This summer the Bonnard Museum in Le Cannet - French Riviera, is showing female nudes that exhibit curator Véronique Serrano sees as the story of Eve painted by artist “succumbing to this representation of a guilty or ideal nudity.” And inexplicably, she believes Eve to be “the standard for the feminine nude and its representation in the 20th century.”
How can she believe that?
Didn’t Edouard Manet change all that and define the moment when traditional art turned modern and the passive woman quit the pose in his "Luncheon on the Grass"?
The painting, showing a nude female picnicking with two clothed men under the oaks and chestnut trees of Paris' Bois de Boulogne, may seem no different than all the Old Master that intermixed clothed males with nude females, but the difference was huge enough to shock high Parisian society. Even Emperor Napoleon III, who was hardly a paragon of decency, called the image "indecent."
It’s easy to see why if you compare it to the same theme painted four centuries earlier, when Giorgione depicted two clothed males and a pair of nude women in his "Concert Champetre." (Some say the work was painted by Titian). Either way, the work shows the women waiting on the men, who are talking only to each other.
Why doesn’t curator Serrano see that Manet ended the male painter’s fantasy of female passivity that played out so constantly in art history by painting the nude female actively engaged in conversation with men, in public, no less, and without a smidgen of guilt?
“Luncheon on the Grass” went still further by showing the woman boldly staring back at viewers, as if we are intruding. "Yes?" she seems to ask us over her shoulder, her face direct and challenging and lacking the usual demure reticence of naked females in art.
What’s more, Manet's female model was neither allegorical nor mythological. She was a well-known model of her time and a painter in her own right - Victorine Meurend, who ran off to America with her lover after Manet finished the painting. Talk about volition.
One may also wonder why curator Serrano believes that Eve is “the standard for the feminine nude and its representation in the 20th century” in the face of Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. Where in the image does she see a “representation of a guilty or ideal nudity” in the ferocity of these women?
And whatever else you may think about Salvador Dali’s “Young Virgin Autosodomized by her own Chastity," full of flying penis heads shooting - missile-like- at a nude female’s buttocks, her nudity seems far from a 20th century guilt-ridden or idyllic Eve, don’t you think?