Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe: and now it's time for a little art history
No, I'm not becoming a Dean Esmay stalker, or tailgater, or whatever the expression might be, although today's post was sparked by one of Dean's, once again.
The subject? Female nudity in popular magazines: to wit, the following cover of Vanity Fair, and what it might mean about our society that this sort of thing is on the newsstands:
I happen to have been at the hairdresser's the other day, and while there I saw this very cover in the flesh, as it were. What struck me was the photo's resemblance, in theme although not composition, to the Manet painting "Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe" (probably an excellent indication that I'm both a very dull old person, and not a man).
Here's Manet's painting, which I studied back in college. In English, it's entitled "Luncheon (or Picnic) on the Grass:"
The Manet was shocking in its time, and I think it remains somewhat shocking even today (more so, in a way, than the magazine cover). From the time I first saw it as a young teenager, it has puzzled and mystified me, and apparently I'm not alone.
In the Vanity Fair photo, Scarlett Johansson (the woman lying down) seems to sport a similar expression to the lady on the left of the painting; she gazes at the viewer with cool and utter aplomb. The man in the photo resembles the one on the left of the painting as well, even the shape of his beard and the cut of his slightly nipped-in jacket (although, in the interest of formality, the man in the Manet has kept his tie on, even though the group is outdoors, whereas the magazine man is showing us his chest).
The woman in the painting's background, in the flowing diaphonous togalike gown, always reminded me of another figure from my youth, the White Rock girl who appeared on the bottles of soda stored in our basement, gazing like Narcissus at her reflection in some small pond.
But what was this all about--surely not selling ginger ale, like Ms. White Rock?
In Manet's painting, the woman on the left has taken off her clothing, which lies in disarray on the ground to her left, amidst some spilled fruit. The men, however, are fully clothed. Nor does anyone seem the least bit surprised, or even engaged by the situation. In the photo, the man is clearly amorous (or meant to be); in Manet, the men are talking to each other.
It's not totally clear what Manet meant by the painting, but it is clear he was calling on certain traditional and conventional artistic subjects (female nudes, still lifes) and turning them on their head by modernizing them (something like the Vanity Fair cover, perhaps).
It's well-known that Manet was referring back to earlier works of art such as this Giorgione entitled "Fête champêtre" (Pastoral Concert):
In Giorgione's work from the early 1500s, the nudes are not only weightier than Manet's, but more classical:
The female figures in the foreground are the Muses of poetry, their nakedness reveals their divine being. The standing figure pouring water from a glass jar represents the superior tragic poetry, while the seated one holding a flute is the Muse of the less prestigious comedy or pastoral poetry. The well-dressed youth who is playing a lute is the poet of exalted lyricism, while the bareheaded one is an ordinary lyricist.
So we have poetry and lyricism, made manifest as naked women and clothed men with lutes. Here we also see, perhaps, the origins of the diaphanous toga of Manet's woman-in-the background--and even, perhaps, the White Rock girl of my youth. But Manet has stripped (to coin a phrase) the scene of all its pretense to culture, and that was what was so shocking.
Manet did not set out to shock, though. His actual aim seems to have been to paint modernity. But shock he did. The painting:
...did not bring Manet laurels and accolades. It brought criticism. Critics found Dejuener to be anti-academic and politically suspect and the ensuing fire storm surrounding this painting has made Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe a benchmark in academic discussions of modern art. The nude in Manet's painting was no nymph, or mythological being...she was a modern Parisian women cast into a contemporary setting with two clothed man. Many found this to be quite vulgar and begged the question "Who's for lunch?" The critics also had much to say about Manet's technical abilities. His harsh frontal lighting and elimination of mid tones rocked ideas of traditional academic training. And yet, it is also important to understand that not everyone criticized Manet, for it was also Dejeuner which set the stage for the advent of Impressionism.
...Manet was not a radical artist, such as Courbet; nor was he a bohemian, as the critics had thought. Recently married to Suzanne Leenhoff, the well mannered and well bred Manet was an immaculately groomed member of high society.
And here's a similar thought, although it seems to have been translated by Babelfish:
Manet, who had an ambition of bourgeois success, will suffer all his life time that his painting, carried out by a great artistic intuition, would only deserve him sulfurous notoriety, but no official recognition.
The painting remains mysterious and ambiguous. But much is known about the identities of Manet's models:
In reality, all of the figures are based on living identifiable people in Manet's life. The seated nude was Victiorne Meurand (Manets' favorite model at the time) and the gentlemen were his brother Eugéne (with cane) and his brother-in-law, the sculpter Ferdinand Leenhof. Manet loved women and in his works, he usually leaves the men's faces blurred or undefined, their individuality blurred in rhetoric, as dismissible as the "others" in the background. Always one to try to keep within the lines of "accepted" art since he was a semi-important member of society, hence, he left the men clothed....Edouard Manet, himself declared that the chief actor in the painting is the light. The public and critics, guardians of public taste saw only a sketch without the customary "finish."
Manet also addresses the power of the artist to create reality. The one man's hand is pointing towards the woman and he is paraphrasing Michelangelo's "God Creates Man" fresco. He is saying the artist creates reality in the same way that God does. This is the major lesson of Impressionism. Reinterpreted, Manet again says , 'God created man, but the artist creates Woman' and may well be the the reason for the candor of model Victorine Meurent's knowing (yet somehow alienated) gaze. Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, a manifesto of modern painting, has always proven problematic when it comes to critical and historical interpretation. At the time of its succes de scandale at the Salon des Refusés, one critic admitted that he searched "in vain for the meaning" of it. Since that time, various readings have been suggested, none of them definitive. . . The furious outcry it caused as the principal exhibit among the Salon rejects was based on this indecency. One holistic critic, doubtless voicing his own opinion, said,
A commoplace woman of demimonde, as naked as can be, shamelessly lolls between two dandies dressed to the teeth. These latter look like schoolboys on a holiday, perpetuating an outrage to play the man. . . . . This is a young man's practical joke--a shameful, open sore.
The passage above contains a possible answer to the question of why the men are clothed: depicting the male nude was considered more scandalous. Perhaps this is still true. But I doubt it's the only reason for the difference.
So, here we have an interesting trajectory: from Giorgione's allegory in which the sexuality is a subtext, although still present; through Manet's shocking modernized grouping that refers back to those earlier nudes, but shorn of any pretense of classicism except as a facile reference point. Then, on to the modern photo that is sold on newsstands and overtly meant to titillate, and which has only a vague and very hidden reference to its predecessors. But to me, all three works stand in an unbroken line, and even the last refers all the way back to the first.