How I Nearly Cried at the D’Orsay Museum

Okay, so I am a manly man, as anyone I’ve shared glitter makeup with can attest to. But I’m in France, and yesterday at the D’Orsay Museum in Paris, I finally got to see some of the most amazing canvases I’ve always loved but never gotten to see.

Yeah, it got emotional.

The D’Orsay has one of the best collections of early modern art anywhere, including some good Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist works, some Pointillism, some big Monets and Renoirs and Pisarros, etc. And we were racking up the points, finally getting to see all the paintings we remembered from art history classes. We knew the importance of these canvases, but had never gotten to see most of them up close. I was going through the galleries, kind of fast, kind of with an air of “where’s the rest of the group, god, we have to be out of here by like 5:30 and we just got here because the damned Versailles excursion this morning took too fucking long.” And then I was on the fifth floor of the D’Orsay, plowing through canvases by Sisley and Degas like they were nothing…

And then suddenly I was there, and Luncheon on the Grass was just staring at me.

The critics of its day accused this painting of looking unfinished, almost like a set from a play. And when you see this thing live, that’s exactly the impression you get: those brush strokes at the edges, especially in the upper right and left corners and wherever anything is green, look done quickly, almost like a piece of scenery from a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the important thing is to suggest “greenery” with just a few colors of paint.

It’s like a set to highlight the scene in the center, where all the light in the painting focuses. And the way that light kind of glares out at you from the people in the center, especially the naked woman’s skin … well, it’s damned surreal, for lack of a better word. Eerie. Fierce. It’s not like I haven’t seen this a thousand times before, but looking at it live, especially when you see all the other people at the D’Orsay crowded around looking with you at this naked woman with her clothed dude friends, you really get how weird this must have seemed at the time it came out.

I know that if you’ve studied this stuff at all, you already know that it’s the context of the painting that made the nude woman so unacceptable to French society snobs and art critics when it came out. For starters, she’s not a historical figure. There are paintings in the D’Orsay from the same era that are just as nude (and in their own way, waaaaay weirder):

If this wasn’t mythology, it would make for a pretty disturbing police report, huh?

And I sort of get why something like the above is more wholesome than Manet’s painting, and not just because of the name or the theme–it has all these things that echo the iconography of art that we’ve decided is classic and timeless and sexually neutral.

Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass avoids all of that Rubenesque iconography, but there’s more to it than just the lack of appropriate subject matter that makes Manet’s work feel so different. There’s something so perversely cavalier about the men in the painting, just chillin’ with their weird outfits and headgear. And though it’s not as fierce as Manet’s Olympia, which made me giddy when I saw it a half hour later downstairs, this nude’s face (based on Manet’s wife’s face) is very arresting. Theoretically and literally, you are the viewer of this painting, even its “voyeur.” But really, and I can’t explain it, but it’s undeniable–the painting’s power goes precisely the opposite way. Luncheon on the Grass reaches out and grabs you by the scruff of the neck and says “holy fucking shit, this is weird and strong and wrong and bizarre, and you will take notice, even 150 years from now!”

I mean, is this where punk starts? Of all the potential origins, is this actually it? A piece of art that favors creepiness over beauty? A piece that proves that the artist is free to make his own choices, by sneering at you? A piece that eschews the bullshit falseness of his contemporaries and yet has no time for their depth of perspective or shadowing?

You know, Napoleon III was forced to look at Luncheon on the Grass when it came out. This was not something that happened in a little studio out in the boonies: it was first shown right next to the official Salon in an official annex, in a show called the “Salon of Rejects,” and Napoleon III commissioned the show. He and god knows how many other rich, spoiled, conventional art patrons were forced to think about it, whether it’s art, and whether they would actually buy it. “Wow, is this what I’m gonna spend my imperial money on? Some naked chick who’s not even Venus?”

As I walked through the hall to see the Monets and Renoirs and Pisarros, it didn’t hit me right at first. But then this gut check happened, and I found myself almost dry-sobbing. If someone had turned from looking at all the paintings and looked at me, they probably would have thought my dog just died. I felt so overwhelmed by what I had just seen that I had to stop what I was doing, turn back around, and return as quickly as possible to absorb that Manet a little more. It’s not a complex or pretty canvas, but if the museums in Paris didn’t close so damned early, I could have stood in its presence for hours.

-D. M. Collins 

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