In contrast to today’s view that Manet re-interpreted scenes of the past and molded them in intriguing ways into contemporary images, ‘traditional’ critics accused him of plagiarism and technical inaptitude whenever they detected the influence of Italian or Spanish masters upon his work. Instead of retracing Manet’s references to his painterly past, his critics were inclined to mock him, decrying him as ‘the Velázquez of the Boulevard’, or as ‘the Spaniard of Paris’. However, his borrowings were gradually recognized not as impediments to his artistic intentions but as what provided him a language, and a Spanish one in particular, with which to express himself, and this pointed towards significant changes and ruptures in his painterly genealogy.
With a psychoanalytic eye upon his work and leaning upon T. S. Eliot’s statement that ‘no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone’, it becomes clear that Manet succeeded in resignifying the past by inserting into it a piece of the present and in recontextualizing the present by relocating it into the past. In dealing with clinical material, the psychoanalyst is confronted with a similar task: engaging in the excavation of memories and searching for meaningful interpretations of these memories in light of the present situation.The psychoanalytic concept of Nachträglichkeit or apres-coup proves to be very valuable for an understanding of the complexities of Manet’s citations of the past. Instead of thinking in linear terms, the idea of Nachträglichkeit emphasizes the process of interpreting the present retroactively, so that a twofold process can ensue, as is the case in Manet’s Olympia, where he explicitly cites Titian’s Venus of Urbino. In this exchange between the two paintings, the spectator is challenged to rethink her adoration of The Venus of Urbino and her shock at Olympia. What was portrayed in the past as sensuous beauty is now, in Manet’s Olympia, made more sexually explicit. Manet invites his spectators into these imaginary exchanges, so that neither work can be read again in its germane ways. Olympia is no longer a shocking prostitute, inviting her spectators into her boudoir, and the beautiful woman in Venus of Urbino can no longer be simply adorned as a semi-goddess. Manet has re-invested both paintings with new meanings, moving back and forth between the past and the present.
Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, Ph.D. is a psychoanalyst who lives and works in Vienna, Austria. She is a member and training analyst at the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Psychoanalyse (WAP), where she is also a member of the Board. She is the head of the Scientific Advisory Council of the Sigmund Freud Museum. Prior to moving to Vienna, she was the past president and supervising and personal analyst at PINC (Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California). She is on the faculty at PINC and at the NYU Postdoctoral Program of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy (New York) and she teaches at WAP. She has published numerous articles on the interfaces between psychoanalysis, the visual arts, film, and politics. Her most recent publications include: ‘The Space of Transition between Winnicott and Lacan’, in Between Winnicott and Lacan (2011); the section on ‘Jacques Lacan’ in The Textbook of Psychoanalysis (2012; currently being republished); ‘Living between Two Languages: A Bi-focal Perspective’, in Immigration in Psychoanalysis (2016); ‘Dora, the Unending and Unraveling Story’, in Dora, Hysteria & Gender: Reconsidering Freud’s Case Study (2018); ‘Unexpected Antecedents to the Concept of the Death Drive: A Return to the Beginnings’, in Contemporary Perspectives on the Freudian Death Drive: In Theory, Clinical Practice and Culture (2019); and ‘From Narcissus to Echo: The Imaginary Working under the Mask of the Symbolic’, EPF Congress, 2022. Her book entitled Edouard Manet: Framing the Past and the Gaze is in preparation.