Penny Post is delighted to welcome back The Artist’s Studio, an occasional series of articles in which our resident art expert – Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist, Curator-at-Large of the Royal Kohnmann Gallery in Stoke Poges – is invited to consider a well-known painting.
Few will have forgotten Sir Courtney’s iconoclastic 1999 BBC7 series, Titan and Rubens: What a Pair of Bloody Idiots, nor the media storm caused a few years later when he attempted to prove and publicise a long-held theory that the The Entombment of Christ was painted not by Caravaggio but by Andy Warhol.
The recent contributions of Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist – once described by the Daily Mail as ‘the rudest man on television’ – to Penny Post have been a vigorous reassessment of The Adoration of the Magi which many, but not Sir Courtney, claim to be by Andreas Mantegna; and a trenchant re-evaluation of The Syndics which many, but not Sir Courtney, claim to be by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
In this piece, Sir Courtney offers a robust reappraisal of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet.
Before I start, I’d just like to say well-bloody-done to Sebastian Bryson-Bragg for having wormed his little observations into this website. I introduced him to that awful man from Penny Post at the Masonic dinner because they were both boring me into a coma. Next thing I know, Seb’s popped up with his little diatribe on some grammatical issue that only he and about three other people care about. Well done. Fast work. Before the visual arts get completely drowned in this sea of verb moods and ablative absolutes, I thought I’d better wake you all up with a rare piece of old rubbish from late 19th-century France. Most of you probably have a print of this picture, with an IKEA frame, in your downstairs toilet. Best place for it. It’s also inspired a host of imitations and parodies. God knows why.
There’s been more rubbish written about this painting than almost any other. Actually, most of what’s written about paintings is utter tripe, particularly if they were painted by those old frauds Titian or Rubens. What a pair of arses they were.
Anyway, let’s dispose of a few myths. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet, or so the so-called experts say. Wrong, wrong and (in terms of the number of people in the painting) 50% wrong.
First of all, it’s not much of a lunch, is it? Does a loaf of bread and a few plums constitute lunch, by French standards? Exactly. Where’s the wine, the veal, the rich sauces? Where’s the cheese? Where’s the tiny bowl of lettuce leaves drenched in olive oil masquerading as a green salad? What we’re looking at is the results of a rather meager shopping trip which are, for reasons I shall shortly explain, now lying in the mud. The men were carrying some clothes and they’re in the mud as well.
Secondly, they’re not sitting on the grass. Oh yes, I know it’s green but it takes a bit more than that. Have you ever seen grass the colour of the green stuff behind the man’s hand? As for the foreground, to his left there’s a puddle. No, what we’re looking at here is a path.
So what we’ve got is two blokes (I’ll come back to the women later) who’d been sent out shopping for food and to pick up a dress. They take a short cut through the woods when (for reasons I shall also explain) they drop all the stuff on the ground and decide to sit down in the middle of the path.
Viewed in this light, the picture is shorn of some of its so-called ‘romantic’ properties. None the less, some points of interest remain. If I can stay awake long enough, I’ll tell you what they are.
Firstly, what made them stop? As they were presumably French one can only surmise that they were arguing, and probably about about politics. You can imagine the scene: all the way from town – and probably fuelled by a couple of Pernods in the bar next to the dressmakers – the pointless dispute had been building. Finally, the man on the right could take it no more. With a typically Gallic gesture of contempt, he flings down the shopping and, oblivious to his surroundings, throws himself on the ground, adopting an equally dramatic pose so as to thrash the matter out.
How do I know it was the man on the right? Because he’s animated. He’s the hothead, the chatterbox, the competitive blabber-mouth who can’t stand losing an argument. His friend with the less dramatic beard, on the other hand, is bored shitless. He’s sat down out of politeness but isn’t at all interested. He’s heard it all before. He’s probably worrying about how he’s going to explain to his wife why they’re late and drunk and why the dress is muddy. He’s also just realised he forgot to buy the garlic she asked for. ‘Last time I go shopping with Jules’ is what he’s thinking. Indeed, that would be a better title for the painting.
Now we turn to the women. You may wonder why, there being a nude woman centre stage, I haven’t so far mentioned her. She seems like the star of the show, doesn’t she, symbolising god-knows-what (according to the bloody ‘experts’)?
The reason I haven’t mentioned her, or the other one, is because they weren’t pained by Manet at all. They were obviously added later, the one in the background so clumsily and so out of proportion that it could almost have been done with a rub-on transfer. Their colour is all wrong as well. I mean, no one is that pale, not even in 19th-century France. You can even see on the man’s coat, just above the naked woman’s right shin, where the second artist had to patch in a bit of brown for his suit and didn’t get it quite right.
The woman in the background is even worse. The whole concept stinks. First off, if you saw water that colour, would you want to go for a paddle? It looks more like she’s trying to pull a kitten out of a cesspool. Plus, she’s far too big. The ‘experts’ say that this is a cunning device to make her appear to be floating over the other characters; looming, as it were, over the composition and yet oblivious to it. Bollocks. She’s the wrong size, end of.
Manet’s bits weren’t that good, either. The shadows of the trees on the left are going both ways. When he got to the background, behind the pond, he seems to have given up altogether.
All in all, it’s a shoddy piece of work. The additions were doubtless done because the postcards of the original weren’t selling. ‘Two blokes arguing in a wood, Edouard,’ Manet’s publisher might have said said. ‘I can’t sell that. Why don’t you add a couple of naked women? Brighten it up a bit, know what I mean?’ Manet, being An Artist and so not minded to fall in with such vulgar requests, refused. So the publisher took matters into his own hands and got some apprentice to add the ladies, with the result that we now all know and all so wrongly admire.
Finally, the whole co-incidence is pretty unlikely. You’ve got these two Frenchies, drunkenly arguing on their way back from town, one of whom decides to stop and finish the debate there and then in the middle of a wood. Why would they choose to do so at just the point where there was a naked woman sitting on the path and, a few yards away, another one fumbling around in three feet of raw sewage? Hardly the ideal circumstances in which to reach a definite conclusion about Voltaire’s depiction of a just cause or the political legacy of the Second Empire, is it?
You’d also imagine that such an unusual situation would result in a few questions, or at least some passing interest. It’s not the kind of thing you see every day, even in France, but neither of the men are so much as looking at the women. How likely is that? ‘What the hell is going on here?’ would be one good question. That, too, would make a better title for the painting.
In fact, almost anything would make a better title than the one by which it’s known. Take your pick from my suggestions. Or make up another one. I don’t care. What does it matter, anyway?
Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist
The Royal Kohnmann Gallery
PS. Since publishing this post, I have been sent a something (below) from the Surbiton Flagpackers Institute (I think I’ve got the name right but I really don’t have time to read all the way to the bottom of emails) with the caption ‘what happened shortly afterwards.’ Aside from the anachronism of the uniforms and equipment I don’t see that this contradicts my interpretation. Anything could have happened afterwards: this might well have done for all I know. It certainly shows how easy it is to superimpose additional figures on a painting. My advice to the man with the beret is that he should be bloody careful if he’s trying to stroke that police dog. As for the other man, his expression, previously one of boredom, is now full of brooding unease.