Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 6, 1999
Paul Hayes Tucker, ed. Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 192 pp. Paper $49.95 (0521479843)

For all the directness of its facture, and despite the candor of model Victorine Meurent’s knowing (yet somehow alienated) gaze, Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, a manifesto of modern painting, has always proved problematic when it comes to critical and historical interpretation. At the time of its succes de scandale at the Salon des refusés in 1863, one critic admitted that he searched “in vain for the meaning” of it. Since that time, various readings have been suggested, none of them definitive. Zola’s formalism in retrospect appears to have been at least partly an effort to defuse the scandal, yet seems to have acquired something of an afterlife in modernist debates in the l960s and l970s over Manet’s “sources” in past art and popular imagery. Meanwhile, during the l970s and l980s there were various attempts to decipher the iconography and to address the apparent gender polarities of the Déjeuner and to position the picture in the social and cultural context of Haussmann’s Paris and the embourgeoisement of its suburbs. By the 1990s, what had been seen in 1863 as Manet’s moral neutrality was now read as a textual elusiveness that could appeal to postmodern sensibilities and beliefs in the inevitable failure of attempts to find hermeneutic closure. Recent volumes on two of Manet’s most important paintings, including the one on the Déjeuner here under review, ascribe to this postmodern paradigm of multiple meanings and subject positions.

No particular “authorities” hover over the discourse in Paul Tucker’s edited anthology on the Déjeuner to the degree that T. J. Clark and Jacques Lacan do in the case of Bradford R. Collins’s volume on the Bar at the Folies-Bergère. (12 Views of Manet’s Bar. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.) Tucker’s book also contains half as many essays as Collins’s. Tucker’s introductory essay, while it does not particularly offer an overview of the historiographical issues alluded to above, does a good job in setting the stage for the essays that follow. Tucker’s take on the picture is basically modernist in that he frames it with related or derivative works by Picasso, Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Matisse. He also provides a brief introduction to the Salon and Salon des refusés that should prove useful to students (which makes sense in a series of textbooks of which this is a part). Tucker mentions in passing the self-reflexive nature of the picture on the one hand and its cultural allusions on the other, without exploring the tensions between them. He concludes with a nod toward the painting’s unfixed and problematic operation within “competing ideologies and identities” and its “pluralistic” resistance to simple explanation. (p. 27)

Anne McCauley’s typically thorough archival research makes her essay worth reading, and her analysis of the critics in 1863 pushes considerably beyond Alan Krell’s previous point that not all reviews were unfavorable. Without particularly referring to reception theory, she establishes the critical climate as “a negotiated affair of mutual favors” (p. 40). Drawing in depth on the critical literature in 1863, McCauley considers the question of sex and immorality in both the Salon des refusés and the Salon. Given the overwhelming preponderance of depictions of nude female flesh in these venues (especially the latter), she points out that Manet’s painting was not always considered the most immoral, especially from the perspective of the Catholic right. Despite acknowledging the critical puzzlement over its meaning in 1863, she ends by offering a relative (if dialectical) closure of her own: namely a choice between the idea that sexuality and concerns about morality were left at Manet’s studio door and the idea that Manet (rather along the lines of novels about artistic life by his literary contemporaries Zola and the Goncourts) actually found women physically repulsive. This conclusion, which doesn’t exactly follow from the author’s previous reading of the critical reception in 1863, seems to revert to issues of artistic intentionality. These are always problematic in the case of Manet, and especially here, given our uncertainty (which McCauley notes) as to whether his syphilis was congenital or not. (His father died of it; he himself seems not to have manifested signs of it until later in the l870s, but may have acquired it a decade or two earlier. (See Beth Archer Brombert, Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat.) Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996, p. 297.

Whether or not Manet associated women with contagion in 1863, or was in the process of becoming infected through his actualized desire for women at the time, we will probably never know. But we do have a clue about the specific female model for the Déjeuner that neither McCauley nor Carol Armstrong (in her article in the same volume) pursues: namely the possibility alluded to (probably derogatorily) by George Moore that Victorine Meurent may have been a lesbian. (See George Moore’s Memoirs of My Dead Life. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920, pp. 54-55; Eunice Lipton, Alias Olympia: A Woman’s Search for Manet’s Notorious Model and Her Own Desire. New York: Scribner’s, 1992, pp. 5, ff.) Of course, it is likely we will never know for sure about this either. But the effect of Meurent’s own subjectivity on the performative aspects of the interaction between artist and model in the studio and on the represented frisson (or lack thereof) of heterosexual desire would be worth noting.

If McCauley’s main contribution is her reading of the critics in l863, John House’s essay provides a nugget of social context. Although I’m not sure I’m convinced that he reclaims “the possibility of talking about the artist’s intention” (p. 75), he does recount a set of recent public debates into which Manet’s painting can be seen to have intervened in a provocative way. The debates in question had to do with (male) student morality in the Latin Quarter in 1860-61. Noting that several reviewers in 1863 referred to the clothed male figures in the Déjeuner as students and to the nude and partly dressed women as prostitutes, House sees Manet as flouting authority and gender roles in the form of (what Linda Nochlin has called) the blague, a carnivalesque parody that allowed for transgression of his audience’s philistinism. More than McCauley, House suggests in passing how this might have affected male and female viewers differently.

Whereas House and McCauley both position the Déjeuner in an historical (social/cultural) context, Carol Armstrong’s essay seeks to argue not so much for the autonomy of the painting (although she does see herself as reformulating Greenberg), as for its (Derridian) difference from the world around it. Rather than “an image of contemporary social mores and sexual practices” (p. 92), she positions the painting as “an illusionistic performance that takes place between painter, model, and history of art” and argues “that the studio, not the ‘real world,’ is the stage for that performance” (p. 102). In reading her argument, which is more allusive and complex than I have the space to relate, I continually found myself asking why not “both/and” or “all of the above” rather that “either/or?” Even so, the real contribution of the essay is its application of feminist theories of gender performance and psychoanalytic theories of identity formation to the project of establishing the studio as a “theater of unfixed identities” (p. 112). The author sees Meurent as performing supplemental identities as a kind of Cindy Sherman avant la lettre, and as Manet’s own stand-in, a figuration of his own feminine other.

Nancy Locke’s chapter is especially welcome, since there are so few psychoanalytic readings of Manet to assign students (or oneself), and doubly so because it applies that particular lens with lucid language. Drawing on Freud’s idea of the fictional freedom constructed through the “family romance,” Locke reads Manet’s painting as a “dream image” that “has a biographical component and at the same time enacts its own history of art” (p. 120). As far as the art-historical side of the equation is concerned, Locke argues that Manet was engaging in a kind of “parlor game” based on famous art from the past. But she shifts the “source” in question away from the usual suspects to Giogione’s Tempesta, whose famous lack of iconographic clarity “simultaneously encourages interpretation and thwarts traditional narrative readings” (p. 128). Why would Manet want to create a comparable illegibility in the Déjeuner? Because (to oversimplify Locke’s more nuanced argument) he had a family secret to hide. For Locke, the Déjeuner becomes a picture of The Family of Manet in the sense that its landscape alludes to the family property at Gennevilliers and its models include family members (present and future). The possibility that, as members of a partie carée (as the painting was called in Manet’s 1871 inventory), the figures might swap sexual partners is seen as a fictional allusion to the illegitimacy of Léon Leenhoff and to the allegation that Manet’s father (Auguste) fathered the boy with Suzanne Leenhoff, whom the artist himself married in October 1863, after the Déjeuner was already completed and exhibited. This speaks to the question of whether the pervasive narrative illegibility found in much of Manet’s oeuvre should likewise and inevitably be read as the result of an unconscious disguising of family secrets. Locke herself suggests that the notion of an unconscious “family romance” should not contradict the idea of Manet’s social commitment to a “painting of modern life.” Whether or not one is convinced by her brief explanation of “family romance” elements in other related paintings by Manet, Locke’s reading of the Déjeuner is salutory in that it restores the subjective imaginary of the picture without reverting to conventional explanations of intentionality.

Marcia Pointon’s chapter ends the volume with a flourish of postmodern visual culture in which the Déjeuner and its meanings are seen as mediated by recent appropriations of it in billboards, album covers, postcards, newspaper cartoons, and visual rewritings of art history by feminists. Pointon’s reading of the images from popular culture indicates that “the chief point of intervention for the parodist is . . . the masculinization of the represented body of Victorine Meurent” (p. 161), a ball that, according to Armstrong’s essay, Manet started rolling in 1863. Reading through recent images back to the Déjeuner itself, Pointon shows how the painting ironically parodies art history in order to produce “a dialectic in which gender is deeply unsettled and in which the binaries . . . disintegrate, leaving a semantic void” (p. 157). Because the masculine figure on the right addresses his female companion with a rhetorical (not amatory) gesture that implies an act of speech whose appropriate recipient would have been male, Manet’s painting is seen to offer “a narrative about enunciation but a narrative that is structured in such a way as to refuse closure” (p. 163). What the Déjeuner is doing, then, is raising questions about how paintings mean, about the very conditions of discursivity.

Having attended the session at the College Art Association conference that gave birth to the idea of this volume a few years ago, and having recently employed it in teaching a class on Manet, I have a few concluding observations. One misses in the book the contributions by Linda Nochlin and Michael Fried to the original CAA session, but welcomes the new ones by Locke and Pointon, which open up the volume methodologically and theoretically. For historiographical, methodological, and pedagogical purposes, one might wish that some of the older essays on the Déjeuner (including those by Wayne Andersen, George Mauner, Mary G. Wilson, Alan Krell, Judith Wechsler, and Robert Herbert) might have been included. It would likewise have helped to include a color plate, as well as some enlarged details of areas of such iconographic interest as the frog in the left corner and bird at the top center. One could also wish the volume had explored other potential connections to literature. For example, in 1862, Victor Hugo, in a moment of pre-Lacanian metaphor, wrote that “What we lack attracts us. . . . The toad is always looking up to the sky. Why? To see the bird fly.” (Les Misérables. Trans. L. Fahnestock and N. MacAfee. New York: Penguin, 1987, p. 658.) But it was obviously not necessary for Manet to have read Hugo in order to make the frog and bird a part of the Déjeuner’s inscrutable iconography of desire. And textual allusions, of course, do not offer closure either: in the end they merely open up further possibilities of meaning.

In that sense, Manet’s Déjeuner, as the volume under review attests, has found an appropriate audience in a postmodern world. But where does this leave us ideologically? Roland Barthes once referred in an interview to the idea of a withholding of meaning, of a semiosis without closure, as an alternative to political opposition. His comments seem pertinent to both Manet’s painting and its current reception: “I don’t believe that a literature of the left is possible. A problematic literature, yes, that is a literature of suspended meaning: an art which provokes answers but which doesn’t give them.”

Marilyn R. Brown
Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Colorado at Boulder