Some works of art transcend the gallery. These rare examples are translated into wider culture, seeping into our consciousness by sheer force of beautiful familiarity. How many people will namecheck Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass each day? Not many, one would imagine. Show them the extraordinary painting, however, and the flicker of recognition is instant. The image does not belong to Manet any more than it does the painting’s current owner. For great art such as this is a universal possession, and as such we do so much more than simply observe it.
Experiencing this level of beauty is to participate in the art itself - to elevate the experience from the canvas to the very air we breathe. Small wonder Jeff Koons, the legendary contemporary American artist, marks it out as a seminal piece in his oeuvre. More than that, it is a primary motivation for Koons’ own work. “Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass is one of the most important paintings to me,” he says. “The painting is the symbol, kind of the avant-garde. When this work was made and shown in the salon, to have this woman just nude, sitting there, was a very stark contrast from the more spiritual, ephemeral-type quality that you maybe see a woman positioned in.”
Indeed, Manet was surely aware when sitting at the easel of the ground he was breaking with each sweep of the brush. In an era when women were held up as virtual deities, to be admired for their virtue rather than fleshly beauty, it was an abrupt break with tradition. Hence the almost physical punch it has wielded ever since, as an undisputed masterpiece in the artistic tradition. Sharing this experience in a modern context was the inspiration for Jeff Koons when he embarked on his collaboration with the like-minded aesthetes at Louis Vuitton. The combination of their sympathetic skills – ultimate craftsmanship using only the finest of materials – has culminated in the Masters Collection.
Admiring the Louis Vuitton Neverfull bag adorned with Manet’s masterpiece, Koons remarks: “When somebody walks down the street with this bag or they are sitting in a café with this bag, it’s communicating a love of humanism.” How very like Manet himself, who defied the expectations of his wealthy family to become an artist. Selecting this masterpiece for the Masters Collection, Koons says, is a way of sharing his admiration of Manet with the world. Now, by reproducing legendary masterpieces in exquisite detail on a range of Louis Vuitton products, his canvas has been extended beyond measure. “They are part of my DNA,” says Koons of his relationship with the Masters Collection.
In this age of neon-bright electronic communication, it is easy to underestimate just how powerful Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass was back in 1863. The artist scandalised Paris society by showing the canvas at the Academy of Fine Art’s Paris Salon. The Salon rejected it, regarding the brazen female nudity as obscene, which led to a huge public uproar and drew huge crowds to the alternative Salon des Refusés. The painting, which today hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, drew praise from no lesser a critic than the great novelist Emile Zola. As for Koons, he wants it to be viewed as widely as the imagination will allow. Hence its reproduction across the range of Louis Vuitton products in their collaboration. From the resplendent Montaigne MM bag to the elegant Silk Square scarf, the provocative presence of Manet is as unmistakable as the unique JK/LV intertwined motifs that constitute an unique aspect of this unforgettable range.