Sur l'herbe / On the Grass
Series of photographs, (2005-2008)
This series of small-format printed photographs was taken over four consecutive editions of Sónar electronic and avant-garde music festival, held in Barcelona every mid-June. Now, after almost thirty years, the festival has cemented its position as one of the city’s core institutional culture initiatives, as expressed by Ferran Mascarell, Catalan Minister of Culture between 2010 and 2015 (when the nationalist-neoliberal right-wing party CiU was in power in Catalonia’s regional parliament), who called it “the solidest and most energising cultural endeavour that Barcelona has created in the last twenty years” (El País, 8 June 2012).
The series explores the rituals of leisure and the processes of social behaviour among the festival’s audience, which involve a complex transfer between the public and private spheres. The audience’s public intimacy is, in fact, the very spectacle offered by the festival. Relaxing on the fenced grass carpet, the audience revels in itself, as if in a great postmodern kermesse that brings to mind a refugee camp exclusively for the young cosmopolitan elite. The series also alludes to the new role played by the cultural industries in the urban economy, and to the blurred forms of governance and social discipline produced by cultural policies.
The title quotes Édouard Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863); here the grass is literally the artificial turf that covered Plaça Coromines during Sónar festival. The series also recalls other images that have drawn on Manet’s iconic work, consciously or unconsciously, throughout the history of photography. Indeed, this image has had a latent presence in the iconography of working-class leisure since the right to paid holiday was first introduced by the Front populaire government in France, in the summer of 1936 (photographed above all by Cartier-Bresson). Alongside the iconography of Woodstock, Avándaro and summer pop festivals from the 1960s onwards, additional references include Walker Evans’s feature on a Communist Party summer camp in the United States, published in Fortune magazine in 1934; Dino Fracchia’s and other photojournalists’ pictures of the Proletariat Youth Festivals organised by the counterculture magazine Re Nudo in Parco Lambro, Milan, in the 1970s; and Jeff Wall’s The Storyteller (1986) and Citizen (1996), among many others.
This image has a long-term resonance. In one of his later essays (Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe: The Pre-Figurative Function of Elementary Pagan Divinities for the Evolution of the Modern Sentiment towards Nature, 1929), Aby Warburg employs it to link modernity to the iconographic traditions of antiquity. By reworking a scene from the Judgment of Paris featured on a Roman sarcophagus at the Villa Medici in Rome, in this painting Manet, after Raphael and Giorgione, recreates “the representation of a free, illuminated humanity that is sure of itself.” Manet’s archeologising gesture is the same as Raphael’s. Warburg continues: “But we must realise that it is the astrological demonism of the pagan gods that is their most ancient and authentic function (form, original phenomenon), as it survived past the period of their aesthetic spiritualisation.”
Postscript, May 2020
The reverberating light on these bodies stirs other memories as well. After three months of lockdown triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, these images have acquired a new meaning: they have become an allegory of the liberal public sphere. With public life on hold, they now reveal an echo of the iconography of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Free, illuminated humanity in quarantine, awaiting Venus.