Olympia

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Using as his focus the contention of the critic Walter Benjamin that Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, Otto Friedrich provides a tour of the palaces, galleries, studios, and personalities which gave the French capital its particular character during the Second Empire. Concentrating on the years 1865 to 1885, though with many digressions into earlier and later periods, this accessible and somewhat gossipy work sees history through the medium of prominent personalities.

As the title indicates, one of the leading personalities to whom the reader is introduced is the painter Edouard Manet. His distinctive palette and subject matter, both of which were considered revolutionary and offensive in their time, provide a revealing perspective on the moral and cultural climate of the period. This perspective is developed in the opening chapter of OLYMPIA, where the author scrutinizes Manet’s most famous and notorious work, the enigmatic and compelling nude from which Friedrich takes his title.

In many ways, this chapter is the book’s most successful. Other chapters, dealing with other political and artistic phenomena of the day are less fresh and are inclined to indulge in a cult of personality. Ultimately, the author’s panoramic ambitions lose in coherence what they gain in range. And the connection between some of the material and Manet is often at best tangential. Its handsomely produced illustrations, some of them in color, and generous listing of sources, however, make this volume an attractive introduction to an absorbing world.