Après Déjeuner is a small editorial piece that came about after I was challenged to express my idea of Europe. It stemmed from a masterpiece of Édouard Manet—Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, known in English as The Luncheon on the Grass—and what it truly communicates. Based on a metaphor for conformism, idleness and social illusions that the artist himself communicates through his work, I developed a personal idea of Europe, creating a fictional dialogue between the audience/observer and the principal character in the painting: Victorine.
The following text is entirely my own work—Leonor Carvalho—and portrays a personal view/opinion.
Scene I – Starter
(The audience encounters a rural and bucolic setting. A small clearing in the forest with a lake in the background, lost amid the foliage. The four characters enter the scene. Victorine sets down the hamper and everyone sits on the grass. The men adopt a classic, noble, sculpture-like pose and speak among themselves. Victorine takes off her dress and hat and goes to join them. Her garments wrap around the already scattered picnic, as the hunger of the moment turns into another. Alexandrine delicately takes off her dress, leaving only her undergarments. She bathes leisurely in the lake, letting her wet clothes show her figure.)
(The sounds of the scene decrease. The audience watches the scene attentively. Victorine stares into the audience as the other characters mentally disperse. Victorine has more of a presence than the rest of the characters, just as she always has.)
Audience (Thinking aloud) – (She reads the caption mentally and begins her reflection.) Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet, 1863. (Pause). Yes, indeed, the theme is very characteristic of the nineteenth century. (Pause) A cosmopolitan and idle society. Leisure activities. Typically French. (Pause) Courbet, Millet, Degas, Renoir, Monet. Naturalism, Realism, Impressionism. Other -isms. (Pause). It was very shocking at the time to see this work in a Salon, for its theme and technique. But then the name, “luncheon on the grass…”, is somewhat ironic.
Audience (Continued) – The gaze of the female figure in the foreground is utterly piercing. Why does she stare at us? (Pause). Or was she merely looking at the artist at the time the piece was painted? (Pause) Perhaps you’re supposed to look her in the eye. (Pause) It seems almost as if she’s trying to say something to us. I don’t know, maybe I’m reading too much into it. (Pause). But I almost feel like if I look for long enough, her eyes become mine.
(Victorine doesn’t turn her gaze away at all. However how unclean and imperfect it may have been, the soul of your eyes stands firm and does not fade. Her gaze is met with whom looks back.)
Victorine (Thinking aloud) – (Head held high, eyes bright with a cunning smile) You don’t truly want to know what I have to tell you. (Pause) You, who seem interested but then choose to move into the dreamy landscapes of the Romantics. And you, who take photographs and just observe through the display. (Pause) You, who simply put us to the side to write posts on social networks. And you, oh you, who look but understand nothing…
Victorine (Continued) – I can’t be any clearer than I already am. I can’t show any more. But it seems as if I already show everything. And now it’s up to you, it’s up to all of you to break free from these Academicisms and Humanisms, from this perfection, from this utopia. (Pause). From the hypocritical and supposedly blind society in which you live. From this lifestyle that seems so idyllic, in which you call yourselves noble, civilised and intellectual. Where well-being, peace and wealth triumph. Where everything is perfection.
Victorine (Continued) – Please, all of you, pay close attention. Do not contemplate, do not fall into temptation. (Pause) Read between the lines. In the gazes, the clothing, the scenery, the pose, the expressions… Understand that I do not speak of your time alone. But yes, mine too, past and future. Understand that I do not speak to you alone, that you observe me as if you want something from me. (Pause) Yes, you see right: two harlots together with two bourgeois in the grass. But please, see more besides. (Pause) Until then, is the master served?
Scene II – Main Course
Audience (Thinking aloud) – Whenever we gaze at her, she gazes back at us. She is more alive than she appears. Pause) Will she invite me to lunch? I won’t be on time, of course. (Pause) Does she see us? I would really like to know what exactly is happening in that lunch? From excursions of tourists who take frenzied photographs? To parents who explain to their children, “See? They’re having a picnic and the woman was feeling hot”? To visitors with audio guides who aren’t even interested in listening to it? As for others I don’t know, but I know she sees me through my eyes.
Audience (Continued) – And what do we see in her? (Pause) A body stripped of shame and a wicked smile that questions us? Who recognises the error, the shame, but meets this challenge head on? A character who has shocked many in the past but who no longer surprises us? (Pause) Perhaps we should be shocked too. Not by the nudity, but by what it tell us. By the proximity that the subject can have to our time. Or not at all. (Pause) In all likelihood I am creating unimaginable theories around something so simple that, deep down, it is just another nude in Art History. Perhaps other artists would have painted the same theme the same way. (Pause) Perhaps it tells us just as much as a Venus by Botticelli, a nymph by Raphael, or a bather by Ingres?
Victorine (Thinking aloud) – You are more than in time for the banquet. Most of you are having lunch with us and yet you don’t even realise it. And then yes, you would be shocked. (Pause) How dare you think that other masters would also paint something like this? So genuine, so timely, so sincere, so modern… (Pause) More fool you for believing that any artist could achieve this level of rawness and conceptual mastery. Fools, all of you! Those who merely know how to appreciate the classic works of gods, goddesses, kings and queens. Of great conquests and discoveries. Of an unquestioning faith that is no longer yours. The masterpieces that, perfect as they are in technical terms, are empty of soul, of character, of message.
Victorine (continued) – But I don’t judge you. I also see in me a classic nude with the ‘meat’ of Rubens. I see in the man beside me the melancholy expression of a Rembrandt confined by the seriousness and nobility of a Canova masterpiece. I see the provocative meaning of a Garden of Earthly Delights amid the grey and heavy landscapes of Giorgione in the fifteenth century. I see the theatrical scenes of Titian or Poussin and, indeed, we can all be compared to statues of Ancient Greece. All of this, as you can see, originates from multiple references. But you, oh you, please, find more to see than that. You must establish all potential and imaginary relationships that make up our cultural legacy, and understand what I bring to you in the present. For the criticism, the “indecent”, the end of this eternal meal.
For a society that claims to be highly civilised and tries, without success, to mask the scandalous adventures in which it engages. Who has every reason to be proud of its achievements and conquests, but who also does not forget all the atrocities it committed to get to where it did. Which claims to be egalitarian and respectful but which is sometimes unable to accept the difference, or unable to help those who need it most. Does not accept, does not integrate: merely tolerates. (Pause) Which pretends to be misunderstood, while quietly enjoying the best foie gras, wine, meat, fruit and cake. The best illusion. The best performance. (Pause) You must control your appetites. (Pause) But there’s always room for something sweet, right?
Scene III – Dessert
(The observer looks, perplexed, at the painting. Their mind wanders among countless references. Right now they are lost, but eventually they will get there.)
Victorine (Thinking aloud) – Tell me you can’t see the whole of Europe in this clearing. Mine and yours, from the twenty-first century. The one that tries daily, without success, to mask the “rotten” of society. The one in which you enjoy your lunch leisurely on the grass, looking over everything that happens around you. It’s no use trying to get the taste of truth out of your mouth. The sweetness merely makes you more comfortable and settled. The sweetness merely makes you worse, merely deceives you more. (Pause) To you and all those wrapped in this blindness. Tell me, European: when will you finish the meal? (Pause) When will you tidy away the silverware and clean your mouth? When will you confront reality as it is? (Pause) Enjoy this long meal while it lasts, because at a certain moment you will have to suppose that you are sufficiently full. Or it will all be an illusion.
(The observer moves on to the next masterpiece. Their eyes met Victorine’s for a moment. But not enough. Victorine stands firm, trying to make eye contact with those who get near. But they are only interested in the picnic. The good part is there’s enough for everyone.)