This week in my Communication Design 1 class, we talked about audience and allusion. I use the example of Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and the application of this painting to other projects. Whenever I try to explain this I’m sure they are staring at me and thinking, “I have no idea what he is saying. I think he’s lost his mind.” But, that’s fine because I’m not sure about my mind lately.
Le déjeuner sur l’herbe was a scandal when it was exhibited in 1863. It was rejected by the Salon, and then shown at Salon de Refusés. Today it seems rather innocuous. Yes, there is a nude woman, but so what? Haven’t nude women existed in art for millennia? Yes, but in 1863, it was only appropriate when the woman appeared in a religious or mythological context. It was one thing to have a nude sculpture of the goddess Diana, but entirely different to have an ordinary woman nude. And having a picnic. With men. Shocking.
Jump ahead 120 years and the band Bow Wow Wow appropriates the image for their album cover. This is how allusion and audience works: if you know the background of Manet’s painting, you recognize it on Bow Wow Wow’s cover. You know the message here is that Bow Wow Wow is scandalous and shocking. You feel special and smart. If you don’t know the Manet reference it still works if you are a 16-year-old new wave kid living on a farm, “Nude girl. Cool.”
The album cover was in actuality scandalous because the lead singer, Annabella Lwin, was only 15 when the photo was released. This led to an uproar about child abuse and investigation by Scotland Yard. As a side note, when I was 19, I met Annabella during my time on American Bandstand. She had a wonky Mohawk, but one of the few guests who interacted with the kids.
Recently someone sent me Stano Masár’s version of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. It’s wonderful and points to the issue of allusion and audience perfectly. With such a small amount of information, I recognize this. Yeah, I’m groovy, I know modern art history.