Helene Grabow, Contemporary Art Curatorial Assistant
It’s hard to say whether my initial interest in Mickalene Thomas’ Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires, 2010, stemmed from my passion for art history or my guilty pleasure of flipping through style magazines. On the one hand, the work’s play on the iconic painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863, by French artist Edouard Manet undoubtedly intrigued me. On the other hand, I cannot deny that I would have been attracted by the saturated color, striking motifs, and stylized models that lend the photograph the air of a fashion spread.
Manet’s painting, long considered a touchtone of modernism, features two fully clothed men picnicking with a nude woman and therefore has often been critiqued for its placement of the female model in a subservient position to the male artist. In her dramatic reinterpretation of the painting, Mickalene Thomas replaces the members of Manet’s luncheon party, all of whom are white, with three chicly dressed, African American women. Gone is the vulnerable, naked woman and in her place are women whose confident poses and arresting gazes suggest that they are engaging the viewer on their own terms. Interestingly, the inspiration for the 70s-style dresses, accessories, and hairstyles comes from Thomas’ mother, who was a model and served as her muse. At the same time that the photograph critiques Manet’s famous painting and the art historical canon, it also serves as a reminder that there are still many contemporary fashion editorials that could be similarly updated through the incorporation of women of color.
These glamorous women could stop passersby in their tracks, and in fact the photograph served as the starting point for a large-scale, three-panel painting encrusted with rhinestones—a commission by New York’s Museum of Modern Art—that was meant to do just that. Thomas shot the photograph in MoMA’s sculpture garden, and managed to position one of the sculptural reliefs from Matisse’s series The Backs as a stand-in for the bathing woman in the background of Manet’s painting. Thomas has explained that the placement of the sculpture was fortuitous but it was not without intent and its presence in the image serves as a symbol of Thomas’ arrival at MoMA, a pantheon of modern and contemporary artists. When the photograph is hanging in the BMA’s Contemporary Wing, the detail provides a special link to the BMA’s exceptional collection of works by Matisse.
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.