A Conceptual Wit

Picnic in Central Park by Cesar Santos

If like me, you have a dabbler’s interest in art history, the work of Cesar Santos might tickle your fancy. It certainly helps to have a couple semester’s worth of H.W. Janson’s The History of Art, under your belt when viewing his paintings. Santos often tweaks the nose of our most iconic artists, including portions of venerated images to make statements about contemporary society.

Today’s image is titled Picnic in Central Park by Cesar Santos. I have also seen it named Santos Nude with the Muses because the man in our friendly group of picnickers has Santos’ face. (One assumes his physique, enhanced to Renaissance proportions and tone, does not reflect reality, but the bearded face is certainly his. He often includes self-portraits in his works.)

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe by Édouard Manet, 1863

What in the world is going on here? Knowing a bit of art history will help our understanding. The painting is, let’s call it an homage for lack of a better word, to Édouard Manet’s scandalous 1863 painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (a.k.a. The Luncheon on the Grass.) Maybe your reaction upon first seeing Santos’ picture mirrors that of 1863’s Parisian society, a startled WTF, and an embarrassed giggle? Perhaps that’s the point.

I don’t want to go into a detailed explanation of the what and why’s of Manet’s work and a side-by-side litany of the differences and similarities between the two paintings. If you’re interested, I’ve provided several links below which will help fill in the gaps. My point is that art (even if it’s called conceptual, or avant-garde) can have a sense of humor. Look, it does!

I love the gender switch. I delight in the contemporary details (notice the supersized Micky D soda, the lace-edged spaghetti strap top, the jogging shoe, the cigar in the woman’s hand.) If you study the painting long enough, it’s almost believable. Look at the way he’s painted the woman bathing. He’s reduced her size and blurred the focus. He’s saying, “Hey Manet! This is how you paint someone in the background.”

He’s created a work that tweaks, pokes, punches, and jabs at artistic stuffiness, at hubris, at the reasons people think they don’t understand art. If you think it’s ridiculous, you’re right. If you think it’s shocking, you’re right. Whether you think it’s delightful or smart or nasty or sharp or witty, we’re all correct. It’s a contemporary work that smacks us in the face, just as the original did 150 years ago. In my eyes, my friend, that’s what makes it a masterpiece.

Cesar Santos’ Official Website

Get a better look at several of Santos’ paintings here.

What wiki says about Le Déjeuner sur l’Erbe. It gives a succinct explanation of its importance to art historians.

A rather high-brow review of Santos’ work by the painter M.C. Guilmet. It reads like a Rolling Stone Magazine music review, but if you can unravel the philosophical geegaws, it nails why his work is relevant.

Today’s Music Video: Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers

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