Reinventing the meal

An ingenious approach to Manet's 'Le dejeuner sur l'herbe' helped put pupils in the picture, reports Donald Short

Appreciating art is not always easy. Simply describing a painting can be boring, especially to children who are more impressed by the modern moving image. The shock of a painting such as Manet's "Le dejeuner sur l'herbe" (1863) has completely diminished. It has a naked woman - certain to cause a giggle, but little else. Compared with images in magazines such as Loaded or FHM, or Britney's latest video, it's no match. What's more, like so many great paintings, copies of it on everything from tea-towels to T-shirts have rendered it somewhat pointless, its structure and meaning buried by the image's ubiquity.

It shows four people - three in the foreground, one of whom isn't dressed, and one partially-clad figure in the background. How could that have caused any shock? I believe children won't come to enjoy or even understand paintings such as this unless they can be brought back to life, even reinvented.

Ideally, it would be good to see the work itself, but that would mean a trip to the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Instead I relied on the internet and first asked my Year 7 class how was the painting made.

No one had any idea. I asked them how EastEnders was made. There was a general consensus that it was filmed, but it was not clear how. In real time? In bits? I asked them if it was planned. They all thought it was, and most had heard of the word "script". It was agreed that Manet may have practised aspects of the painting before he made the final piece.

Then I asked them where it was made. In a studio? In a wood? And so it went on until, gradually, a realistic story emerged about the origins of the painting.

Like many of his contemporaries Manet was academically trained. This training was sanctioned by the state, under the control of the cole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Anyone who really wanted to succeed followed this established route through the school.

The ultimate prize was then to have your work accepted by the Salon, an annual exhibition - the only acceptable market place for graduates from the cole des Beaux Arts. Winning a medal at the Salon was a ticket to success, and usually several well-paid commissions. Beaux Arts training would begin with plaster casts of antique figures that were regarded as the paradigm of beauty, progressing when it was deemed suitable to real nudes that artists would be taught to idealise after the style of the antiques.

In mile Zola's novel The Masterpiece (1886), the character Fagerolles, who attends the cole de Beaux Arts, tells friends how his teacher criticised his life drawing. "Those two legs aren't well balanced," the teacher Mazel says. Referring to the model, Flore Beauchamps (in real life, for Manet, Victorine Meurend), Fagerolles replies: "I know they aren't. Neither are hers." The teacher retorts, "Well, they ought to be." Truth to nature, as represented by Flore Beauchamps' imperfect legs, wasn't important.

I showed my pupils some of these academic drawings: isolated, posed figures that would later become part of larger historical compositions. This not only helped to explain how Manet may have constructed the work (the four characters were certainly painted separately), but also how his painting diverged from what was considered to be appropriate subject matter and technique.

Manet's painting was rejected by the Salon but then exhibited at the famous Salon des refuses, an alternative exhibition in an adjacent gallery, set up as a result of public pressure and offering a inversion of mainstream artistic taste - not unlike today's Not the Turner Prize.

I wanted to give back to Manet's work some of its original shock value.

Pupils reset the scene in the world of today. The nude woman metamorphosed into Posh Spice, Kylie Minogue and Delia Smith, while her male companions ranged from Robin Cook to Paul Gascoigne. One even brought Osama Bin Laden, George Bush and Jordan together.

For the background, some chose a similar pastoral setting or placed streets, carparks or cityscapes behind the figures. We also looked at the 1981 album cover See Jungle! See Jungle! by Bow Wow Wow.

Finally, we looked more carefully at the composition. The solution to making this interesting for the pupils was to make them part of the composition itself. Using digital camera and a nearby pond, groups of pupils took turns with the camera and reconstructed the shape of the painting, using themselves as the subjects (without the nudity).

Kinaesthetically, visually, technologically, they had forged a new relationship with the work of a "boring old artist".

Donald Short is head of art at Moyles Court School, Ringwood, Hampshire


* Share with students sketches, grids and cartoons showing the work behind paintings.

* Look at the work of artists of the time and help students pick out differences.

* Discuss how the scene would be shown today. What are equivalent characters or settings?

* Make collages from magazine cut-outs or internet images.

* Get students to pose compositions using digital cameras. What lines make a composition unique?

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