The Salon des Refuses

“Luncheon on the Grass” (1863), by Edouard Manet. (Wikipedia)

The topic has come up of a “Salon des refusés” for the classical entries that did not make it into the first two rounds of the competition for a national memorial to World War I. More than 350 entries were in the first round, from which were selected five finalists. Some fine classical proposals were left on the cutting-room floor and they should be gathered up and exhibited somewhere in downtown Washington.

The idea pays homage to the exhibitions of artists in Paris who, in the last half of the 19th century, were kept out of the official painting salons. The Impressionists were excluded by juries who selected the artists for the Salon. One of these, in 1863, was Édouard Manet, who sought to display Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). A few years later, Zola wrote as follows of the scandal caused by the exclusion of Manet’s painting:

The Luncheon on the Grass is the greatest work of Édouard Manet, one in which he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape. We know the power with which he vanquished this difficulty. There are some leaves, some tree trunks, and, in the background, a river in which a chemise-wearing woman bathes; in the foreground, two young men are seated across from a second woman who has just exited the water and who dries her naked skin in the open air. This nude woman has scandalized the public, who see only her in the canvas. My God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men! That has never been seen. And this belief is a gross error, for in the Louvre there are more than fifty paintings in which are found mixes of persons clothed and nude. But no one goes to the Louvre to be scandalized. The crowd has kept itself moreover from judging The Luncheon on the Grass like a veritable work of art should be judged; they see in it only some people who are having a picnic, finishing bathing, and they believed that the artist had placed an obscene intent in the disposition of the subject, while the artist had simply sought to obtain vibrant oppositions and a straightforward audience. Painters, especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not have this preoccupation with the subject which torments the crowd above all; the subject, for them, is merely a pretext to paint, while for the crowd, the subject alone exists. Thus, assuredly, the nude woman of The Luncheon on the Grass is only there to furnish the artist the occasion to paint a bit of flesh. That which must be seen in the painting is not a luncheon on the grass; it is the entire landscape, with its vigors and its finesses, with its foregrounds so large, so solid, and its backgrounds of a light delicateness; it is this firm modeled flesh under great spots of light, these tissues supple and strong, and particularly this delicious silhouette of a woman wearing a chemise who makes, in the background, an adorable dapple of white in the milieu of green leaves. It is, in short, this vast ensemble, full of atmosphere, this corner of nature rendered with a simplicity so just, all of this admirable page in which an artist has placed all the particular and rare elements which are in him.

The Salons des Refusés of that era arose in defense of new painting styles against traditional styles favored by the king, whereas the notion of an exhibition for architectural refusés today is to defend traditional styles of architecture against modernist styles favored by the establishment. Yes, the architects who have taken over the zoo are able to suppress the kind of work that the public has loved for centuries. History is an odd duck. An exhibit of WWI memorial entries deemed insufficiently ridiculous by today’s judges would strike a blow against this absurdist form of sanctioned injustice.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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