Yale’s not really calling it Manet Mania–but that’s exactly what’s happening this weekend in New Haven as artists and scholars gather to consider our enduring obsession with those two notorious paintings from 1863, Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.
The nudity no longer shocks us, nor the flat tonalities that offended French taste back in the day. So just what is it about these 150-year-old women–Olympia, the defiant prostitute attended by a black maid and a black cat, and her counterparts in Déjeuner, the nude and nearly nude women lunching in the grass with two dressed male dandies—that continues to confound and provoke?
“Gender, race. Questions about what exactly is modern and contemporary art. The relation of the present to art history and the past. These are all hot issues,” says Carol Armstrong, the art-history professor who instigated the 150th-birthday party for the paintings.
With Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale School of Art, Armstrong has assembled artistic and pop-culture riffs on Olympia and Déjeuner for “Lunch with Olympia,” a raucous romp through art history opening tomorrow night at the art school’s 32 Edgewood Avenue Gallery.
The next morning at 9 a.m., Armstrong will launch “The Olympiad,” a conference celebrating the paintings’ anniversary, with her opening address, “Ceci n’est pas une prostituée.” Hosted by the departments of French and art history, the two-day event unites curators, scholars, and artists to view Manet’s work through the lens of sex and gender, tradition and the avant-garde, and later generations of artists.
Manet’s 1863 masterworks are often cited as the opening salvos of Modernism. Despite this pedigree, they figure in a long line of copying, quotation, and appropriation that is distinctly postmodern. Sessions at the conference create a timeline that goes back to Titian and Giorgione and forward to Dubuffet, Twombly, Group Material, Robert Colescott, and Mickalene Thomas, among others.
Likewise, “Lunch with Olympia” offers versions by Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne, Villon, Alain Jacquet, Philip Pearlstein, photographers Sally Mann and Joel-Peter Witkin, video artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (who took Déjeneur to Thailand and documented villagers’ reactions), and T. Venkanna, who in his 2011 etching From Back, reproduces the scene from a vantage point behind the maid, her skirt raised high to underscore the exotic erotic message of the original.
Feminist-art icon Carolee Schneemann appears twice in the show: nude, in the pose of Olympia, in Site, a 1964 Robert Morris video, and clothed in Four Figures, Anthony McCall’s photographic retake of Déjeuner made in 1975.
The subplot of “The Olympiad” and “Lunch with Olympia” is the way the two paintings evolved in status from laughingstock to icon to politically incorrect.
By the ’70s, with the rise of feminism, Manet’s working girls endured a fall from grace: they had become poster girls for the Male Gaze, as objects of desire for men.
For artists, Olympia and Déjeuner didn’t lose their appeal. But the focus changed, from homage to critique. The problem of being Not Manet’s Type, as Carrie Mae Weems put it in her bittersweet 1997 piece on view here, was easily rectified–by restaging Manet’s mysterious narratives with variations in race, gender, and sexual preference. This meant multiple afterlives for the nudes, the dudes, the maid, and the cat.
These days it’s rare to see a version of Olympia or Déjeuner featuring its original cast. “Lunch with Olympia” has male Olympias (Manon Elder, Mario Sorrenti), black lunchers (Colescott, Mickalene Thomas), and a piece that hits all the buttons, by Lyle Ashton Harris.
It’s a copy of an Adidas ad featuring soccer star Zinedine Zidane, who reclines on a table in the company of a black masseur. Its sexual and racial dynamic reminded him of Olympia. So he turned it into an artwork and called it Ready-made. It became a recurring motif in his work.
Then there’s Cosmo‘s groundbreaking, gender-bending centerfold showing Burt Reynolds reclining on a bearskin rug. The success of the Francesco Scavullo photo proved that men’s bodies, presented as objects for sexual delectation, could sell magazines, too. The result was the founding of Playgirl, and the mainstreaming of the male nude: see Future Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s 1982 Cosmo spread, also in the show.
In the art-historical echo chamber that is “Lunch with Olympia,” a 2010 painting by Jenny Kuhla, Burt Reynolds Starring in Manet’s Olympia, unites the actor with the black maid from the original.
The next stop for the birthday party is “For Ed: Splendor in the Grass with Olympic Lad and Lass,”
an open call to alumni, faculty, and students for their takes on Manet’s famous paintings. Entrants have from October 5 to 7 to submit their work, which will be exhibited at the Green Hall Gallery in a show opening October 16.
“We’ll include as many as we can fit, cheek by jowl,” Storr says. “Or maybe it’s cheek to cheek.”
For more takes on Olympia and Déjeuner sur l’herbe in “Lunch with Olympia,” click through the slide show: