First published in The Guardian, 2 April, 2014.
Manet was a radical artist in many different ways. His painting technique was not the standard polished perfection of the time but had visible brushstrokes that veered between sketchy and thick and creamy. He created stark juxtapositions of light and dark, often doing away with mid tones altogether. He mixed up standard conventions so that critics found it hard to comprehend his purpose. His compositions were often arranged in a deliberately jarring manner. No wonder he got under the skin of the critics.
There were lots of nude women in paintings in the 18th and 19th centuries but this was not considered pervy because these representations of women were shown under the “acceptable” veneer of religion, history or classical mythology. I guess it was begging to be done by someone but this hypocritical cloak of respectability was pulled away by the 31 year old Edouard Manet in 1863. In two paintings of that year, Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass, he called it for what it was – checking out ladies in the buff. Olympia is simply a naked prostitute, in a similar pose to Titian’s revered Venus of Urbino. Luncheon is particularly provocative. Two men in contemporary clothes having a picnic with a woman who has taken all her gear off. These are normal people – there is no pretence that this represents any scene from the repertoire of “culture”. It’s not mythology or religion or history – it’s just a woman starkers with a couple of blokes.
I had increasingly noticed that Manet had a habit of making his models stare directly at the viewer. His already provocative imagery is ramped up a few more notches by this confrontational tactic. His work must have been incredibly shocking in its time. When you look at samples of officially sanctioned nudes in the yearly Salons of the 19th century it is increasingly obvious that the respectable cloak of myth or history barely covers the fact that the point of the picture is to check out hot bods. Eventually Manet just called a spade a spade and did away with the hypocrisy. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with admiring a nude form. Manet was just being blatant about what was actually going on.
The model staring straight back at the viewer makes the viewer even more self-conscious and uneasy about their perving. They are caught in the act. But, of course, when the model looks at the viewer she is, in reality, staring at the artist who is painting her. In attempting to come up with an idea for a cartoon I tried to think of a reason why Manet’s models would keep staring at him. A physical deformity perhaps? Some weird personal mannerism or tic? Ah! As many people are aware, one form of Tourette’s syndrome is the involuntary exclamation of obscene words or socially inappropriate remarks. Thinking about which swear word I could get away with I remembered that the winner of UK Big Brother a few years back was a guy with Tourette’s who would uncontrollably yell out “Wankers!” whenever he got excited. That was prime time TV so I figured I was safe with it. Bizarrely his name was Edouard Manet. I’m joking about the last bit, but since I can’t remember the guy’s name, there is a very faint chance that his name WAS Edouard Manet. If that is the case it would mean that I am not an original thinker but a forgetful copyist. I’m not even going to look it up on the internet now. My dashing, ground-breaking self-image could be crushed.
Sherlock Holmes was just a handy tool, from the right time period, to drive the cartoon. Throwing in something silly like that in an effort to get from A to B to C often leads to unexpected scenarios. I was amused when the cafe scene came about. The “Gosh, he’s very French” comment makes me laugh. It’s very satisfying when the attempt to tie it all together leads to funnier side things. I imagine this happens to novelists all the time. You feel like a spectator because you didn’t see it coming.
Sherlock Holmes would never experience this lovely feeling because he sees everything coming. Every time I accidentally step into a pothole and smash my face I feel the warm glow of confirmation that in a crucial respect I am superior to Sherlock Holmes.