This is school. The earnest dilligence of the drawing crowd jars with the apparent insouciance of models arranged into the living pictures.
This is artifice. The incongruity of Edouard Manet’s « Luncheon on the Grass » prefigures the setting of Le grand dessein. Graceful, languid, audacious, models lounge among lavish decorations, warmed by the soft stage lighting, while drawers huddle in the penumbra of industrial space, serious, dead set on capturing the shapeshifting beauty.
This is mise-en-abysme, confusion of perspectives, looks, roles. Some of Le grand dessein‘stableaux recreate paintings, others – scenes from Peter Greenaway’s films; Peter Greenaway’s films recreate paintings and tableaux vivants; tableaux vivants recreate paintings; paintings recreate – what? And who exactly is the Artist here? Is it the drawer, assiduously scooping up life from the tableau and pouring it onto thirsty paper? Is it the model, spread on brocade cushions, arms crossed under her nape, eyes trained on overhanging clouds of fleece? Or those invisible minds and hands which had orchestrated this performance in the first place, priming the canvas, as it were? In the end, all creation comes together in mid-air. This is certainly not still life.
When Manet first exhibited his Luncheon on the Grass 150 years ago at the Salon de Refusés, it caused both scandal and sniggers. Nudity’s titillating potential might have weakened since, but the contrast between a group of stark naked or barely veiled bodies and those in full attire still unsettles today. And it’s not just about the male gaze, it turns out; our models are also men, our drawers – mostly women. The imbalance suggested by Manet’s stripping of a lady no longer holds true: Le grand dessein‘s models seem to bask in undivided attention they receive, in a paradox of disarmed power.
The drawers, on the other hand, are tense. As the apple-faced master of the ceremony announces the duration of the next pose, a pang of frustration ripples through the quickly flipped sheets of paper; work must be abandoned. There is no time for idling; models lock articulations, steady their gaze, congeal into another formation. Sketching starts anew.
Exposed skin, hair, dimples, tattoos, lips, masks, nipples, pearls, heels are scrutinized until that point which prompts the first stroke is found: a sharp-angled elbow propped against the full moon of a buttock; shade burrowing under a bent knee; a shock of hair caught in a flare; a bold, clean line of a clavicle; a dramatic web of veins; marbles lining up into a backbone; the loose grace of fingers.
And so it begins again: in semi-darkness, two hundred and fifty pairs of eyes dart from skin to paper; wrists flicker, necks stiffen. On stage, a slow carnival of tender flesh unfolds among incense smoke and candles. Switching from fancy contortion to studied poise, models help themselves to wine and tea, apples and grapes, ageless, prurient, innocent. As art is being spun from and through the living bodies, the mise-en-abysme works its way into the idolatry of drawing.