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On Pleasure (The Picnic)

The Picnic: a microcosm of decadence, a tiny sunlit universe confined to the borders of a blanket. Derived from the French ‘pique-nique’, the term evokes a certain afternoon warmth. Once lifted from a wicker basket, pitchers of lemonade and hard-boiled eggs become a shrine of slow indulgence. Platters of fruit are plucked at languidly, any notion of table etiquette vanishing into the hum of idle conversation. At the Picnic, there is no agenda. Time is warped and irrelevant; the only way to measure the passing of moments is by observing the gradual depletion of the chocolate cake.

The Picnic’s timeless charm has fascinated artists for centuries. It has been depicted as both a solitary and social affair; a space carved out for unaccompanied reflection as well as communal ceremony. Dexter Dalwood’s The Pan European Picnic (2006) adopts the former approach, displaying a Picnic without any participants at all. Remnants of the feast lie scattered across the blanket like confetti, a patchwork square of chaos in an otherwise serene setting. To some, Dalwood’s Picnic is isolated and lonely, but to others it might conjure the notion of peaceful introspection.

Intimate, but also gloriously casual, the Picnic enables its participants to wallow in the most carnal corners of human nature; a sprawling altar of gluttonous gratification. And where there is pleasure, there will be sex. It is no wonder then, that many renderings are often infused with nakedness, sometimes stretching to romance and lust. Impressionist Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863), arguably the most famous Picnic landscape, was rejected by the Paris Salon jury due to its portrayal of two nude women, a scandalous inclusion at the time. One can be seen reclining beside the gentlemen, whilst the other leisurely forages amongst the woodland floor. The viewer of the painting seems to have joined the Picnic a little late; the basket has been somewhat discarded, only a few peaches and the ends of a bread loaf remain. Satisfied by the food, the figures have turned their attention to other forms of enjoyment; each other. The atmosphere feels prickly with voyeurism as different delights bleed into each other.

Robert Lohman’s explicitly titled Naked Picnic (1975) abandons all illusion of propriety and presents a group of unclothed revellers, engaged in all kinds of mischief. Though undeniably framed around food, the offerings are ambiguous and limited; the scene has unravelled into debauchery. Two lovers embrace in the foreground, limbs meshing together, their expressions lethargic with bliss. Against a twilight (or perhaps dawn?) tinged sky, the others cavort and caress amongst themselves, indulging in each other’s company and the animalistic joy of being naked.

In a dazzlingly audacious ode to Manet’s legendary painting of the same name, Oh de Laval’s Luncheon on the Grass (2019) propels the original work beyond any illusion of civility. This time, our reclining lady is open-mouthed and theatrically bashful. She flaunts her breasts, her nipples resembling cherries as if to lure the viewer into the epicurean affair. Her male companions are equally as emboldened; one lays his hand territorially over her plump pink thigh, a mere lace stocking between their skin. The edible offerings are tenderly suggestive; glossy honeydew, bulging apricots and stiff bananas spill clumsily from the basket. The dense thicket shrouds the Picnic in a certain playful secrecy. Here, the artist is unapologetically removing the distinction between different kinds of sensuality; perhaps this is the truest beauty of the Picnic. Pleasure begets pleasure, be it of the erotic or of taste.


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