A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.
Here are two contrasting paintings: by Bouguereau and by Édouard Manet.
(Click to enlarge.)
Nymphs and Satyr (1873) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Dejeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) by Édouard Manet
We think of Victorians as super-prudes. And yet paintings like Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr were not considered pornographic then — they were the essence of refined taste.
Fortunately, I can leave it to feminist historians to analyze this apparent incongruity: I’m only concerned with art — or lack thereof.
Although Bouguereau’s painting was not considered indecent, Manet’s painting very definitely did cause a scandal.
I would diagnose the problem as arising from the fact that Dejeuner sur L’Herbe mixes its sex with poetry to blindside its viewers.
What is poetic about Dejeuner sur L’Herbe?
I think it fits the criteria in my definition pretty closely.
Manet’s painting is composed of multiple, overlapping images that you can’t absorb simultaneously: you have to put them together afterwards so that you see it through your eyes, but also with your mind. And the fact that it does this about a subject as touchy as sex calls attention to the painting itself and makes you wonder about the painter.
One incongruity is that Manet has destroyed the painting’s perspective. This is most obvious in looking at the background woman. The cues in the landscape suggest she’s perhaps 20 or 25 feet away — but if she is, then her apparent size is much too large. As I look more carefully, I have the feeling that Manet has handed me a group of independent portraits and told me to assemble my own painting.
This hit-and-miss perspective is echoed by the unendurably flat lighting that makes the foreground woman’s nude limbs almost two dimensionally thin — painted on cardboard. No modeling to give them that al dente bounce, that liveliness. Can Manet have done this deliberately — or did he cut too many classes in art school?
The most obvious incongruity is that the foreground woman is unclothed and the men are clothed. Her nudity is accentuated by the calm way she gazes directly at us — not ashamed, not seducing, not doing any of the things that we feel her nudity calls upon her to do. The contrast is accentuated on the men’s side by the fact that their clothes are elegant — dandyish. It’s even more accentuated by the fact that they seem to be ignoring her and conversing calmly, taking her nudity as a matter of course.
In effect, Manet increases the sexual tension by exaggerating the oppositions. And then he increases it even more by playing deadpan — making us want to burst out and demand to know what’s going on.
Another, related incongruity is that Manet doesn’t depict his scene — as Bouguereau does — as happening in some dreamy far-off mythological realm where clothing might actually be optional. Manet shows it as happening right now in contemporary au courant Paris, right around the corner where I might happen upon it as I stroll through the Bois de Boulogne.
Bouguereau’s painting is an attempt at perfect illusionism — I see the mythical scene with perfect clarity and I have no slightest need to linger at the painting’s surface and wonder who’s showing me what and why.
Pretty as Bouguereau’s painting is — and titillating as soft-core porn — it’s as poetic as life insurance. It’s a sales vehicle: not poetry at all.
In contrast to the way that Bouguereau’s attentive service fulfills my expectations, Manet trips me up at every step. I have to fight to keep my balance and understand. I have to earn my entrance into its world — to win it. I’m a participant. My act of seeing it is a joint creation: partly Manet’s and partly my own.
It has poetry.
The discussion of Manet’s Dejeuner sur L’Herbe will be continued toward the ends of both the next two posts: in The Battle of the Statues in Wyman Park and in Emily Dickinson — I could not stop for death.
Some other artworks that are relevant:
In the following, note the arrangement of the group of figures in the lower right corner and their resemblance to the central group in the Manet. Did Manet copy? Or, I think more likely, did he use a well-known Raphael as a foil to increase the layers of irony in his work?
The Judgement of Paris (1510-1511) Engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael
Courbet has a painting that mixes a nude female with a group of males. But the iconography is different: by making it a painting class he provides an explanation for her nudity, whereas Manet’s nude is interesting because it’s inexplicable. Courbet also provides a duenna to reassure us that there’s nothing funny going on — precisely the point on which Manet leaves us unsettled.
The Painter’s Studio (1855) by Gustave Courbet
Finally, the following great work rivals Manet’s for beauty and poetry, even if it’s not as deliberately shocking.
Fiesta campestre (Fete Champetre) (1508) by Giorgione or Titian
I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”
This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:
- A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
- A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
- A poem conveys emotion.
Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts.