Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Lunch on the Grass or Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe!

Édouard Manet 1863;
Luncheon on the Grass;
Musee d'Orsay;
Oil on canvas, 81 x 101 cm

The active spirit of independance in Impressionism--- if not its style --- may be considered to date from this famous work, refused by the Salon in 1863 and exhibited, under the title of Le Bain (The Bath) at the Salon des Refusés of the same year.
According to Antonin Proust, the idea of the picture suggested itself to Édouard Manet when they were watching bathers at Argenteuil. Édouard Manet was reminded of Giorgione's Concert Champêtre and rather than attempting to revive 'great painting' he tries to repeat the theme in clearer color and with modern personnel. There is the Old Master technique in the element of a formal arrangement of characters however Manet has ostensibly set the stage in the open-- there are various hints and suggestions in light and color of fresh possibilities in open-air painting. We know at first that the artist had Giorgione's Pastoral Symphony in mind as his source for Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe. A closer likeness of composition has been found in an engraving by Marcantonio of a group of river gods, after a now lost original by Raphael of The Judgement of Paris. Manet was following the example of others, a technique of the Academy of Fine Art. Gustave Courbet during his time urged painters to keep their work modern to paint their own people and their own images. It is not so far fetched that Manet would choose this subject matter; he painted what was relevant to him. By putting most of what was expected in a painting suitable for the L'Academie Francaise, i.e. a nude, figures in a landscape, still-life, and on the scale of history painting (this last point really irritated the critics!). Manet may have pushed the envelop of tradition, but he wanted his works accepted in the traditional way. Actually, it's quite amazing that Bouguereau's nudes were considered acceptable and Manet's were not.
Nothing in the foreground is figures is heroic. 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. The two men attired in fashionable Parisian wear of the 1860's, and the nude in the forefront is not only a distressingly un-idealized figure type, but she seems distubingly unabashed and at ease, looking directly at the observer without shame or flirtatiousness. 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.
The detractor's and public disliked Édouard Manet's subject matter only slightly less that the method he used to present his figures. The landscape and the background pool, in which a second woman bathes, are softly focused and painted broadly compared to the clear forms of the harshly lit trio in the forefront along with the loose plie of discarded female garmets and picnic foods in the lower left. Only the bare reality and the sustenance, lunch, has meaning. The lighting illuminates a powerful contrast between darks and highlighted, areas found in many photographs of the time. The main figures are blotted out; in a 'crowding of the lights' and a compensation made with 'crowding of the darks', summing up many values in one or two lights or darks. The effect is to flatten the form and to give it the hard, snapping presence, similar to that in early photography. The paint reports to the viewer what is given to the eye, without any presuppositions of contour, form or structure. Form is no longer a matter of line, only a function of light and paint.
Édouard Manet, himself declared that the chief actor in the painting is the light. The public and critics, guardians of public tatse 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 alleged 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.

Manets' art would have been readily accepted if he had depicted the figures as nymphs or satyrs is Classical dress or undress, as did his comtemporary Bouguereau. Actually, it's quite amazing that Bouguereau's nudes were considered acceptable and Manet's were not. But in Le Déjeuner Manet has chosen to raise the veils of illusion and reverie, and bluntly confront the public with reality. It is even possible to conjecture that the work is a pastiche of academic genres designed to illustrate how irrelevant academic art had become to modern experience. Manet's Déjeuner has found a ready audience in a postmodern world Roland Barthes once referred to the idea of withholding of meaning, of a semiosis without closure, as an alternative to political opposition. His comments seem relevant to both Manet's painting and its current reception:

"I don't believe that a literature of the left is possible. A problematic literature, yes, that is a literature of suspended meaning: an art which provokes answers but which doesn't give them."

Throughout his entire career, Manet suffered the hositlity of the critics as the surrogates of the public. Their attitude wounded him deeply. Unable to understand their animosity, he continued to seek their approval, and yet the doses of the real he put forth in his art were too harsh. His work in realism was percieved as a real moral threat by the public.

Selected References

CCA Reviews

De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Picture Source

Webmuseum, Paris

The Unpardonable Sin

Oracle: I'd ask you to sit down, but, you're not going to anyway. And don't worry about the vase.
Neo: What vase?
Neo turns to look for a vase, and as he does, he knocks over a vase of flowers, which shatters on the floor.
Oracle: That vase.
Neo: I'm sorry...
Oracle: I said don't worry about it. I'll get one of my kids to fix it.
Neo: How did you know?
Oracle: Ohh, what's really going to bake your noodle later on is,
would you still have broken it if I hadn't said anything?
-The Matrix (1999)

So what provoked Jesus into saying that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the only unpardonable sin? To understand, it may help to juxtapose his comment within ancient Biblical history where the scribes and priests had really been looking for a way to kill Jesus. Not only has Jesus healed on the Sabbath, he had told the parable of the wicked tenants, a story directly aimed at the Pharisees. It's a simple story. A landowner leases his vineyard to a band of tenant farmers and leaves. While he is gone, the tenants begin to act like they own the place. When the owner sends a servant to collect payment, the tenants send him back without the rent. When the servant comes back again, they beat him up and throw him out. At last, the landowner sends his son, believing that surely the tenants will pay attention to him. But, no — they drag him off of the land and kill him, thinking that will make the vineyard theirs for good. 1 2 This of course is all an insinuation aimed at honking off all of the community leaders on behalf of the Jewish people. The vineyard is Israel, the servant is God's people, and the tenants are the priests, the landowner, God; his son, Jesus and so on. The economics and politics of the era also played a large part in the perspective of what the audience was hearing in the story:

The parable...reflects ... economic realities of Roman Palestine (in) the parable of the Wicked Tenants... specifically the condition of widespread unemployment in Galilee. Large segments of the population had been dispossessed and reduced to destitution, as a result of Pompey's reorganization of Palestinian territory. At the same time Herod the Great's expropriation of large tracts of farmland, sold to wealthy landowners or distributed to the officials of his court, had intensified the process... consequently peasants and tenants...who depended on them, had only their labor to sell to anyone who wished to hire them.

So the Jewish people made their living as servants of the politicians and the parable was pointed at them as well. The gospel of Luke goes on to note, "The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them."

This became the enemy of my enemy is my friend scenario and motivated the Pharisees to conspire with the Herodians because Jesus has not only ostracized many leaders in the secular community-- he had stigmatized the Jewish leaders as falling short of the law. Add to the mix that, without fail Jesus has demonstrated compassion by supporting those who were considered the dregs of society and hence marginalized by the temple advocates. This event sets the stage for the Passion and quickly culminates in the crucifixion.

During Passover Jesus foretells of his betrayal then he and his inner circle adjourn to the Mount of Olives. Near midnight the betrayal comes and Jesus is led away by the chief priests, elders, and scribes. When Jesus is asked directly if he is the Messiah, he replies with an allusion to Daniel, "I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed." The high priests interpret this as blasphemy. According to the Oxford Companion, blasphemy is defined as, "Speech that is abusive to humans or derogatory to God. Blasphemy against humans occurs when people speak words harmful to one another." 3 4 The Old Testament law of Leviticus says that it is punishable by death.

When it comes to the unpardonable sin, the passages that has brought forth a great deal of debate is written about by both Matthew and Mark. Jesus tells his persecutors that to speak blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the sin that cannot be forgiven. As he brings this to the attention of the priests, he points out that this sin is not committed inadvertently by Jesus' followers, but is attributed directly to the enemies of Jesus, who were claiming that his popularity among his followers was due to an evil spirit. The Pharisees, claiming divine prerogative, interpret the Levitical law that because Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah he deserves death. Jesus' retort is that by destroying what has been built up by the Holy Spirit in the persona of his followers, their actions risk an unpardonable sin because they are alienating Israel from God. In an effort to retain their authority the Pharisees take Jesus before Pontius Pilate and he is subsequently convicted and crucified. Two thousand years later people are still talking about it.


Intimations of the Year of Jubilee in the Parables of the Wicked Tenants


Memorable Quotes from The Matrix (1999)

The Oxford Companion to the Bible, 1993, p.92

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants