical treatment purposes. Besides the viewers’ gaze, on the other hand, we have the women’s gazes. In Titian’s painting, Venus’s looks at us viewers coyly, as if we are not supposed to look at her yet she is allowing it. The look itself welcomes a non-harmful secret screening of the woman from viewers, which makes the woman’s gaze so alluring and arousing. This idea of a woman being the object looked at is compatible with the prevalent idea in Renaissance Era, in which the Aristotelian interpretation of women as sex object inferior to men reemerged. In contrast, Kozyra’s photograph illustrates a woman looking confrontationally at us, naked, without a hint of embarrassment. This front gaze, far from being pleasingly and passively erotic like in Titian’s painting, ends the (male’s) pleasure of looking at naked females. This grave uneasiness stems from the fact that she is on chemotherapy, dying.
Besides this confrontational gaze, the posture of the woman in the photograph also plays a part in illustrating her fight for cancer, compared to that in Titian’s painting which demonstrates the woman’s lust. In the painting, the woman is more laid back with her elongated corpulence torso and legs, slightly more tilted towards the viewers to reveal. This seductive posture suggests a sense of openness and confidence, and sometimes demand, which is typical of women in Renaissance art (shown through various paintings such as Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (c. 1510) and Titian’s Venus with the Organ Player (1550)). However, in Kozyra’s photograph, the cancer-stricken woman is not so relaxed but rather quite tense. She is sitting up on her hospital bed, self-revealing yet uneasy, holding on to the red shoes as the only shell to shun full exposure. This shift from traditional Western art history nude women to the confrontational nakedness of the sick body is a bold statement of the patient in the painting - of the painter herself - concerning her own fight against cancer.
Finally, not only do the two visuals differ in gaze and posture, they also possess different graphical elements such as light and color. While the color in Venus of Urbino is bright and warm, that in Olimpia is cooler and more austere, fitting with the bleak and sickening condition of the woman. In addition, the light in Titian’s and Koryza’s works are also starkly different. In Venus of Urbino, the light is evenly diffused through the painting, giving depth to both the foreground and the background; in contrast, in Olimpia, the background is essentially blacked out, giving more focus to the woman on deathbed. Moreover, the way light is cast on the woman on deathbed gives her a paler skin tone; some researchers even likened it to “corpselike…the allusion to death… encoded in her body” (Mitchell 40). The austere combination of color in the photograph truly reflects the austere condition of a cancer patient.
In conclusion, although most of the elements in Koryza’s photograph Olimpia are borrowed from Titian’s painting Venus of Urbino, the modern photograph manages to employ some modified important details such as the confrontational gaze, the sitting-up posture, and the use of color and light in order to describe her old and sick condition of a patient on hospital bed, in contrast with the seductive, relaxed, and lively woman in the painting. These two works of art are among many to look at to study the portrayal of women through history.
Note: This post was written for an English class in high school.
Mitchell, Dolores. “Manet’s “Olympia”: If Looks Could Kill”. Notes in the History of Art. 13.3 (1994). Print.