Tag Archives: Art history

20th Century Art in Scents – 1917

If you missed it: Chapter 1 – launch of the perfume L’Origan de Coty and Art Nouveau

By 1905, when L’Origan de Coty stroke a scented crescendo of the Art Nouveau age, this art movement had already been at its deathbed for a few years. Airplanes, fast steam engines, colossal ships, electric vacuum cleaners, radio transmissions, automobiles: they all promised a faster and more technologically exciting future. Art Nouveau had ceased being nouveau. New art movements were mushrooming faster than an art history student can learn about them today. Of course, at that time, nobody but a select few could appreciate analytical cubism or first attempts at geometrical abstraction, but those select few were the ones who were making artists into big names. To surprise and charm that elite group, a talented artist had to be disruptive, revolutionary, and – preferably – incomprehensible to the bourgeois masses.

There were also artists then who wanted to make new, but understandable art, something that would incorporate “times a-changing” dynamism and also… be useful. Like, think of furniture. Or architecture. Or wallpaper!

Most people don’t know the artists’ names today. Was it a conscious sacrifice to forsake fame for steady income there and then? I don’t have an answer.  Their names may not be known as well as those of Picasso, Matisse, or Kandinsky, but we all know their work. We know Palais de Tokyo or Empire State bulding, even if the names of their architects need to be googled up. We see Art Deco typefaces in logos, ads, texts, but we don’t know who invented them:


We may sit in a chair like this at any West End theatre (or think of a theatre district in your city) unaware of who was its designer.


From the early 1900s till 1912 Art Nouveau and Art Deco (it didn’t have a name then) co-existed peacefully, but the Autumn Salon of 1912 saw a clash of modern and uber-modern. The Salon housed Cubists, Futurists, and Dadaists (whose art caused an explosive political debate on the freedom of expression) but was decorated by the department store Printemps in what in ten years would become known as Art Deco.

Art Nouveau was effectively wiped out from the agenda of the future, yet no new scents had been offered!

It is easy to see the contrast between Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Anyone could spot the difference between Alfons Mucha (very well known) and George Barbier (known to Art Deco fans only) or the shift to simplicity from an Art Nouveau ceiling dome to that of Art Deco!



Cars can be an even better illustation of both technological and stylistic changes. Cars were highly visible, very desirable, and prohibitevely expensive. Perhaps, it was the automotive industry that delivered that final push to perfumers that made them think of new scents.

This is a Pic-Pic (Swiss-made) of 1911. It is exactly the “horseless carriage” type that we may find difficult to call a “car”. It is the epitome of Art Nouveau style.


Same year as PicPic, Delaunay Belleville, a French marque, was producing their luxury (Russian Tzar favourite) model that was already taking the shape of a car:


Yet, these babies could only be seen when the tzar or French Prime Minister would go out, and the more massively produced models were still angular and awkward, like Ford T of 1912 (US), the most affordable car then (at roughly $25K in today’s money). Stylistically, it is ahead of PicPic in the proper car category, but it does not herald a new design era (and while PicPic of 1911 could go 70 kmh, Ford maxed out only 60)


And then suddenly, just as the WWI broke out and millions of people marched to their death, the world was stunned by totally new designs that owe everything to Art Deco artists working on streamlined geometrical shapes and sleek dynamic lines. Of course these designs had been in the works long before the war, but the timing of their launch still bevilders me.

This is Richet-Schneider of 1915 (France).

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And this is a new, war-like model from the luxury maker Delaunay-Belleville that they launched in 1914 and were producing until 1917.

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Can you imagine that ladies in the back of PicPic (1911) and Delaunay-Belleville (1917) would wear the same perfume? So, finally, at the end of the WWI, a new scent arrived.

Chypre de Coty – 1917


It was based on 4 natural ingredients: patchouli, bergamot, labdanum, and oak moss, and has become a defining scent for modern perfumery.

Together, they produced dry and mossy scent with – as a connoisseur would say – amberly warmth.

The scent was still natural, but much more “serious” than the oriental flowers of L’Origan. It was a perfect transition from Mucha to Barbier.

You may notice that Chypre bottle is very similar to L’Origan’s one. Yes, Coty excelled in scents but their marketing sucked. This Art Deco revolution in aromas fell flat in sales.

Two years later (1919) Guerlain rolled out Mitsouko, with a fruity note on top of the Chypre base, and it became such a success that they would keep making it until today.


Mitsouko was packaged in strict accordance with Art Deco guidelines and positioned as women’s fragrance, which didn’t stop Charlie Chaplin from becoming a life-long fan.

And yet, by the time Mitsouko hit the market, new trends had already been shaping and shaking the very foundations of European societies.

The Great War was over, but its echo was still heard very clearly.

Women had to fit into men’s roles – and even trousers – during the war, and they were not coming back to the inconvenient pre-war designs. Scarcity of textiles shortened hemlines and streamlined cuts. Ironically, cloth deficit did a lot of progressive re-educational job that Art Deco fashion designers would have to do otherwise. Men were getting bolder and experimenting as well, especially with adding colour to their everyday wardrobe. A Russian magazine of 1917 summarised the conservative fear of the changing morals and fashion in this caricature, capped “in not so distant future”, in which a man and woman switch roles. I am sure it was not meant to be prophetic.


When Chypre de Coty was making its first steps, Marcel Duchamp scandalised the art market by his attempt to put a urinal in an exhibition. By 1919, when Mitsouko came out in all its glory, cubism had become mainstream (many believed it was already a thing of the past). Leading-edge art was half way out of representational or logical. It was time to start looking for a new scent; a scent that would go beyond a cheerful commemoration to the death of Art Nouveau and the rise of Art Deco; a scent for the fast approaching Roaring Twenties.

Two years after Mitsouko, this scent, one of the few brands in the history of perfumery that weren’t about the past but aimed at and defined the future, came to market.

I am sure you’ve already guessed right.

The next chapter is about Chanel No.5 of 1921.

20th Century Art in Scents – 1905

On average, art reflects society but sometimes an artist can jump ahead of their time (like Turner, Picasso or early Tracy Emin). Perfume doesn’t mirror life, it sums up epochs (it takes more time to develop a scent than to make a painting), but a genius Nose can also catch a whiff of the future. This post is the first in the series that juxtaposes art and scents. Need your feedback — I don’t know if this idea would work out.

1905. L’Origan de Coty


In L’Origan, Coty pioneered synthetic ingredients in a mix with natural materials (carnation, orange flower, violet), creating an oriental floral scent.

The perfume summarised Belle Epoque, its opulence, prosperity, its asymmetric designs based on natural forms and the exuberant show-off of the bourgeois class, just as the epoch was drawing to a terrible finale.

Change, or rather desire for change, was in the air, and could be felt in all walks of life.

In 1903, Isedora Duncan developed free dance, revolutionising the way people moved and inadvertently pushing fashion towards accommodating the new movements (but it will take a while for the new shapes to pick up). Same year, Salon d’Automne opens in Paris with future cubists, fauvists, dadaists, and expressionists lining up the walls with their first attempts to break away from both classicism and the decorative traditions of Art Nouveau.

And as the highly decorative Art Nouveau style was about to yield way to the industrial and futuristic Art Deco, L’Origan hit Parisian stores.


If I were to choose an artist to represent L’Origan, it would be Mucha, because if Art Nouveau were a brand, he would be its marketing & creative director. Mucha’s art never ventured into anything new or mildly novel, just as L’Origan failed to see the explosion of crazy styles that would smash the art world to pieces in the next ten years.

Matisse’s wife, dressed to the latest Belle Epoque fashion standard, looks back at her husband, wondering, perhaps, why his new painting style (soon to be branded wild and beastly) is not accompanied by a new fragrance for her. Well, there wouldn’t be no new scents (really new, not just variations of the existing ones) for the next 12 years, when the same perfumer, Coty, delivered Chypre. So….

1917 Chypre de Coty is coming next!

P.S. Perfume experts say the industry now has circled back to 1900’s “floriental” scents. Are we nearing the end of our own, past WWII, Belle Epoque?


Nude or Naked? Art or Kitsch?

Pigeonholing female nude and naked in a practical way that may revitilise your next gallery visit. 

The debate about nude and naked has been raging on since Kenneth Clark said 60 years ago that “no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even though it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so it is bad art and false morals.”

Try to feed this line to a feminist today.

Fifteen years after Clark, John Berger summarised the distinction between nude and naked: being naked is just being yourself, but being nude in the artistic context is being without cloths for the purpose of being looked at.

John Berger believed that Western art had been predominantly about female [self] objectification, in the sense that while women had always been presented as goods for male consumption, they were taking an active part in this process themselves. It’s difficult to argue with this: popularity of Instagram selfies like the ones below is a living proof that not much has changed since the Ways of Seeing was first shown on BBC.


It is perfectly ok. Girls are doing their best to look attractive to boys. Boys appreciate it by following their accounts, writing sleazy comments, and fantasizing in ways I don’t want to talk about. Instagram owners whistle all the way to the bank.

All I am saying is that consumer preferences still centre on the flirtingly erotic presentation of the female body, but a modern-day classic reclining nude painting would be deemed a horrible kitsch fit for the likes of Donald Trump or seedy strip clubs.

So, the question is: what kind of paintings of nude or naked bodies are not kitsch or a mindless repetitions of past masterpieces? Which of them have value?

As a collector and art history enthusiast, I needed a simple classification system for nude paintings that would show me their “ideological” value whenever I come across one. I say “ideological” because my decision to buy something is based first on whether a painting says something new about portraying a nude or naked body and then on whether it is, in my subjective view, a good painting in its own right, in terms of composition, colour, et cetera. If you read this blog, you know I often go so analytical about deconstructing paintings that it raises suspicions if I wanted to be a autopsist as a kid and my parents wouldn’t let me.

My system is simple. It is a matrix made by two questions:

  • Is the model aware of a male observer?
  • Does the model care about the male observer?



The definition of “nude” and “naked” becomes pretty much simple:


And art history of the female nude can be briefly summarised:


To give you a few examples (yes, now you have to click on it):


You can see that some paintings like Picasso’s D’Avignon ladies or Rembrandt’s bathing nude can’t be easily pigeonholed to a single box, but represent a transition from one box to the next. These “transitional works”  represent valueable moments  when artists were searching for new ideas in portraying the unclothed human body.

Today, “progressive” thinkers view most of nude art of the past as chauvinistic garbage (with Renoir being one of the most hated artists). the art world gravitates towards the right side of my table. Indeed, the three “naked” boxes represent the contemporary territory.

What’s disturbing is that all the attempts to fill in these boxes with art have produced very few masterpieces, with loads of ideologically “right” but ugly artworks. Of course, when I say “ugly” I mean something disgusting for me personally. There are people who find Carroll Durham or Sara Lucas beautiful, but I find comfort in knowing many smart men and women who side up with me.

Sara Lucas, for instance, is mostly working in the “is aware – doesn’t care” box with her cigarette butts:


Well, it is definitely more provocative than Matisse’s Dance, but is it more inspiring? Not for me, but the art world seems to have appreciated her effort.

She also tries to work in the bottom box (“model knows she’s not watched and doesn’t care”) by doing toilet selfies, but as her intention to appear uncaring reveals her pathetic desire to be seen and liked, I can’t say the attempt is a success.


As an art history guy, I love the nude left side of my chart.

The top left box, the most “basic” one, is, in fact, a vast territory in its own right. There are segments of “authentic shyness”, “fake modesty”, “shameful resolve”, “indignant sale”, and a host of others.

Some of the segments are filled to the brim with art and some still stand pretty empty.

And the transitions between boxes remain almost unexplored.

Which is one of the reasons why I bought this nude last weekend:


If – as I believe – she covers her face in shame, she falls in the traditional top right box with all the Titians, Manet, Ingres, and countless others.


She refuses to collaborate with the artist to model fake modesty of a girl who pretends to be ashamed being caught naked. She is ashamed, but she’s not putting on a show of it. She also doesn’t want to watch back the male observer of the painting. She doesn’t want to meet his eyes, she doesn’t want to be the object of his desire. She surrenders her rather voluminous breasts (take them if you please) but not herself, as a person.

This, in my view, is a very interesting turn in the old debate about women taking an active part in their own objectification.

The Biblical story of Susanna and the Elders in art can be seen as a curious reference here.

Almost all artists would represent Susanna as shyly trying to cover her body while facing up to the two men:


Susanne and the Elders by Ottavio Mario Leoni

In the vast majority of this type of paintings Susanna is presented in a seductive pose to make the male observer want her. Artists believed that an aroused observer would feel the same kind of feelings like the elders and, knowing the two ended up dead for their attempt to extort sexual consent from the woman, would learn a moral lesson. Maybe artists pretended to believe it, of course, as an excuse to paint a seductive nude woman (sex sells).

Artemisia Gentileschi was the only artist (perhaps because she was a woman, with a relevant personal background) who turned Susanna’s face away from the bastards with her body language signalling that she doesn’t want to listen to their sex extortion proposals, and she doesn’t want to see them, just like my face-covering girl.


You see, a true depiction of shame is very unique in this genre.

Now, the painterly qualities of my nude.

Look at the shadows and tones, because the work is done with almost the same colour. She is lit, as if by a flash that went off above her. The hand movement is blurred as if she barely had time to raise her arm. The frontal flash of light stands very well as a symbol of the rush of attention of the male observer whose eyes take in the body as a whole, not seeing, skipping the details (like the bellybutton or nipples) at first.

Oh, the artist behind my nude is Victor Dynnikov. Click on his tag at the bottom if you want to see more of his work.

Print out my nude/naked table and take it with you next time you go to a gallery. It can be fun putting paintings into boxes. If you are a couple, talking about art may never be the same again!

Vaccinate against fear of Picasso

We all know Picasso was a genius who was not just practicing, but creating “isms”; who was not teaching, but inspiring artists; and whose single painting could feed half the kids in Africa if US billionaires and Qatari sheikhs who buy and sell the stuff would give their Picasso money to charities.

Then we look at some of his paintings and feel we don’t want to be asking ourselves the basic question of why Picasso is great or inspiring. Because we don’t always know the answer, or suspect we may not like it once we get enlightened.

Shall we be afraid of Picasso’s bizarre works, like this one? Not any more, if you get vaccinated by a healthy dose of cynicism. Roll up your sleeve, you won’t feel the stab.

IMG_0995 - копия (3)

It is, surely, a naked woman. An art historian would readily provide you with her name, her date of birth, and the year of her first intercourse with Picasso. Is it important? Only if you are contemplating a career in time-travel and mental help to sexually overheated geniuses.

Forget art history, trust your instincts.

What, if anything, is great about this painting?

If you take a girl, put her on a blue towel on a public beach in a pose like that, and have her photographed, you’d get banned from the beach, possibly arrested for indecent behaviour, and most likely sued by the girl after the paramedics help her untwine her limbs with massive injections of muscle relaxant.

But if you paint her surrealistically you become a prophet and a genius. Why?

For three main reasons.

1. She is one with the elements

  • Her towel is both a towel and the sea
  • The sky is also the sand and earth.
  • Her body is the green of life but also the colour that you get when mixing yellow and blue which stand for the different elements in this painting
  • The elements penetrate her and she penetrates the elements (just an example):


  • Parts of her body resemble some of the major elements:

fragment2_1Why is it important that she’s one with the elements?

Do I really need to explain this? For the same reason Venus was born out of sea foam, and Eve was created from Adam’s rib. For the same reason men avoid meeting their girlfriend’s parents before they get steeped in marriage plans. Love and beauty must be god-given, just like the elements. It is very difficult to really fall in love with the product of someone else’s love-making. Meeting the mother-vagina and father-phallus prematurely is a death blow to a budding relationship.

There is another theory which states that a promiscuous man’s best defense is a claim that he is attracted to women at the primeval, elemental level, like a flower that is attracted to the sun or a fish that finds it difficult to stay away from water. The expected response from the addressee of this tirade is “Darling, you should see a therapist” instead of the more normal “get the f** out of my house, you creepy bastard!” What is really surprising is that it is known to work, if therapists are to be believed, of course.

Given that the words “muse”, “mistress”, and “model” had the same meaning in Picasso’s vocabulary, I’d say he was an adept of this doctrine.

2. She is built of phallic Lego blocks

Look, all the body parts are disconnected. And most of them represent phallic Lego blocks.

IMG_0995 - копия (2)If you don’t see it here, I can’t help you. If no one sees it here, except me, it’s me who can’t be helped. Yet, I am full of hope I am not alone.

If you have friends around you now, feel free to entertain them by the competitive counting of stylised phalluses in this painting. Don’t forget to tell me how many they find.

Why is this phallic symbolism important?



Picasso doesn’t give you a porno image to fantasize about. He gives you inspiration to create something that would be your own sexual object, in your own wicked mind, made out of your own naughty fantasies.

3. Now, if you have a phallus, you can insert it anywhere.

It’s not enough to have a girl built. She has to be built in a way that she can be made love to in more ways than a seasoned Kamasutra practitioner can imagine.

Picasso was a first-class maniac, for the number of orifices, pathways, and spots which a phallus owner may explore here is beyond the wildest dreams of a porn-director.

Play your own game with it, but notice that even the towel’s folds are quite suggestive:

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To sum it up:

It is not a pornographic image to stimulate arousal. It is a DIY set to inspire you to create your own pornographic universe. If you have a working phallus, and are not a member of any religious order that prevents or limits its use, this Picasso is for you.

I am sorry if you are a Catholic priest. I should have posted a warning for you at the top, “This material is of no practical value to celibate readers. Proceed at your own risk”.

If you are a woman, it’s tricky. This Picasso is a lot like a blot drawing that shrinks love shoving in front of their patients. What you see there reflects who you are and whether you should be locked away or allowed to walk free until your next visit. It is a dangerous ground to explore. For instance, if you say you stand against female objectification, and this Picasso resonates with you at some level, it is a sign you are not against female objectification at least a couple of hours a day.

If you are Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, I’d love to know how you feel about this painting. You can probably experience it from two perspectives, so to say. It must be double fun.


Having received a few very valuable comments to this post, I feel the need to take the proverbial tongue out of my cheek and say that Picasso is not an “easy listening” kind of art. The problem with Picasso is that he is so often referred to as a “genius”, that we expect his art to be understood at once, be instantly gratifying, and immediately pleasing. It doesn’t work this way.

If I peel mockery off this post, this painting would emerge as a very strong statement. It addresses the sexual revolution or evolution of the 20th century in a way few artworks can hope to achieve. Think of the consumer attitude to the female body that permeats the society through pop culture and advertising, disguising itself in the false robes of romantic admiration. “You are like a star, like a breeze for my soul! — Now let’s shag, and be done with this romantic nonsense”. It is all in there, in this painting, explicit and concentrated. It is not a woman in the painting. It is the raw, hungry male consumer attitude to women. Do I need to have the same attitude to admire the painting? No. Can I admire the painting for its ability to express this attitude? Yes.

Part II. Do cats rule this planet?

In Part I we paused at the end of the 18th century, when cats realised their collective bet on superstition, witchcraft and other supernatural powers had been pathetically lost. Instead of respect cats were getting as much bad publicity as BP in 2010, except that they didn’t have BP’s cosmically expensive PR gurus to save the day.

The ingenuous canine strategy of simpleton’s loyalty, manifested through yelping, barking, chasing cats, licking an owner’s hand and shagging an owner’s leg was a triumph. It was making the cats’ loss all the more humiliating.

In today’s marketing terms, cats needed to reposition their brand, that is, to suggest a benefit for the human consumer that would be meaningful and different to the dogs’ proposition.

Cats still found it difficult to think of themselves as weaker animals than dogs, so the first idea was to call the Big Brother, the Lion, for support. Cats charmed Theodore Gericault and Eugene Delacroix into representing Cat Power. Both started using cats as models for their lions and tigers. They had such an interest in feline anatomy that one may misattribute their sketches to Leonardo, who, as we know from Part I, thinking in much the same way, had cats hooked up to dragons.


Eugène Delacroix:

Eugène Delacroix: Lion hunt, 1955

Alas, as cats were soon to discover, lions would not offer a 24/7 help line, and Man never respected anyone who could be kicked and couldn’t kick back, or hire a lawyer.

It took cats some 30 years to come up with a better idea. A new urban class was reinventing itself in Paris, the artistic centre of the First and Second Industrial revolutions. The ancient rituals of marrying off  French princesses to Austrian princes were dying out, taking with them the more common bans on sex before marriage and out-of-class unions. In fact, the rise of capitalists and the impoverishment of “landed aristocracy” made those unions quite desirable for all the concerned parties. A minor problem of insufficient beauty on the aristocratic side, eroded by centuries of cross-breeding, had been quickly resolved by the rise of clandestine prostitution. It was the dawn of the modern relationship.

Cats put their efforts behind the New Relationship idea. They first approached Edouard Manet, who was contemplating the same subject matter while working on his Olympia (1863).
Olympia small

Here, the black cat represents everything that made Olympia a prize whore of Paris. Still, the cat is rather an accessory here. It requires a human figure to send a message.

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A little more effort, and Manet came up with a drawing that had only cats.


It doesn’t really matter that tail anatomy leaves much to be desired or wondered about in this drawing (by the way, are you surprised Manet would draw something like that? Because I was)

What’s important is that cats stopped being flat-character animals here. Now they had three-dimensional personalities, fit for telling stories. Dogs, by the way, could never reach this height of anthropomorphism. They have never gone beyond a rather silly similarity between them and some of their owners.

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Nelly O'Brien, c.1762

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Nelly O’Brien, c.1762

By the way, Nelly was also a high-class courtesan, which makes one wonder if her Maltese dog was just as indiscriminate. You see, it’s not the dog that creates character, it’s the portrayed woman.

The next artist who reinforced feline supremacy was Theophile Alexandre Steinlen, a Swiss painter whose work is often and unjustly misattributed to Toulouse Lautrec.


Theophile Steinlen, The Black Cat, 1896

The black cat is especially intimidating. It rules the nightlife of Paris which at the time was the golden standard of wasting away health and money. In other words, it stood for quality lifestyle. Cats became the kings of glamour, which even then was already taking the shape of a religion that it is today.

About the same time, Aubrey Beardlsey, from across the channel, made a prophetic statement about the role of cats:

Aubrey Beardsley Pierrot and Cat, 1893

Aubrey Beardsley Pierrot and Cat, 1893

Cat was getting bigger than Man, softly guiding human emotions towards their sinister ends.

Picasso issued two cat warnings in 1939, exposing a cat for what it was, a merciless carnivorous hunter:

cat-catching-a-bird-1939 cat-eating-a-bird-1939.jpg!Large

But it was too cubist and too late. Men had already been plucked, the moment Franz Marc, a German expressionist, replaced cat fur with pure emotion back in 1912:

Franz Marc, Two Cats, 1912

Franz Marc, Two Cats, 1912

In a few more decades the internet was invented.

Now, according to conservative estimates, cats are responsible for 50% of our emotions: they satisfy the basic human needs of closeness, harmony, and love, along with the minor ones of having something cute to share online, and something fluffy to play with.

I also have a painted cat now. It was a gift from the artist, Vladimir Sevostianov. It shows a cat, but in fact represents a mafia don from a tiny Russian village. It can scare the only dog (a German shepherd) that lives there into stepping aside from its bowl of food.

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There is a theory which states that cats subtly nudge our civilisation to an enslaved state when two humans won’t be able to establish a relationship unless a cat representative allows, and mediates it. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.

PS I am sorry to be late with answering comments: I am on vacation, currently roaming the Gallery of Modern Art in Milan. Thank god it seems to be losing in its competition with fashion boutiques: there are no tourists, and plenty of space.

Part I: Do cats rule this planet?

Few people can resist the temptation to take a picture of a cute kitty or puppy, share or “like” one, and even fewer people would admit they have this frailty. Many complain other people clutter their Facebook page with cats, and then furtively re-post the syrupy images. Even if you are not afflicted personally by the plague, I am sure you have a friend who suffers from the CFHD (Canine-Feline Hypocrisy Disorder) in acute or chronic form.

Continue reading

Is it a great piece of art? Let’s find out

Luncheon on the Grass is not a good painting. That is, if you look at it from the point of view of an intellectual raised on the ideals of classical beauty, in other words, someone who had gone comatose around 1860, woke up moments ago, looked out from the window and went very religious at the sight of an airplane crossing the sky.

A lot of things about this painting are wrong:

  • The light is not natural. It doesn’t play, it doesn’t animate the forest. It is not even clear where is the source of light in Manet’s forest.

This is how it should look, light coming from above, and not from above and from the front at the same time:

Femme-ramassant-du-bois-pres-dune-mare-en-foret (1)

Narcisse Virgile Diaz de la Pena, 1856 – Femme ramassant du bois pres dune mare en foret

  • The bodies are flat. I took a fragment of painting by Charles François Jalabert, a classic contemporary of Manet, as an example:


  • The perspective is wrong. The lady bathing at the back is way too big.
  • And even if the perspective would be right, geometrically, the colours that Manet used collapse it anyway.

See how the colours he used to paint the hair and ribbon in the girl’s hair stick the figures to the background instead of creating a distance:


  • The set-up is crazy. Why is that nude girl looking out? Why the men are dressed? What a smug group of perverts is it?

Of course it made a scandal in 1863.

Today, we scoff at people and art critics who ridiculed it, because we have been indoctrinated to believe it was the departure point for modern art. We know the painting has had a huge following, and you have had a chance to enjoy some of the “hommage” paid to it over the years in my previous post. But imagine our knowledge is limited to the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, Classicism, and, perhaps, a bit of the Barbizon school. Let’s face it: we’d dismiss this painting as a product of twisted imagination with no ability to paint behind it.

Or not. Let’s do one more leap of imagination.

Imagine yourself an upper middle class Parisian, sauntering through life in 1863.

What are the things that excite you?

Photography. And not just photography, but affordable, industrialised photography that Disdéri invented a few years ago.

Louis Camille d'Olivier, photographer (French, 1827 - after 1870), [Nude Study], French, 1852, Salted paper print

Louis Camille d’Olivier, photographer (French, 1827 – after 1870), [Nude Study], French, 1852, Salted paper print

Look at the body in the photograph, and then look at the body in Manet’s Luncheon.

Chinese and Japanese art. You stood in awe in front of Chinese art at the 1855 Universal Exhibition. The whole of Paris talked about it. A year ago, La Porte Chinoise, a shop selling various Japanese(!) goods including prints, opened in the rue de Rivoli; and numerous artists became its patrons at once. You, being a friend of a friend of Félix Bracquemond, an artist busy with reviving etching in France, got to see some pages of Hokusai Manga seven years ago. Felix said he had discovered the prints as discarded wrapping in a porcelain shop, but you know that’s a myth. He spreads this tale around to raise his prestige as an art connoisseur.

Hokusai Manga, Bathing People

Hokusai Manga, Bathing People

You remember how you marveled at Hokusai’s bathers: they seemed so free, so alive, so… like you, if not in appearance then in their emotions. These prints were the ones you’d remember when you are told the original name for Manet’s Luncheon was The Bath.

Women and sex. Everyone, suddenly, got much more free time on their hands than people had ever had since the Expulsion from Paradise. And a lot more space to spend that free time at: Haussmann’s broad boulevards, suburbs made accessible by railroads, all those open air cafes and dance floors! Women, of course, are not yet equal to men, but on a country dance floor they all seem quite independent and, well, accessible. Cheap whores, and their aristocratic varieties have always been there, but now you’ve got access to prostitutes that cater to the middle classes and bourgeoisie.

It is not surprising then, that in his portrait of Emile Zola (not yet painted in 1863), Manet has shown a Japanese print, a photograph, and a picture of his own Olympia, a model of questionable morals.


Being a part of new urban society

What else (except flirting with the opposite sex) can you do with your free time? Oh, yes, you spend time with other clever men. You love intellectual duels with writers, poets, painters, bankers, who want to be seen as philosophers, and clerks, who aspire to be big-time bankers. It makes you feel important, and valuable beyond your managerial job at a new department store. You feel you belong to a new generation of people. The only problem is that you can’t say (and no one can) what this new generation is, actually, about. What you know with certainty though, is that the old generation is a bunch of old gaffers who believe the concept of aristocratic socialism has a future. Aristocratic socialism, what a laughable Utopia is that, for Descartes’ sake!

The old aristocracy is not producing anything. They’ve lost vitality required to build a new, modern civilization and make sense out of it. It’s up to you now.

So, what (else) do you scoff at?

Classical art, of course! All those Greek myth, stories of Gothic valour, past victories of kings that have been dead for centuries and don’t inspire anyone, except those few idiots who believe themselves to be their descendants. You respect the Louvre collection, but it is the past, not even the present! You love Raphael and Titian, but you despise modern classicists who persist in copying the past styles, rather than creating something new. They keep painting Greek profiles instead of glorifying the modern French beauty, with her turned-up nose!

The Catholic church. Well, you know it is out there, somewhere, for christenings, weddings, and funerals, but it seems so irrelevant, so…ancient in all other matters. Loyalty in marriage? A half of Paris shags the other half of Paris, all extra-maritally, and then pretends they are Catholics. This hypocrisy tears at your heart. Religious, artistic, social life – they all seem to have frozen in time, while the society, relationships, industry, and trade keep developing exponentially.

What do you detest?

Your generation that you are so proud to be a part of does not have an objective. It doesn’t even have a style of its own! Aristocrats have their art academies, their own tastes (that you scoff at), their own militaristic pride. Workers have their Karl Marx, or if they haven’t read it yet at least they can revel in their collective hatred of factory owners. And you make or can make everything, and have nothing, except those friggin’ picnics in the country!

You feel intellectually capable of creating new meanings of life and living in this modern age, but no one actually wants to hear you out.

You detest not having a voice, not having a style of your own, not having a real value behind the superficial smugness of scoffing at those impotent aristocrats and illiterate working classes.

So, here comes Edouard Manet, a well-off artist with a very active social life.

Manet takes things you love, hate, and scorn; blends them into a new style, a novel aesthetics that you can use to start expressing yourself. Manet gives you, the liberal bourgeois, a voice.

And this is how he did it.

He took an engraving made after Raphael’s Judgement of Paris as the base for his composition.

The judgement of Paris was about Jupiter sending Hermes with three goddesses to Paris, whom he charged with judging the first Beauty Pageant in history. Each of the contestants offered him bribes, making beauty pageants the only event at which bribes are divinely blessed (contrary to what Sepp Blatter might have thought about FIFA’s selection process of World Cup hosts, I have to say).

Paris could choose world dominance (proposed by Jupiter’s wife) or skill at war (a gift from Minerva), but he went for the world’s most beautiful married woman, crowning Venus who made the offer. Paris was very romantic, very honest, and very stupid: his choice led to the Trojan war, and the ultimate destruction of his country. The idiot could pick world dominance, and, a bit later, Helena would be his trophy anyway.

Note the name. Paris. We talk about Paris choosing beauty over other important stuff, and bringing war to his nation. It was seven years until an actual war, with very practical Germans, broke out, and Paris, the city, was besieged.

Does Manet want you to associate yourself with Paris? No. You are just an onlooker. You can’t do anything: all the choices are made by Napoleon III. So, Manet “cuts out” the onlookers, the three satyrs drinking wine in a relaxed way (bottom right corner). One of them seems to watch the award ceremony of the pageant, but his companions are more interested in the observer (like the girl) or the other bank of the river (like the male satyr).


Then, Manet mixes it up with the idea of the Pastoral Concert by Titian:


He does it for a very simple reason. While the Judgement of Paris is a pure myth about gods screwing men big time, the concert is about gods helping humans in activities less grandiose than stealing queens, slaughtering thousands, or surviving the wrath of a rejected woman. It shows two musicians being helped by two nude muses, who don’t need to dress up because mortals can’t see them anyway.

In his painting, Manet kills the classic myth as a topic worthy of any further artistic exploration and simply tells you, “Come on, guys, stop pretending you’re being inspired by gods. You are inspired by sleeping with very mortal women. Let’s talk about them.”

And to emphasise the point, Manet not only paints the fruit associated with passion, he inserts a frog in the left corner, because it was a slang word for prostitutes at the time:


And this is why he modeled the body of the nude girl after his wife, but gave her the head of the model who posed for the bathing girl (who later became widely known as Olympia). You don’t want your wife to be represented as a whore. He also didn’t want any abstract “Greek-type” face: he wanted it to be “modern French”.

The way Manet executed the painting borrows stylistic choices from the Japanese and photographic craze, as I am sure you’ve already guessed.

Appropriation of popular imagery and its reinterpretation with modern methods or materials was at the heart of post-modernism. So, in a way, Manet paved the way for modernism using post-modernist means. He was not just the first modernist, but the first post-modernist as well. 

Fortunately, a preparatory sketch of the Luncheon survived, and we can compare the final version with it, trying to understand Manet’s choices at the very last stage of painting the Luncheon. We also need to remember that Manet was a good painter. All the “problems” I listed at the beginning of this article were not mistakes, they were indeed conscious choices.


1. Change of head – well, we just covered it

2. The male figure is shifted to the right. Some critics believe it was done to make the bathing girl bend for the thumb of the man in an erotic metaphor. Maybe, but this shift simply makes the space less crowded, allows the eye to travel a bit more within the painting, and yes, the movement of the man’s arm now now rhymes with that of the woman’s arm and body. Also, it helps to clear up the way to the clearing in the forest (see 4 below)

3. The bathing woman. No one seems to pay any attention to her. In the final version, Manet pushed her even closer to the observer, as if he wanted to make a point. So, what was the point? Something to think about.

4. Manet eliminated the warm ochre tones he used in the background in his sketch, and opened up a clearing in the forest, making the whole composition a pyramid of sorts with the tip pointing at the sky.


Now, Manet tells you to stuff the old myths back to where they belong, and to focus on the real life. Focus on the modern life! For that, you don’t need the painter to give you a photographic representation of each leaf, of each tree-trunk, of perspective or natural light. What’s important about perspective? Not its rules: he breaks them, he collapses perspective to make this point. It’s what you put in perspective that matters. 

To move over from “watch and learn from the story I painted for you” to “make up your own story from the setting I am giving you” was quite revolutionary at the time. The observer is challenged (by the nude girls looking outside of the painting) to not join the picnic group, but to make sense, his or her own sense at that, of what’s going on there.

What the men’s conversation is about? Why are the girls excluded from it? If the girls are bathing, and men are talking about something important, is their function to be flesh-and-blood muses? Is it the modern way of life? Dozens of questions that keep popping up like champaign bottles in a factory with malfunctioning temp control, as you watch the painting.

Giving a voice to the new generation meant not giving answers (it was the old, classical school of thought), it meant asking questions. Manet was saying, guys, it’s up to you to define the agenda.

Yet, Manet goes a bit further on. He suggests at least one element of the new agenda for you by painting the bathing woman at the back. A clothed bathing woman. He names the painting “The Bath”. He puts the bathing girl in the visual focus, he brings her forward to you, he names his painting The Bath and you still don’t know what the painting is about?

You know what? Neither do I.

Oh, I have a few versions or ideas, but I am not sure any of them is right, or if they can be right or wrong at all. And that’s the beauty of a masterpiece. It never stops speaking to you, even if you are not an upper middle class dandy of 1863.

Tell me what you think about the bathing girl. Tell me what questions come up to your mind. After all, we are not that much different from Parisians of 1863. We just dress differently.