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Anna Sidak decorative flourish David Hockney re Edouard Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe”

The following is from an interview with British artist David Hockney regarding the working methods of 19th-century French painter Edouard Manet. See for the painting under discussion.

Let me begin by saying I’ve been a friend of David’s for the many years since he painted his first pool. A poster of one of his pools—peach, vermilion, several shades of blue, olive and russet in the palms and pool house, and a small amount of apple green lettering supported by a navy band on a creamy ground—hangs in my kitchen. It’s called Eight Deck Chairs, but the eighth chair is just a couple of rectangles faintly outlined in red, easy to miss. Hockney’s work is widely regarded as influenced by Matisse and Picasso, although one is also inclined to think of opera and, lately, Kodak.

I phoned his Hollywood Hills home and arranged for an interview without difficulty.

We met for lunch—a chilled avocado soup followed by the seafood sampler—at a Los Feliz bistro, and now we’re settled in deck chairs on David’s patio. The Los Angeles basin lies to the south from here to the Pacific. We’re facing west, however, where mountains covered with rather stylized and extraordinarily green chaparral loom alarmingly near. Held at bay by the pool.

I’ve a silly little question about the pool but it can wait until later. I’m starting the interview with a question regarding an 1863 Edouard Manet painting in which two fully clothed young men lounge on the grass in the company of a naked woman.

AS: David, your recent observations on the use of cameras obscura and lucidia by Ingres, among many other artists of not only his period but from the 16th-century on, including Andrew Warhol, has caused a stir. And now you’re saying Edouard Manet used cut-outs to stage his famous “Luncheon on the Grass?”

HOCKNEY: That’s exactly what I’m saying. Before we get into that, it’s not “Luncheon on the Grass.” Complete the translation. It’s “Picnic.”

Okay, I’ll talk about Edouard Manet’s working methods. I don’t, by the way, find “cut-outs” to be the best way to describe what I’ve carefully refrained from, up to now, calling “billboards.”

AS: I’m taping, if that’s all right with you?

HOCKNEY: Right on, tape away! Now in the first place it’s preposterous to imagine this painting took place out of doors. Manet was no fool. He used a camera, of course.

AS: But it doesn’t look at all like a photograph. There’s no thumb in it.

HOCKNEY: I’ve given hours of thought to how I’d do this painting if I were Manet. First, I’d get my brother Eugene and my wife’s brother Ferdinand to pose for me on one of those clear cold Parisian mornings—not terribly cold—but cold enough they’re in no hurry to unbutton their jackets and remove their hats, even indoors, and I’d get them to pose on the small stage at the far end of my studio. I’d have my camera set up well before they arrived. I know if I ask Eugene to hold his arm out like that for more than two minutes he’ll blow up and wander off.

You’re wrong about the thumb, by the way, double wrong—more to follow on the subject of thumbs.

Okay, so much for that. I open the shutter for an appropriate interval. Close the shutter, send Gene and Ferdy packing, and develop the plates—not a simple procedure in those days. I grid the photograph and transfer it to a large canvas. Lay on the paint and attach a stake at each corner of the bottom edge.Voila!

AS: A stake?

HOCKNEY: Exactly. I turn the painting to the wall. When spring arrives I invite Victorine over. She has no objections. It’s warm in the studio by then. She’s glad to shed her cumbersome garments. A pity her hair’s so short—however, it’s all over in a couple of minutes. I give her a bottle of wine and she’s on her happy way. Now it’s just chemistry and scribing the grid until I run into trouble with skin tones. Add the stakes. You see where this is going, don’t you?

AS: I’m afraid not, David.

HOCKNEY: It’s so bloody simple! I take a train to the countryside, the canvases in third class with a porter. I spot a pleasant bit of grass near a tree-shaded pond, set up my signage, slightly overlapping—the porter hauls out the camera. I set it up and so forth.

Back in the studio, I begin work on the third and final canvas. It’s much larger than the first two paintings. There’s room to add a bit of the sky, trees, the pond from the photograph and, because it seems to need a little something in the middle distance, another woman, bathing. More skin tones, but at last it’s done. Or, as Edouard may have said, “Tres bien!”

AS: I didn’t know you spoke French, David.

HOCKNEY: There’s so much you don’t know.

AS: Wouldn’t it have been simpler to have a picnic, and then paint directly from it?


AS: Why not?

HOCKNEY: Think about it, Anna. Would you sit naked three feet from the remains of a picnic? Let’s say the food—sandwiches, cakes—has been on the ground for two hours—with wine. Ants, gnats, grasshoppers—mosquitoes.

And these two—fops, dandies, whatever—would they sit on the grass in their slate and champagne-colored trousers? Victorine is sitting on her skirt, or perhaps a petticoat, but neither of these layabouts has had the presence of mind to bring along so much as a blanket.

Of course it, obviously, wasn’t painted direct—it’s ludicrous to think so.

AS: Why “ludicrous,” David? And why “obviously?”

HOCKNEY: Didn’t I say why “ludicrous” just now? Pay attention. Let me put the spotlight on “obviously” for you. Obviously, because the men are bundled up. It’s a chilly day. Actually, in an earlier version, Eugene held gloves in his left hand, along with the cane. Not only that but here he wears a shirt, tie, coat, vest, and hat. Is that picnic attire?

Victorine, on the other hand, betrays no evidence of chill, hasn’t even crossed her arms over her chest with her hands in her armpits, as one would expect.

AS: I know that’s what I’d do.

HOCKNEY: There’s another strange aspect to this painting: thoughts that have crossed my mind more than once based, among other factors, on the reluctance Eugene and Ferdinand would have naturally felt toward posing for Edouard.

First, what kind of jackasses would they be to show themselves thus with an unclothed woman?

Eugene, who looks very young and I cut the bloke some slack on that account, has his feet entwined with Victorine’s in a way that doesn’t look right. I mean from the point of perspective. Neither needed the money, and posing—no matter how briefly—is hard work.

Frankly, I don’t think Edouard could’ve talked them into it.

Second: If one looks closely, one sees very little difference between either the coloring or the facial structure of Victorine and Ferdinand. The line of the brow, the bow of the lips, the fold of the eyelid—practically identical. The noses—his is a trifle longer, that’s all. Eugene’s profile, were he without the beard, is not markedly different from what one might suppose Victorine’s to be.

Not only that—both men have sort of collapsed torsos, just as one would expect, were Victorine to slip into their coats.

Here’s the clincher: Both Eugene’s and Victorine’s hands are at approximately the same depth of vision. Yet Eugene’s outstretched hand is no larger than Victorine’s.

Their thumbs, from base to tip, are of identical length. Which would not be the case, even if he were considerably shorter than she.

My conclusion: Victorine posed for all three figures. One at a time, of course.

AS: How interesting. Are you going to publish your conclusions?

HOCKNEY: No. I’ll leave that to you.

AS: May I ask you a personal question, David?

HOCKNEY: Let me hear the question.

AS: Okay, then. Here’s the question: What’s with the young man lying face-down in a classic frog-kick position on the bottom of your pool?

HOCKNEY: He’s a conversation piece. Why do you ask?

AS: Are you aware that when he completes that move, his head will strike the wall of the pool?

HOCKNEY: Can you find your way out of here and back down to Sunset Boulevard without a guide? I mean now. Immediately.

David Hockney, fine artist that he is, can sometimes be abrupt. I left a bit ahead of schedule. But last week he called in the small hours of the night from the far side of the globe—Australia—to bring me up to date on his latest theory as to who posed for Victorine, among other items of widespread interest.

What captured my attention was the fact that he was, at the moment, lucida-ed—upside-down and possibly mirror-imaged—while informing me of the portrayed left-handedness of Adam in Michelangelo’s Awakening, William Blake’s Ancient of Days, and, in Raphael’s 1518 portrait, Pope Leo X. “Which would make Pope Leo X an agent of the devil, love.”

I agreed with everything.

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Anna Sidak’s work has appeared in various online and print journals including Ink Pot, Gator Springs Gazette, Oasis, and Pindeldyboz. “David Hockney” first appeared in Linnaean Street.