I think of avant-garde as a movement of people who are ahead of their time, the fore runners of a new movement. When I think of avant-garde in art, I think of artists who are experimenting with new techniques, mediums, ideas, and social and philosophical theories of the time. They were willing to break away from tradition of their time and express their ideas in new and different ways. They were challengers of the norm.
Some of the art that was considered avant-garde, and it was not always understood or liked by the public or the art critics of the time. Sometimes their art has been considered too “out there”. Manet’s painting “Luncheon on the Grass” challenges the viewer because it is made up of so many elements that don’t seem to make a cohesive whole. Most viewers expect to look at a painting and get a sense of a story or event that is taking place. I think there is a natural inclination to try make sense of what the eye is seeing by at first trying to relate a scene with something that is relatable to the viewer. When we first look at the painting “Luncheon on the Grass” the viewer first notices that it is an outdoor scene with people sitting down for a picnic lunch. But right away the eye notices the differences from the normal picturesque scene and tries to make sense of it. The main figure is a woman who seems to be comfortably nude sitting with two well dressed men, who seem to be ignoring the woman and talking with each other. The nude woman, who seems like a more naturalistic depiction compared to the nymph like figures of women being done at the time, such as “The Birth of Venus” by Cabanel. Manet’s nude looks directly at the viewer, as if acknowledging their involvement.
The odd figure of the woman in the water in the background also challenges the viewer. The woman is in the water, which is behind the figures in the foreground, but her large size doesn’t fit with our idea of perspective. In order to fit into the scene more naturally, she should be much smaller than the figures in the foreground, and yet Manet deliberately made her the same size as the other figures. The food in the foreground is a strange mix of fruit and bread. The fruit portrayed do not really fruit at the same time of year, thus it is not a realistic representation of food. The background also appears somewhat flat and not as detailed compared to the figures in the foreground.
Manet was considered avant-garde because of his use of use of loose brushstrokes and his depiction of the female nude. In his painting style, he made sure that you could see the paint and he didn’t try to soften the brushstrokes, which were being done with academic paintings at the time. His portrayal of the nude woman was different from other nudes at the time. Instead of depicting a sinuous, lounging, woman who looks coyly or seductively at the viewer, he represents a woman who is looking right into the eyes of the viewer. She is not trying to seduce the viewer, instead she looks boldly back. Neither is she being portrayed as an ancient figure of Venus, thus the viewer does not have the excuse that they are looking at the woman for classical reasons. If avant-garde is to challenge the conventions and the ideas of the times, then Manet was successful with his “Luncheon on the Grass”. He was also seen as a leader and a figurehead to the young artists of the time, and those to come, such as Picasso, who wanted to break away from the academic rules of art.