There's something about Manet: Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe

Nudity, beardy men, food... sounds like my kind of picnic!

Manet, Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe (1863), Musée d'Orsay, Paris
In 1863, Édouard Manet ruffled a few feathers when he completed his notorious painting Le Dejeuner sur l'HerbeThe piece  is arguably one of Manet's most iconic paintings alongside Olympia (1863) and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) and is also one of his most controversial. The painting features a pair of almost naked women alongside two comparatively not naked men picnicking in the park, and for me, unlike some iconic works of art, Le Dejeuner still packs some of its original punch. When a piece of art is so famous that it becomes a cultural touchstone, like LDSHit can be hard to look at with fresh eyes; the details becoming so banal that when you look at the piece in real life you can't help but stand there dumbfounded as you struggle to really see it, resulting in a feeling of 'not getting it'. Seeing the Mona Lisa's ubiquitous postage stamp frame in the Louvre for the first time had this effect one me, I didn't get why this was meant to be the pinnacle of Da Vinci's artistic career and could no longer think anything really aside from 'this painting is sooooo famous', and therefore found it hard to appreciate artistically. When looking at the Greats, prior knowledge that the painting is kinda a big deal usually ruins your experience, so I expected more of the same when it came to Manet's big hitter Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe. But even when the antagonist in me wanted to say that the painting doesn't live up to hype, I could not help but be intrigued by Manet's strange luncheon, with its pops of colour, swirling brushstrokes and bad ass protagonist. 

On laying his brush to rest back in 1863, Manet tried to submit Le Dejeuner to the prestigious Paris Salon, but to his chagrin, was rejected by the suddenly prudish committee. The Salon was the place to exhibit your work as an established artist back in the day and having had his work shown there before and not really thinking himself much of a rebel, Manet must have thought himself quids in for a repeat performance.  The Salon, however, thought the piece was of bad taste, and refused it entry to their hallowed halls. Manet instead allowed his work to be shown at an exhibit exclusively for rejected works, known as the Salon des Refusés, even though he would have preferred to have exhibited it at the main event. It wasn't the nudity itself in Le Dejeuner that posed a problem for the members of the Salon - you just need to lay your eyes on the centrefold Venus exhibited there that same year by Manet's contemporary Alexandre Cabanel to know that...If you look closely you can still see the staples. No, the main issue was the context of the nudity, or in the case of Le Dejeuner the lack thereof. Cabanel's Venus was allowed, cos Venus is a mythic goddess and DUH mythic goddesses are always naked don't-ya-know, but there was no allegory to the women in Le Dejeuner, these figures are undressed, unexplained, and seemingly unashamed real women who look like they have lumps and bumps and dreams and aspirations and shit, and the Salon couldn't be having that!  

For me, the beauty of Le Dejuener sur l'Herbe lies in the look of the woman in the forefront of the painting who stares the viewer down and generally makes us feel like pervs for looking. Commonly believed to be modelled after the painter Victorine Meurent, it's this woman's 'don't-give-a-shit' stare that makes the image so powerful. Perhaps unsurprisingly the sense of unease this glance created in the men that viewed her didn't really sit well with the oh-so-refined members of the Salon. 

On exhibition Le Dejeuner was on the receiving end of mixed reviews. Manet had his fans, sure, including the prolific writer Émile Zola, but for the most part it took a while for people to come around to the strange painting. Some critics found his loose Impressionist-style brushstrokes to be uncouth, others did not appreciate the flat background style and lurid colour palette that Manet liked to adopt, but more often than not people disliked the painting's veiled narrative, unsure what it was that Manet was trying to say, the painting made people uncomfortable, and in some circles became a bit of a joke. Only once Impressionism began to set the Paris scene on fire, did people begin to appreciate Le Dejeuner for the game-changer it was, sparking new ways of approaching visual narrative and once they did, they were hooked.

It's hard to deny that there is something provocative about the picture, even now, more than a thousand years later. The questions it raises as to what the hell is going on is what keeps the work fresh - questions like:

Are the men artists with their models, and if so where are there materials? Are they prostitutes with their clients, and if so why is the look in the figures' eyes of intellectual enquiry, not lust? Are they friends who just like to hang out in the buff? Is this the beginnings of an orgy? Are the woman in fact allegorical, not really present, just nude personifications of a feeling?  What does the woman's look mean? What does she know that we don't? Why is that picnic so shit? One piece of bread you gotta be kidding me! (Maybe that last one's just me) 

And lastly, the persistent: WHY IS SHE NAKED THOUGH? 

People have become OBSESSED by these questions and by Manet's idiosyncratic imagery over the years, rehashing and remixing it to their own ends, trying to find new meaning in such a mysterious piece of work. From Picasso, who was enthralled by Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, studying it for two decades in which he created 27 painted versions of the image, as well as a whopping 140 drawings and a bunch of sculptures, to personal favourite contemporary artist Mickalene Thomas, who remodelled the piece photographically with three black women adorned in African prints, to Annabelle Lwin fronted 1980s band Bow Wow Wow, Manet's picnickers continues to inspire. Even Kate Moss has had a go. So in celebration of the painting's universality, here are just SOME of the versions of Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe has prompted over the years, enjoy!