Friday, 7 September 2012

Dejeuner sur l'herbe, and Harper au naturel

It was common practice to paint a nude woman surrounded by clothed men. All one needed was a Classical or even a Biblical excuse for the picture. This explains the popularity of paintings of Susannah and the Elders, like this one, although the story's moral lessons are, at the least, unclear. It seems to say even completely innocent people need good lawyers.

In 1863, Edouard Manet painted a variation on the theme called Le déjeuner sur l'herbe. In it, the men were dressed in contemporary clothes and the woman was looking brassily at the viewer. It seems to tell us that even a cat can look at a king, and a voyeur be scrutinized in the act. The reaction was loud and continuing controversy.

In 2011, mild controversy also followed a nude painting of Prime Minister Steven Harper, for which I assume Mr. Harper did not sit. The painter, Maggie Sutherland, called it Emperor Haute Couture. It shows Mr. Harper surrounded by people in business clothes, with a dog, and with a cup of Tim Horton's coffee being handed him.

Here are some changes from the norm. First, the nude person is male, which probably makes some viewers, more accustomed to gazing at the female form, uncomfortable. Second, he is recognizable, even famous. Even worse, if he is conservative by nature as well as profession, the painting might make him feel a little exposed.

The Emperor's "High Fashion" new clothes not only make a political statement, they set a tone for tongue-in-cheek responses. I particularly liked the comment by David Morelli, a spokesman for Tim Horton's, "“We were pretty upset when we saw the painting. We'd never flip the tab on a hot coffee before serving a naked customer. Obvious safety hazard.” Andrew MacDougal, the Prime Minister's Director of Communications chimed in through Twitter, “We're not impressed. Everyone knows the PM is a cat person.” (These and more quotes are from a Toronto Sun article whose title I will not repeat). Best of all, an unnamed government department offered to buy it.

Nevertheless, what the painting made me think of was an episode of The Simpsons called "Brush with Greatness." In it, Marge Simpson paints a nude of Mr. Burns warts and all.

People were aghast when it was shown for the first time, but the artist explained that, when she accidentally saw him nude in all his age and frailty, she realized that this cruel, selfish man was also one of God's creatures. People then saw new meaning in the painting:

Dr. Hibbert: Provocative, but powerful.
Mrs. Hoover: He's bad, but he'll die. So I like it.

I'm not saying that Mr. Harper resembles Mr. Burns in any way, mind you. For example, he is a much younger man.

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