A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner party hosted by Jennifer Grossman at her stunning Malibu modern home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The evite included the names of the six other attendees, so I took the time to research them on Google. One of them was a highly respected screenwriter with a few famous movies to his credit. Jennifer is a gorgeous woman, and the backdrop of her steel and glass home set her off to perfection. At the party, when I met the screenwriter, he knew my name and told me how much he liked several of my paintings, recalling them by name. Apparently, he had also done his research, and I felt terribly honored. I thought our interaction reflected very well on Jennifer.
Months later, I attended the massive Freedom Fest conference in Las Vegas, where Jennifer was the only woman on a panel of renowned speakers in front of an audience of 2000 people. She held her own, and did something that none of the four other panelists did: when one of them spoke, she literally turned in her chair to face him, giving all her energy and undivided attention to the speaker. They, in turn, gave her the last word, and she turned in a brilliant summary of the discussion. After those two events, Jennifer and I became good friends.
I don’t remember who suggested posing but when the topic came up both Jennifer and I loved the idea. It was a tremendous honor to have her as a muse.
Once I knew she would pose, I started to mull ideas of James Bond, the Pacific Ocean, a powerful modern woman against a backdrop of nefarious corporate and political players (sharks!), and Édouard Manet’s Olympia. Manet’s painting was radical at its time by taking a mythological theme and modernizing it by having a svelte Parisian contemporary woman greeting a guest naked in her salon. That Olympia is only marred by inclusion of a black servant giving the mademoiselle a bouquet of flowers that presumably the caller brought. For my Olympia, I decided not to include a servant, as servants are ridiculously pretentious in contemporary times. It is much more engaging when a powerful person greets or entertains you personally without a buffer. Then I had a vision of the home built underwater, influenced by one of the James Bond films, aquariums, and some new seawater resort hotels.
Purposefully doing a riff on the pose of Manet’s Olympia, I then saw clearly sharks ominously circling a circular living room set underwater. I knew the painting’s subject would be on the edge of a futuristic lifestyle, with a calm confident woman against a backdrop of dangerous adversaries. The visual concept had a contemporary play on art history, a wonderful muse, extraordinary imagination, a fun adventure, and a positive image of a contemporary woman.
There were a couple of difficult challenges, and two in particular were composing the interior of the living room and the chaise lounge. I found images of the wonderfully warm and modern Helsinki Chapel of Silence, with its solid boat-like woodwork, but then I cut out windows that would flow in horizontal bands showing the underwater world. It was then very important to have a modern couch that would complement the interior, and I was wowed to find Matthias Pliessnig’s Amada from 2010. I then had to find and tweak an image of that couch that would feel like a natural fit for Olympia and share the same directional light. After selecting the reference photos of underwater creatures, the model’s pose, the couch, and the interior, the next step was to integrate all these elements with light and shadow. To achieve this, I used a technique I had been using since 1977 – making solid objects partially transparent. This allowed me to seamlessly blend objects into their surroundings. For instance, the wood paneling showed hints of the fish behind it, while some of the couch’s bands were visible through Olympia’s skin and the brown pillows. Also, I incorporated the transparent rays of sunlight filtered through the water’s depths to bridge the interior and exterior creating a smooth transition.
The composition of the painting is dynamic, with Olympia and the couch she’s sitting on in the lower right, counterbalanced by bands of windows and a massive hammerhead shark. I applied the paint with neutral texture, detailed enough to see fine brush marks up close. The warm pale yellow tint of the light creates a golden glow on Olympia, reminiscent of Rembrandt’s warm light, and it gives a shimmering green atmosphere to the water and and schools of fish, while a warm brown and blue tones round out the shadows. This gives a very soothing and inviting atmosphere to counteract any uncomfortable feelings one might have in the underwater setting.
At the time I painted this, I was facing some serious health issues that thankfully resolved. Despite this, I was thriving creatively, completing many new works and striving to create the wildest images possible. One significant influence at the time was David Attenborough’s First Life, a documentary that showed how life evolved on earth. The biggest takeaway from the documentary was that the most challenging and life-threatening situations are opportunities not only to survive but to evolve and up one’s game to the next level. On a metaphysical level, I felt perfectly positioned to embrace the technical challenges of the painting and its themes.
There are a few symbolic elements in this painting that add some playfulness to the piece. The interior and couch have large, sweeping curvy forms that give the interior a powerful feminine energy, while the pillars of light and fish give it a phallic masculine energy. Olympia and her home welcome male energy in the form of light, but exclude the hordes.
Overall, this painting projects a feeling of confidence that humanity can overcome the powerful natural and frightening elements that surround us. Armor is not necessary, and with intelligence, creativity, and beauty, we can imagine new and unexpected ways of living. By offering a modern variation on Olympia’s themes, I hope that will inspire future artists to make use of art history and come up with wonderful variations.
Olympia and over 25 other major works will comprise an upcoming retrospective show of Michael Newberry. Location and date as of yet undetermined, but likely in the Palm Desert area in the Fall of 2023.
Originally published on my Substack, The Shrewd Artist by Michael Newberry