It had been awhile since I’d gone to Musée d’Orsay, so it was a bit of a shock to me when, after taking the escalator up to the Impressionist wing and taking the obligatory photo of Sacre Coeur via the clockworks like so…
(ok, you can’t see Sacre Coeur very well but it’s there, pinky swear)
Anyway, as I was longwindedly saying, after taking that photo, it was a bit of a shock to me when I turned around, headed into the Impressionist wing and was confronted with this:
This painting is massive. If you manage to miss it while in the Impressionist wing, you should really consult a doctor for that.
This painting has always been an enigma for me. I’ve wondered countless times why in the world a naked girl is calmly hanging out with two dudes dressed so soberly (they’re covered up right to the neck). As well, given the positioning of their bodies (ie, the way the fellow on the right has his legs splayed) the familiarity of the protagonists is obvious.
But why is she naked?
If one were to displace all the heads and put them on bodies in a pub and the viewer had just wandered in out of the rain, all of the body language would make sense: the girl turning to the door the viewer had just come in with a half smile on her face because her attention is on a conversation she’s enjoying, the fellow behind her staring off into space a bit as he focuses on how he wants to respond to the fellow he’s speaking with.
However, we aren’t in a pub. We’re in a park and our heroine is naked. When this painting was finished in 1863, controversy regarding the subject matter hit almost immediately and when Manet submitted Dejeuner sur l’herbe as his entry into that year’s Salon (official Académie des Beaux Arts juried art exhibition authority in Paris from 1725-1890) it was refused! (however, it’s unclear as to whether the subject matter or the way the painting was executed is the reason for its refusal from the official art circle (brushstrokes are visible and the background is summarily treated when compared to the norms of the day.))
Speculation of course, is that our heroine is a prostitute (as is the bather behind the trio in the foreground) and that our young dandies are chatting with her in the Bois de Boulogne (which is still famously known as hooker central in the Paris area). Yes, that’s totally logical right? A busy working girl is going to chill out near a basket of fruit and her clothes in the company of her johns on a beautiful day.
Hmm. Did you notice her hat with the big blue bow on it? Does that look like a hooker hat to you?
Personally, I’m not buying it. For one thing, “prostitute and dandies in the park” is far to shallow an estimation of a work that was so different from everything being produced at that time. I’m also not buying it because of the hat that one of the dandies is wearing. With that tassle… and the fellow’s beard… doesn’t… doesn’t that give one a whiff of the Orient… of the Middle East? Can you not sense the insence burning?
Wait a minute… wasn’t the original title of this painting “The Bath”? And where did [communal] baths take place? That’s right: the Middle East. It’s an integral part of the Muslamic culture… or more accurately, baths are important in terms of the portrayal of said culture.
Let us not forget that Orientalism in this part of the 19th century was absolutely rife. Respected painters were encouraged to portray “Orientals” as being lax, lazy and wanton; all the better for the colonialisation of said peoples to be accepted at home. This propoganda (especially when considering the grandiose nature of the medium! Immense paintings! Oils! Varnishes!) worked two ways: it justified actions made by the civilised “Occident” (Western culture) on heathens and it portrayed said heathens as needing to be saved from themselves. If it was painted in oils by a respected artist, well then it’s obviously true!
So is this what Manet is commenting on? The hypocrisy? The idea that the Occident is chasing down “heathens” and civilising them, culling out their supposedly licentious behaviour when at home, regular folks are just as likely to act the same way?
I’d like to think so because otherwise that naked girl totally creeps me out.
What do you think?