The father of Modern Art, Édouard Manet brought forward new ideas of human existence in his art style of Impressionism and expressive brushstrokes. In his work, he invites his viewers closer to the subject matter by making the spectator relate to it. In his art, we can enjoy a sense of human relatedness and admire with nostalgia what once was known as real, mythological narratives. In his celebration of the ever-changing-conditions of life Manet brings a down-to-earth tone. This scene looks as if the artist has enabled divinity to descend upon earth.
Manet in The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe) brings this ideal of the descended mystery of goodness into the mundane, the banal, and the earthly pleasures. In the foreground, Manet arranges a new version of a popular subject matter, Still Life, an array of food delicatessen on the floor, and a basket with its generous ripe fruits ready to be taken away for delight. Oh, let us not forget the blue dress of the woman embracing the basket. This woman is Victorine Meurent. “Meurent was a professional artist’s model and painter in her own right, exhibiting work at the Paris Salon in 1876 and after” (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
The basket in the painting looks like an invitation to grasp those fruits once reserved for the aristocracy. The high-foods were left to the privileged ones while the peasants and the servants could only eat those vegetables and fruits coming out from the soil. The aristocracy reminded us that there was an established order by a God who allows “the best noble” to rule the world. This message of power signaled that one must had to bend down to their knees and dare not to reach the skies for the aromatic and juicy pleasures of the angels, but instead to reach out only to an arm’s length.
No longer a privilege for the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie, Manet brings those noble foods to the ground. In his artwork, the sugary gifts could reference the wave of the French revolutions, a series of events aiming at a libertarian et egalitarian society. Soon anyone could aim at enjoying these sweet delights. In the painting, the basket, a hand-made object, is a symbol of fertility and feminism. This basket indirectly echoes the woman’s limb, who is gazing straight at you to affirm her presence with confidence.
The woman’s gaze can be felt intimately due to the contrast of the two fully clothed men, and who seemed to be enjoying themselves without the least pre-occupation of this mysterious femme. It looks as if she is in her right to participate and extend her presence for the purpose of Manet’s creation. The two men look engaged and deeply listening to one another. The man next to the Meurent, resembles Manet when he was younger, and the man across from him could be any other man in his artistic circle, this includes the French novelist and art critic, Émile Zola, who claimed that Manet rejected all the knowledge and experience of the past generation. Zola stated that Manet wanted to start a new beginning.
The Luncheon on the Grass was exhibited in 1863 at the Salon of Paris, where the most important artists presented the city’s Academie des Beaux-Arts. The work of luminaries as Paul Cezanne, Camille Pisarro, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and Éduard Manet got rejected. Critics and the general public criticized Luncheon on the Grass as an incomplete and grotesque work of art.
Manet’s subject matter was fragmented to one woman who was judged as a Prostitute. For the viewer, her individuality juxtaposed with the realism of the contemporary men, and the natural flesh made it all too uncomfortable for those with a penetrating gaze. In the composition the model is not at the center; however, according to art history in the exhibition, the viewers made her the central point of discussion and bad news.
In the most prevalent classical art, artists had always celebrated the natural body in composition with clothed models. What made this particular piece so different from those of Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Boticelli?
Manet’s idea of the earthly goddess was here to stay, no longer on a pedestal to fantasize or dream of her as a divine creature. The goddess had landed on earthly soil for anyone to touch and to feel her. The feminine was no longer a mystery for some male artists who used it as a subject of anatomical study. Manet’s woman was an individual who aimed at gender equity. Also, he presents an opportunity to experience her, to see her, and get to know her essence. The modern woman was becoming more present in society and no longer hiding in the household or limited feminine roles, yet their struggle for equality was real.
The problem was that the painting generated a feeling of decadence, repulsion, and rejection. People at the exhibition couldn’t dare to witness the artwork and its relation to their bodily sensations. People immediately judged the woman as a prostitute and became a painting not deserving discussion, dialogue, and understanding. The painting evoked emotional turmoil. The opinion of many was to abandoned any reasoning with subjects that did not equal their moralistic views.
What was the viewer’s rejection? Was it too sensual, then sensuality and sexuality became conditioned to the norms of society and religion. What made this painting so repulsive that people had to abandon any interaction with it? Could it be that people felt their blood rushing in their whole body and making their cheeks plum? Did the exhilarating feeling of pressure and push forward to the unknown was too intense to allow it to be felt in the public sphere?
Is it the blood expressing itself through this bodily felt experience? Instead, some in the audience repressed their emotions, punished them, and tried to control their locus. One’s intuitive and instinctive-Self meant that one had to return to one’s essence, nature. The energy that pushes humanity forward, creation. The energetic flow is implicit in our existence. This domesticated nature appears as if it was confined by societal norms and reduced to a single view, logos (he). The mind can control the body. Eros was meant to be in closed doors and confined for her wild nature. Eros (she) is too much to contemplate all her emotions and passions are too time-consuming (they are not profitable). She needs time, but she brings meaning. One must need to surrender and kneel to Eros to appreciate her chaotic beauty.
Meanwhile, the Enlightenment period had left many forward thinkers honoring the mind over the body. This movement celebrated reason and inspired modern nations to develop complex systems in politics, economics, science, and the arts, all reduced into single views and none coexisting with each other. Over time global systems became more complex, and one’s abandonment of the body became more distant in life. Even in Art, it was hard to analyze and bring forth meaning out of the body as the medium to embrace spiritual growth. Rationality has given everyone the power to continue justifying this ideal of domination over land, a common practice already embedded in all societies, an idea that translated to the execution of body colonization (e.g., assimilation, rape, mutilation, etc.).
However, in closed doors and in the name of love, the story was morbid. Our feelings and emotions in the name of “love” suddenly became intermixed to a conflicting zone of overstimulated repression (e.g., anger, frustration, etc.). Did our existence suddenly turned into a wargame of psychological suppression?
The audience at the Salon of Paris in 1863 was too far from touching the matter of truth. In the same painting and in the background, a bather is enjoying herself at the river. Not only is her presence a symbolic gesture of renewal (water), but she reminds us of the essential values of humanism. Here, the woman possesses a mythological aura by her dreamy and flowing dress covering her whole body. In this modern painting, the feminine at the top with her white gown becomes an all-encompassing force between matter and goddess. Perhaps, these women are pointing to the allegory of Cupid and Psyche. The story of the struggle of the human soul to reach eternal bliss. The two women are important in this composition both suggest the situation of women in society and the idealization and the fantasy that kept women in (spiritual)exile.
Manet hints at something positive, the young man sitting next to the woman has an intuitive-thinking gaze. He looks as if he is embracing the inspiration of time and eternity. The body makes one feel our existence and the fertile imagination is a provider of meaning — what is absent in our lives? He is her ally.
If this painting represents modernity, a period that has given us the experience of pleasure, seduction, possibility, and abundance. Why is it then that humanity’s soul still struggles to comprehend our sexuality in nature? Manet’s painting ended up at “Salon des Refusés,” for outcast artists, a place that later became vital to the development of modern art. This place gave artists a second chance for appreciation, discussion, and acknowledgment. The times later played in their favor.
Currently, The Luncheon on the Grass deserves revisiting and to give it a second look in relation to our societal concerns. We are experiencing a normal crisis zone, where no modern system will create spiritual and conscious advancement to our society. It feels as if we are coming to the end of an era. Where leaders have abandoned dialogue, fake news is at the disposal of some monological views feeding one’s negative ego. People have abandoned inquiry for popularity contests in social media. We are walking a pathless journey exhilarating at times, yet condemned to our senses because we have forgotten how to reach our body’s wisdom. Our survival will not depend on our political leaders who continue to play games of power (e.g., civil wars, insurrections, nuclear threats, etc.). The Pandemic has declared a warzone to our individualistic views. How far are we from reaching the shore? that will depend on how quickly we step out of our comfort zone and choose a new path.
Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass is an inspiration to reflect on the grace of divinity that is both temporal and eternal, cosmic and earthly, of the flesh and of the spirit. An ascending divinity that needs reconciliation with the descended divinity, a God that coexists with matter; and where the matter will only heal if it liberates itSelf from the agony of condemning the body, mind-body, and spirit. The soul needs acknowledgment through deep listening and seeing with an inner-locus. And, yes, as humans in this process of witnessing oneSelf we need each other. We need to see ourselves through the other not with repulsion, but with empathy.
The body has always been the door to sin for some religious dogmas. Religion as a system of morale, power, and knowledge should play fairly in this game of coexistence, heaven on earth. Modern belief systems are going to start to crumble if they do not act fairly in this war of racial and gender inequality. In two-thousand years, the Church has walked with a crippled and half-body; and has never related to its feminine essence. The feminine is not a myth, she is here to stay; and she will continue to look straight at you with a simple mission for you to recognize her as your equal.
History tells us that women coming closer to their divinity on earth had been called prostitutes, indecent, vulgar, immoral, witches, etc. (e.g., Mary Magdalene). However, just like Manet’s painting at the Salon de Refuseé, institutions will soon be put on a second plane, because their modern humanistic views will soon be passé. The remaining materials of gold, coal, and iron that once stood as symbols of progress will be treated harshly by the gaze of the all liberated feminine energy. Both men and women seeking a more balanced society will free humanity in the name of justice, commonality, and shared experiences.
Let your bodies feel your experience with a conscious mind and a compassionate heart. May your eyes see your truth embedded in each cell of your body. Listen to the rushing blood that warms your bodies and makes you feel alive. Be in the present moment with responsibility, integrity, and honesty to yourself and others. Be in love, in agape, a compassionate love that reconciles the known and the unknown. Learn, inquire, and embrace your bodily wisdom. Let the soul speak to you through your dreams, and take mindful actions so you can bring forward the spirit of creation toward a new beginning.
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Karla Duarte, MA Expressive Arts Therapy