Modernity and Modernism
21 October 2006
From Raphael to Bow Wow Wow
Convergences, as described in Lawrence Wechsler’s book Everything That Rises, compares contemporary art works with older and sometimes historic works to find a common link between them. Bringing to light similarities in their connection, the comparison can sometimes reveal an insight exercised by a newer artist, or someone who acts as a curator combining any kind of work to express a new creative meaning. Exploring convergences can provide a prolific discovery upon the artist who chooses to incorporate earlier works into his own work, and can also have a profound impact for the viewer observing these associations. When comparing Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe” to Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s “The Judgment of Paris”, one can plainly see how Manet’s depiction came to be. The figures represented in both art works have a similar setting consisting of at least three people with identical poses and use of body language. Seeing this comparison of subject matter triggered another connection that I came upon in more recent history. In the early 1980’s, this same scene had been adopted for a visual in contemporary pop music by an English, new wave band known as Bow wow wow. The artwork on their album “See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah! City All Over Go Ape Crazy,” offered their version of Manet’s painting. Although, a more literal link in their comparative, I had to satisfy my interest to dig deeper into the mystery of how this common subject matter came to be an expression of avant-garde and research the meaning to its intrigue that produced one of pop music’s most risqué images.
Firstly, I’d like to explore the origins to Manet’s work “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the grass)” to how it can be considered a third-generation interpretation which seems to combine two sources. Beginning with Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s “The Judgment of Paris”,––because there is no longer an existing original of Raphael’s painting––there’s a clear adaptation Manet has drawn from this work that’s noticeable in the posture of those seated in the bottom right corner. The other source may have had its inspiration seeded in the painting “Pastoral Concert” which is credited to the Venetian painters Titian and Giorgione. In this painting, there are two nude women accompanied by two clothed men playing music in the countryside. Not quite the same amount of figures as in Raphael’s painting, but the subject matter is quite alike in how the nude women freely meander. It is more likely that Manet copied the position of the three figures almost exactly in “Judgment of Paris”, and borrowed the concept of the nonchalant nudes from Titian and Giorgione’s painting that conceal their activities within their group. It’s interesting that during the time of Giorgione in the Renaissance, the nudes in his work are seen as being natural. Yet, through the framework of Manet, his nudes were received as indecent exhibitionists who appalled their audience. That is how a reflection of the times with the influence of society has consequences upon art. It’s fascinating how the relaying of ideas were passed down among these artists and how it has developed to reach audiences over the centuries, each having its own varied interpretation and reaction.
According to Antonin Proust, Manet was inspired by watching bathers at Argenteuil and wanted to repeat, but modernize the theme in Titian and Giorgione’s work into his own “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (Luncheon on the grass). Aesthetically, “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe” is painted with very lush, but mostly cool colors that supply abundant shades of green illustrating the foliage in the wooded setting. Manet replaces the river gods in Raphael’s work with two well-dressed men having a picnic with two nude women. One nude is bathing in the background, while the other sits nude, poised, looking directly at the viewer. The subjects include Manet’s favorite model Victorine Meurend, his brother in-law, Ferdinand Leenhoff, and his younger brother Eugene. Flatly painted, the figures are starkly presented against the background and do not interact with each other. The combination of technique and activity produce an imbalance between the models and their natural surroundings that may have been intentional. Shock value was also added by having the nudes accompany the fully dressed men because it was unheard of for its time. The one nude woman sitting with the two upper class men offended many who saw it, creating a scandal after being refused by the Salon in 1863. Both the academic establishment and the Salon found their casual picnic to represent a prostitute and client relationship. Manet was the avant-garde artist of his day, so it’s not surprising that he would produce a work with subject matter that could be outrageous. But Manet’s work accomplished his goal of modernizing Titian and Giorgione’s “Pastoral Concert” while also managing to create controversy. Coincidentally, his unconventional approach captured the inspiration of not only the younger painters who would later support him in the impressionist group, but the scene in “Luncheon on the grass” manifested social contention to another degree that would again emerge continuing this seemingly transferable source of artistic representation that preceded his own design.
Over one hundred years later, controversy stirred again when the lead singer of the group Bow wow wow posed nude for her band’s album cover appropriating Manet’s “Luncheon on the grass” that had originated and evolved in spirit from Raphael’s “The Judgment of Paris”. Perhaps, this was not out of the singer’s own accord. The group’s manager Malcolm McLaren who was credited with certain success of managing the Sex Pistols, had discovered Annabella Lwin working at a launderette at age fourteen. Taking members from Adam and the Ants, he played as a component in their formation and public image. Annabella’s mother alleged exploitation of a minor because she was only fifteen when the photo was taken, so McLaren promised not to promote her as a “sex kitten”.
There are significant differences in dress, social status, location and the number of subjects in their modernized version of “Luncheon on the grass”. One of the first differences in the picture is that they’re seated in what could be mistaken for a jungle environment. Although, this may match the title of their album, I think that it is actually a creek embankment in the woods. The setting of the image casts an exuberant quality of rich colors and vegetation, lavishly animating the limits of its imitation. Being an actual photograph, it’s able to keep true to the subjects therein. However sumptuous the location is, its focus is stolen by the nude representation animating Manet’s model. Annabella’s exotic features and coy look of innocence seeking experience sends a directive of eroticism induced by the bohemian setting. The band sits replicating the inherited group-pose on ferns next to a creek and a basket of fruit. Their dress––apart from the naked Annabella––is rather casual yet, remnants of the post-punk era are evident in the Mohawk one member has who gestures the others like the upper class gentlemen in Manet’s painting. Although, the band did have a tribal drum sound that attributed to the Mohican theme, there was a later album using this image entitled “The Last of the Mohicans” which would embody the native tone their image and music style emulates. In addition to the two men conversing with the nude girl, there is a woman in the background––just like in Manet’s painting––bending down in the creek, dressed in a soft, white garment with a head clothe. Only this woman raises her dress exposing a white garter belt on her upper thigh. Contributing to the already erotic setting of sensuous surroundings in solitude, she glances over at the viewer with a subtle gesture of servitude as another character rows to shore in a small boat projecting an astute stare of curiosity. Lending interpretations over the centuries, Bow wow wow’s album cover incarnates Manet’s painting with modernity that takes the subject matter even further as a reflection and an expression in the early 1980’s following the seventies women rights movement, free love and the sexual revolution.
Making the link between Bow Wow Wow’s image to Manet’s painting is not difficult because of the similarity in settings, but obvious differences encourage a more complex measure of interpretation. Finding new meaning to a revolving idea, the four-person pose has morphed into another interpretation found in album cover art that has in a way, solidified the pictorial position. Manet’s painting, whether intentional or not, became retaliation to the puritanical opinions of what the social classes in Paris had deemed appropriate. Ironically, Bow wow wow’s image had a similar impact but because the social status quo had changed much since the mid-nineteenth century, the implications of decency were not as scandalous. With the advance of erotic art or even pornography, society has become more familiar with nudity. Especially, in Europe where there is a major difference between how the Europeans view sex as less inhibited and uptight compared to how Americans view sex. The main message I found in Bow wow wow’s version of Luncheon on the grass was of transcendence from the conditions of society to express humanity’s beautiful, sexual nature and accept it for what it is. Be it free speech or free love, the ways of the old go out with the new as in art or in society. History evolves and sometimes repeats itself but we are none the less more seasoned by its revolution of ideas.