Monday, September 24, 2007

Le déjeuner sur l'herbe

I met CeCe Milder when her granddaughter, my close friend, invited me to have dinner with her, her grandmother, and her grandmother’s husband at their home near Venice Beach. I might have otherwise passed on such an invitation, deciding it to be too intimate an interaction for my casual participation, or just hording my time and quiet as I am prone to do, my constant L.A. wintering. But I had become taken with my friend’s relationship with her grandmother. My friend is a stern person by nature, very few people make her A-list; and she has strict, nearly indiscernible standards for people with whom she’ll spend any time with. Yet, she has an intense reverence for her grandmother; I don’t think I’ve witnessed her offer the appreciation for anyone that she does for CeCe.

She described her grandmother as something like the family artistic progenitor, an 81 year-old painter, who has spent her life engaging her passions and fostering similar ones in the familial generations beneath her. Upon first entering her home, I was led on an art tour, viewing dozens and dozens of pieces, paintings by CeCe Milder, more paintings and a couple of sculptures by her son, a few by her nephew, one of her granddaughter’s, and many others of various genres collected from contemporaries and other artists along her journey.

It was a story she told, however, about a series of three paintings she completed between the late sixties to the mid-seventies that most interested me. Each of the three was an homage to Édouard Manet and his Le déjeuner sur l'herbe or The Luncheon on the Grass.

Manet’s original marked him as a sort of rebel force among the artists of his day. He was a renowned painter, a serious student of the academic Thomas Couture, as well as of the various aged masters; he spent hours in the Louvre studying for his own imitations that would stack into the foundation of his personal and influential style. Le déjeuner sur l'herbe was one of the primary triggers of the artistic transition from Realism to Impressionism. The critics of the day were appalled at his portrayal of modern nude women in the piece; the only acceptable expressions of nudity existed in classical art.

The realism Manet was helping to wrap up had been strongly influenced by the invention of photography. Painters had new resources for capturing something for study and reproduction that would have otherwise been a fleeting image, yet they had also begun to move outside of the studio, like the photographers, to try and capture subjects in different lights. They also shifted the focus of the artistic subject onto the working class, the humble citizen, the mundane task, and away from the heroic or Biblical focus it had previously taken. In this way, the Realists too had acted as a sort of rebel force in their shocking movement away from the materialism of the Victorian era.

However, Realism was and still is, by definition, an accurate depiction of a subject. Accuracy is a problematic term in regards to the identified subject. What is one’s accurate depiction of self is not necessarily an artist’s accurate depiction of that same self, nor is it necessarily the same accurate reading by a viewer. Any given subject may appear in any number of realities at any given moment. The poet and critic William Empson details one possible opposite to accuracy in art (specifically regarding the unit of a preposition in poetry), that of ambiguity: “The English prepositions, have acquired not so much a number of meanings as a body of meaning continuous in several dimensions…”

The same may be said of not only most words but also of most other units within an artistic creation.

As an undergraduate, I developed an extreme distaste for the Realists in literature. Perhaps it was my professor and his dispassionate delivery; or maybe it was the newly-refined use of classification in the mid-1800’s, the plague and its impact on medicine, the concrete taxonomy of people and things, the induction of the scientific method, the caging of everything into categories that terrified me so much. I wrote a short story while taking a Realism class in which Daniel Defoe was stalking me with a semi-automatic rifle on the University of Washington campus. Containerizing feels to me equal parts imprisonment and freedom, and so – this being my impression -- it is.

For this reason, the induction of a new artistic vision within the visual mediums -- one in which reality would be subjective, metaphor and symbolism would again take import and balance the cool tip of Mr. Defoe’s rifle, and in which light and its constant movement would stand parallel to the various perspectives of the human vision -- seems like it must have come as a tremendous relief, an eventual softening in common understanding even.

Emile Zola, a French novelist writing at the time when Manet was creating Luncheon on the Grass among other masterpieces said, “Painters, and especially Édouard Manet, who is an analytic painter, do not share the masses' obsession with the subject: to them, the subject is only a pretext to paint, whereas for the masses only the subject exists.”

Manet was obviously not obsessed with his subject. He in fact morphed his two nude female models -- the head of his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, with the chubbier body of his wife – to create a third fictional thing, the painting’s nude. This nude is situated between two men, both dressed as dandies. The models for these were Manet’s brother and his brother-in-law. There is another woman in the back, who is strangely illuminated and seems almost to levitate, although she is actually wading in a stream or river.

CeCe Milder offered three homages to Manet, a painter she says she greatly admired. In the first, which she completed in the late 60’s, she used a studio model for the nude and her “nattily clad” 13 and 16 year-old sons for the male models. Her older son’s girlfriend modeled for the figure of the woman in the background. Around 1974, she recreated the original homage but reversed the sexes “in honor of women’s liberation”. CeCe used her then boyfriend (having recently divorced from her husband of many years) for the nude male in the center, and she and her best friend, Eleanore, as the clothed dandy figures situated beside him.

As a gift, CeCe says she gave this second painting to the boyfriend who had modeled for her. When the relationship ended, she asked for it back, but the circumstances prevented that from happening. Not an artist without passions, CeCe proceeded to break into the ex-boyfriend’s house through an open window. Armed with a paintbrush and paint that matched his skin tone, she blanked out his face and left the painting for the last time.

In a third Milder recreated the entire painting again. This, like the other two, was drawn to life-size and was, needless to say, an enormous undertaking. In this third piece, Milder used female-bodied people for all of the models. During this time, CeCe submitted some of her work to Woman Space, a meeting place for women artists organized by a group of women, one of whom was the well-known feminist artist and activist, Judy Chicago. Some of Milder's work was accepted.

Sometime following this, a woman contacted CeCe to purchase the 3rd painting, but it had unfortunately been irreparably damaged in a storage unit. Recently, however, Milder was pleasantly surprised by the resurgence (at least in the archives) of the ruined third homage. Her nephew, Alvin Milder (whose brother Jay recently had his own art exhibited in Rio de Janero at the National Museum of Fine Arts) wrote the following to his aunt in an email:

"Subject: Your painting in Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s
I had a very pleasant experience in my art history class today. A painting of yours was shown in a video that the professor showed in class today. I believe your painting was Luncheon on the Grass (or Petite dejuener - or some such spelling); the video was Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s by Laura Cottingham. The class is Contemporary Art: 1960s -- 1970s; the Professor is Miwon Kiwon."

CeCe Milder’s repetitions on the same theme and the steady orbit of her gender role representations over the course of the creations of the three homages mirrored -- so as was her work encased in -- the weighty and long-archived repression that was both explosively and, in retrospect, systematically being peeled away by the political and artistic muscle of 1970’s feminism.

The dandy figure is at least a distant cousin to the early suffragist feminists, could be considered a jester for or co-conspirator to the second wave, and plays an interesting role in both Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and Milder’s Picnic on the Grass series.

Manet was from an extremely affluent family and was encouraged to study law. However, he wanted only to be an artist. His choice to use dandies as his models in the piece indicates a certain introspective class dissection within the artist’s consciousness. Dandies were typically of middle-class backgrounds. Characteristically, they took on an aristocratic style with somewhat outdated manners and customs to affect an artistic statement. This statement intended a proclamation of the aristocracy of the mind over the upbringing, social background, or bloodline of the individual. On dandies, Charles Baudelaire philosophized, “These beings have no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons, of satisfying their passions, of feeling and thinking .... dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind."

The orbit of gender representations in CeCe Milder’s series of dandies mirrors the changes enacted by the times in which she was working on the paintings. From the original struggle for equal rights to the new aristocracy of the identity, the same sort of dissection inherent in Manet’s power struggle can be observed in the branching and rooting effect of feminism. Thanks to the collective force of the various waves, the possibility for the presentation of any body’s gender has shifted into a complex field where, at last, personal identity can be closely matched to physical aesthetic.

One of Manet’s greatest technical influences was Diego Velázquez. In Michel Foucault’s opening chapter of The Order of Things, Foucault sketches golden rectangle measurements in his description of the relationship between the chain of observed and observers in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, a work Manet most likely studied:

“This spiral shell presents us with the entire cycle of representation: the gaze, the palette and brush, the canvas innocent of signs (these are the material tools of representation), the paintings, the reflections, the real man (the completed representation, but as it were freed from its illusory or truthful contents, which are juxtaposed to it); then the representation dissolves again: we can see only the frames, and the light that is flooding the pictures from outside, but that they, in return, must reconstitute in their own kind, as though it were coming from elsewhere, passing through their dark wooden frames. And we do, in fact, see this light on the painting, ap­parently welling out from the crack of the frame; and from there it moves over to touch the brow, the cheekbones, the eyes, the gaze of the painter, who is holding a palette in one hand and in the other a fine brush . . . And so the spiral is closed, or rather, by means of that light, is opened.”

These measurements may also be employed in measuring both the movement of Manet’s dandies through Milder’s canvases, and the simultaneous opening of space for individual gender presentation via the work of feminism. As well, the words measure the path between Velázquez and Manet and Milder.

In his conclusion, which I will also make my conclusion, Foucault says, “Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velazquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements, with its images, the eyes to which it is offered, the faces it makes visible, the gestures that call it into being. But there, in the midst of this dispersion which it is simultaneously grouping to­gether and spreading out before us, indicated compellingly from every side, is an essential void: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation - of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject - which is the same - has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was im­peding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.”

Those who have drafted for a lifetime and through the various ages, having milked and/or deconstructed one or another episteme, have wedged open greater spaces for varying forms of representation -- simultaneously freeing presentation from relations of impediment -- for that single individual in the mirror.

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