In 2006, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Musée d’Orsay gave carte blanche to five members of the Vu Agency to photograph the museum’s staff in front of their favorite paintings inside museum. It let the staff and the photographers to choose a painting and staging. The British photographer Rip Hopkins and the museum security employee named Cyril collaborated to pose in front of Edouard Manet’s Le dejeuner Sur l’herbe. Cyril’s naked pose was a direct response to that of the young woman in the painting.
When it went to publication, Hopkin’s other photos — including one where an employee appears in Rugby attire before Gustave Courbet’s L’Atelier du peintre — were included but the above photo was conspicuously excluded. Although the museum initially defended the decision by saying it only chose photos that are unique and interesting, when a book on contemporary photography included the photo, the museum protested saying Cyril’s image “undermines the dignity of museum.”
In fact, the controversy was ironic because history did repeat itself. In Manet’s time, the portrayal of naked women of ancient history (Greco Roman goddesses) were accepted but a contemporary naked woman casually lunching with two fully dressed men was considered an affront to the propriety. In addition, the painting was hinting at rampant prostitution in Bois de Bologne. Rejected from Paris Salon, as being ‘too big to be a genre piece*, too modern to be pastoral, too mystifying to be a conversation piece’, it appeared at the Salon des Refuses instead. Yet, the controversy catapulted Manet to fame, making him a hero in the eyes of younger artists.
*Indeed, the price of large canvas being what it was (and is!), the large canvases were used mainly for the re-creation of historical, religious, and mythological events. Manet’s depiction of an everyday scene blatantly undermined this tradition.