Monday, November 16, 2015

Paris Red by Maureen Gibbon

“…there is equality in Victorine’s sexual intimacy with Manet…”

In preparation for a conference presentation, I’ve been thinking about Édouard Manet’s painting, Olympia a lot, in the context of researching a recent appropriation of it (Margaret Sutherland’s Emperor Haute Couture from 2011, featuring former Prime Minister Stephen Harper nude). And, in my studio practice, I’ve been contemplating how trying it is to pose convincingly for erotic art, even when it’s purposefully ironic. Thus, I was keen to read Paris Red (2015, W. M. Norton & Company) by Maureen Gibbon, which is a fictional exploration of the development of Manet’s infamous painting. The author took inspiration from academic sources and has captured—if briefly—important details of this turning point in modern art, such as the proliferation of erotic photographs; the controversy of realism in painting; and Manet’s belief (stemming from his training) that art should reflect its time rather than rehash the past.

In the introductory chapter, the reader is introduced to the narrator and protagonist, 17-year-old Victorine Meurent (aka. Trine); her roommate, Denise (aka. Nise); and an exotic stranger they meet on the street who wines and dines them. The stranger turns out to be Manet, then 30 years old (he is never actually referred to by either his first or last name, and oddly, it is the book jacket that confirms his identity). We learn immediately that Victorine is artistic and fearless, an obvious match for the avant-garde painter. She has the self-absorption characteristic of adolescents, evident in this chapter through her mentioning seven times to the reader her green boots, which were given to her by a sex worker. The entire book is written from Victorine’s point of view. As a result, the only break from the patterns of adolescent thought and speech is dialogue spoken by Manet and occasionally, his coterie, a photographer whose studio they visit, her parents, and her boss (before she quits her job). Parallel sentences and sentence fragments are frequent and seem melodramatic; for example, she muses, “Only then does he give me back my hand. So I can use my knife and fork. So I can use my hand to eat” (p. 56).

The first 90 or so pages centre around Victorine and Denise trying to decide whether or not they will have a ménage à trois with Manet; even so, the transformation of the relationship into a twosome feels like a fait accompli from the get-go. Ultimately, Victorine trades her roommate, who had been like a sister to her, in for a lover who rents her a place of her own. She also gives up her trade as a silver burnisher to become his model. Although Manet dominates her world, she is never at his mercy. She exercises agency in modeling for an artist friend of his, Alfred Stevens. Also, there is equality in Victorine’s sexual intimacy with Manet demonstrated by, for example, the absence of jealousy and by their shared participation in her birth control. This equality is echoed by their professional interactions in the studio, where he welcomes her opinion and offers to buy her her own supplies when he realizes she’s been using his discarded tubes of watercolour paint. Unsurprisingly, there are liaisons that blur the lines between sexual and professional; for instance, he sketches her face while positioned between her legs, and she caresses herself to get the position of her hand just right in Olympia. Unfortunately, before being witness to their erotic egalitarianism, the reader must plod through passages like their initial lovemaking, in which he tips her breasts like bottles, tugs, sucks, and comments, “I like how they feel in my mouth” (p. 93). If this section were longer, it might be a contender for the bad sex in fiction award (yes, this is a real thing in the literary world).

This book is heavy on fantasy, and I don’t mean that in an erotic way. Doubt has been cast on earlier assumptions that Manet and Meurent were more than colleagues. For example, as V R Main observes, Stevens was her lover (in Paris Red, they only share a close-mouthed kiss) but Manet probably wasn’t, given that his life was cut short by syphilis while she lived to be elderly, suggesting that she did not contract the then incurable disease (1).

Their romantic involvement, if unlikely in real life, is essential to building momentum in the story because it effectively functions as foreplay for the creation of Olympia. Sixty-five per cent of the book passes before they begin work on it. The painting is described but not named outright, much like the character of Manet. Also like him, its identity is only known conclusively through the book jacket. For the purposes of the story, the name of the artwork is not as important as the identity of the model in the foreground. Victorine recognizes herself on the canvas, and she sees that Manet has painted her with dignity, without sanitizing her. In realizing that fact, she realizes her own potential.

(1) Main, V R. “The Naked Truth.” The Guardian. 3 Oct., 2008.

Photo: reproduced in 2019 via fair use/dealing. Source:

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