Engaging with Olympia sur l’herbe

Modern interpretations on historic works.
Modern interpretations on historic works. // Alexandra Schmeling

If you squint your eyes at most of the pieces in the exhibit “Lunch with Olympia,” you will be able to discern one of two compositions. In half of the works, you can see a reclining figure watched over by a looming presence. In the other, you’ll detect three bodies in the foreground with the suggestion of another emerging from behind. The exhibition, which honors the 150th anniversary of Édouard Manet’s paintings “Olympia” and “Déjeuner sur l’herbe,” is remarkable in its presentation of the conversation that has been occurring since the paintings first hailed the advent of modernism.

For those who are not familiar with the pieces, “Olympia” presents a naked, adorned, recumbent prostitute who is being attended by a black servant. “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” features a naked woman sitting in the grass and eating lunch with two fully clothed men in front of a semi-clothed nymph-like creature behind. As a modern viewer, I at first struggled to understand why these two pieces that are no longer shocking to our modern sensibilities could have made such a monumental impact on the art world. But I thought back to a memorable conversation I had with my SAT tutor in front of the piece in the Musée d’Orsay when I was saw it for the first time at 14. “Leah,” he said, “what if that was you naked and me sitting the grass?” OK, Manet’s “Déjeuner” was truly shocking, and he was a visionary when he completed the two paintings. Though they were originally regarded with scandal, and even disdain, the watershed works sparked a conversation that is ongoing.

The exhibition, organized by curators art history professor Carol Armstrong and Dean of Yale School of Art Robert Storr, successfully chronicles this revolutionary discourse. In the beautiful space of 32 Edgewood, there are about 30 pieces that allow the viewer a glimpse into the artistic achievements that have resulted. The art that has been produced out of this conversation is extremely varied, and it is fascinating to see connections and interpretations in such a clear way.

Closest to the entrance, the viewer comes face to face with Manet’s own sketches of “Olympia.” These are real Manet sketches, which were especially powerful for a gallery space that can sometimes be overlooked. The piece stood in place for the original, acting as a base or foundation for the multiplicity of works that followed. The following works start to experiment with subversions of the original. Most typically, gender, race and perspective are subverted. For example Manon Elder’s “Olympio” depicts a similar rendering of the standard with an effeminate male in the place of the prostitute. While a modern audience finds very little discomfort with the naked female form, artists who depict the naked male body do so in a way that reinstills the shock value that the first view of “Olympia” felt.

Another work displayed, Mickalene Thomas’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires,” scandalously plays with the now-archetypal form of the the original “Déjeuner.” Three black women sit together among flowers wearing heavy makeup and overdone hair. The artificiality of the background is a clear departure from the natural location of Manet’s version. The women’s expressions are foreboding to anyone who would dare challenge their right to comment in this discussion. This piece is one of many that successfully continue to push the viewer to consider more modern interpretations of Manet’s works.

Overall, I found it extremely enthralling to view an entire conversation unfold in the art placed before me. Many of the pieces show viewers observing either of the works, and I found myself reflecting on the next work which might include me observing this exhibit. In this way, I would highly recommend that you become an implied part of the exhibition before it closes on Nov. 21.

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