“I’ve been taken out of context!” It’s a desperate excuse we often hear when someone has been caught doing or saying something shocking at the wrong time or place. By “context”, we generally mean the entire circumstances surrounding an occurrence. For instance, if we utter some colourful profanities after hitting our thumb with a hammer, we might be forgiven by apologetic reference to the unexpected and sharply painful circumstances or context.
The idea of “context” has had an important influence in European art, especially with the representation of the female nude. From medieval times, despite the enforced modesty in female attire and behaviour, art was granted a substantial degree of freedom to present the naked female form – but strictly within an accepted context or contexts.
Those contexts included the painting of scenes from the Bible or classical antiquity – especially from the mythologies of Greece and Rome, where many of the characters seemed to be in a state of perpetual undress. The boundaries of this “contextual acceptability” were pushed by artists who painted provocative scenes of unclothed women in harems. But an understood element of the context was that these were “other people” from different times and places who were being depicted: not us and not now…
But then in 1863, a new painting exploded like an artistic bombshell over Paris. Despite its disarming title “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” (literally “Lunch on the Grass”) this painting by the 31-year-old Edouard Manet outraged respectable Parisian society and deeply offended its moral sensibilities. It prompted even the French Emperor, Napoleon III, to enter the fray, denouncing the painting as “an affront to modesty.”
The problem was one of … context. This painting was not of exotic, distant or depraved “other” people: it was a shameless picture of a young, naked French woman – one of us, right now – fixing the viewer with a steady, unconcerned gaze, while in the company of two fully clothed males. Her clothes have been casually discarded in the left foreground, among a scattering of fruits, bread and an empty bottle. These are people who are clearly relaxed and enjoying each other’s company in a picnic – a naked one, at least for the luminously painted woman, whose natural skin tones rise from the dark background of the canvas, asserting herself as overwhelmingly the focal point of the picture.
Despite the technical brilliance of its artistry, the scandalous decadence of the painting saw it rejected for showing by the premier venue for French art, the Paris Salon – with its paintings selected by the notoriously conservative judges from the stiffly respectable French Academy. Upset by this snub, Manet exhibited his painting in a quickly-arranged and unorthodox counter-exhibition called the Salon des Refuses. But even in this more liberal venue, “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” caused such a riotous uproar among the crowds (and among some fellow artists) that the entire exhibition was shut down.
But Manet had made his point and entirely without apology. As a creative artist, he insisted on being free to paint whatever subject he chose, in whatever way he chose – regardless of the conventional acceptability of the context. His audacious challenge to the fixed and narrow classical “correctness” of the French Academy would liberate artists in the coming decades to be ever more daring and experimental in their paintings.
“Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” can be viewed at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…