Origins of Modern Art
Modern art attempts to challenge and pose questions to the viewer. It is confrontational by its nature. Emerging from the French Salon des Refusés, “exhibition for the rejects,” Édouard Manet’s The Luncheon on Grass caused an eruption in the French art scene. Manet’s daring drew in snarls, anger, criticism, and smirks; however, it also became the spark which inspired the flames of modern art. Thus, to understand modern art one must begin with this piece.
French art was initialized by the Royal Art Academy, and anyone who deferred from their standards was laughed at. This institution would divide artists upon entry into the academy based on talent. The categories starting from lowest to highest were still life, nature painting, portraits, everyday life, and historic painting. Once put into a category an artist was locked in forever no matter what and could not switch to any other. A specific style with specific techniques was demanded, and variations were punished. The final examination was one painting which would be judged and ultimately displayed at the Salon in Paris for the public. This Salon determined the trajectory for an artist and being rejected from the Salon was a killing blow to any career. However, one year an extraordinary amount of paintings were submitted; ultimately, resulting in many fine pieces being rejected. The rejected artist petitioned the king who decided to put on a Salon for the rejects. Some artist did not participate for fear of being labeled as the artist from the reject Salon, while other took the risk. However, no artist had the mentality of Édouard Manet.
The maverick Manet made a painting which was to be his thesis. A painting which challenged the art world, individuals, and society as a whole. First, he believed that the people will and should judge art not institutions. Thus, he defiantly submitted his work in the reject Salon. Furthermore, he purposefully ignored certain techniques and drastically challenged the academies style.
The painting showed two dressed men, a women undressed, and a women in the process of undressing, this may not have been as controversial; however, it was the way that the fully undressed women is painted which made it so challenging. She has no chiaroscuro, it is almost as if a spotlight is shining on her. She glares directly at the viewer, confrontational, unlike other naked women in art who appear to be submissive. There is nothing erotic about her, she is painted not to be the ideal women, but to be a completely normal women who confronts the viewer daring to look at her naked body. This was the reason why the painting was rejected.
However, the rest of the painting alludes to The Pastoral Concert, a famous work which was widely accepted and appreciated. The artist questions the audience who criticize the nudity by asking why is it reject with this work but accepted with another.
Ultimately, the women in the painting just like in The Pastoral Concert are ideas personified. In both paintings the two men are discussing two ideas. In The Luncheon on the Grass the man on the left seems to be asking the man on the right to chose between two ideas. The radical idea is represented by the naked women who confronts the audience and caused so much controversy, while the other idea is still risky but it is more shy and aims to be suggestive rather than go head on into the boulder. The artist had to make that choice between, and decided to take the radical idea and go headbutt the world. His actions sparking a firestorm which would cumulate into the modern world of art seen today. Art which demands to be judged by the public, while also challenging the world around it.