Thursday, 19 January 2012

Manet, Déjeuner sur l'herbe

As Macaulay's schoolboy knows, Edouard Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe was (according to Antonin Proust) inspired by the sight of bathers at Argenteuil, refused by the Salon in 1863, subsequently shown in the Salon des Refusés the same year, scandalised the Parisian establishment (or at any rate the tiny handful of them who would raghe in print about such matters). It refers to works by Raphael (more strictly, a print made to his design), Giorgione, and Titian, and places itself very consciously in the fête champêtre genre. At the same time, it passes on the realism of Courbet while inspiring the loose brushwork of Monet and the Impressionists, rejects the official art of gradual tonalities for harsher transitions, answers Baudelaire's call to paint scenes of modern life, uses real people - the men are from the artist's family - for the models, employs studio lighting (look at the shadows), and distorts perspective (the girl behind is too big). The girls may be prostitutes (Matthew Collings says the painting is 'about prostitution' which seems to me a little over-confident), but the scene is certainly two men taking them out for a picnic.

These facts, and many more, and commentaries about them, can be retrieved from the sources below. But looking at the painting now, leaving the art historical erudition until later/never, what experience do we get? To me it seems astonishingly contemporary, like a postmodern exercise in ironic quotation. The world of river gods and Venus of Urbino is summoned up only to be collapsed into the modern scene of profligate flaneurs and courtesans. Heritage alluded to and deconstructed with irony. Very modern, very modernist. It's a picture about taking girls out for some fun, yet as the men are obviously wittering away about some poet or philosopher it's hard to feel an erotic charge (we're told the girl looks at us confrontationally, like Manet's Olympia (same model),but I wonder if she isn't appealing to be rescued from these bores). It's a classical pastoral scene, except it isn't because it's in modern dress, and it's as much about city types as the pleasures of the countryside. Modern and ancient, sexy but not really, town and country, shameless (as the nude girl staring undemurely out was by 1863 standards) but also dressed up.

Above all, it seems to be a fiction which keeps reminding us it's  fiction. One of the very unintellectual pleasures of the classical landscape is that you can, in your imagination, step into it, feel the soft breeze, watch your long shadow in the grass, catch the last glow of the sun on the back of your hand, exchange verses with a shepherd, scramble into a ruin to contemplate time, that sort of thing. But as soon as we step into this scene, we're reminded that it's just pretend: the lighting, the abruptness of the brushstrokes seems, in a very postmodern way, to call attention to its own artificiality (and to its own painterly skill, especially in the superb still life of fruit, a painting within a painting). Of course an artwork loudhailing its own arfulness is classical too: Claude paintings shout at us 'Look how well composed I am! Look at the way the tress frame the scene, and chromatic perspective takes your eye from one plane to another!'. Yet there it seems not to obstruct us getting into the stage set and making believe it's real. Manet's Déjeuner seems more intent on this, though that may just be because it cannot shake off its iconic status, and we know we can scarcely escape standing before it and congratulating ourselves on how our sensibilities are more generous than the benighted Salon jury's (which they probably are). The works iconic modernist status must owe something to its references to the past, and if it announces the arrival of the new, the honest eye looking at real life in all its unmythical ordinariness, that authenticity is somehow bound up with the obvious artifice of treatment and composition. So modernity needs the past, and truth needs artifice? All of this is to see it from a contemporary perspective of course, but - as the painting seems to remind us - that's the only one we have.

Helpful entry in Wikipedia
Entry on Musée d'Orsay site
Rose-Marie and Rainer Hagen What Great Paintings Say (Taschen, 1997), vol. 3, 156-60.
New Britain Museum of American Art covers the story and reproduces some later versions of the painting, by Monet, Picasso and others
A nice personal reflection by Blake Morrison

Short video on painting on SmartHistory
Clip from Impressionism: The Revenge of the Nice by Matthew Collings
Programme devoted to Déjeuner on Private Life of a Masterpiece
Film on Manet by Waldemar Januszak, embeds painting in biography and historical context.