From Our Collection is a monthly essay series featuring analysis of the pieces in the Museum of Crypto Art’s Genesis Collection. All essays originally published on the MOCA Forum, where we invite you in to read, explore, and comment on our 240+ crypto art essays.
As with so much of Alotta Money’s work, his brooding Last Luncheon on the Grass is an exercise in extreme irony. Alotta Money always appeared deeply interested in humorous juxtapositions, as well as in the interplay between so-called high and low art. The “high art” inspiration for Last Luncheon is rather easily identifiable, as this piece steals its nymph-ish and bucolic composition directly from one of the masters: Édouard Manet, whose Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe is the original painting that Last Luncheon augments.
But come close, ye faithful, and be amazed as Alotta Money’s subtly animated piece metamorphoses its naked bathers and French dandies into skeletal figures engaged in dread conversation, seemingly ignorant of their impending dooms. Minted at the very beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Last Luncheon is about, in Alotta Money’s words, “Undaunted French people [deciding] to show the deadly virus what free will was all about.” Death is itself a kind of irony: It’s the ultimate end for all human beings, no matter how they strive, protect themselves, or vie against it. I suppose you’d call that dark humor. Alotta Money captures the sudden and inexplicable shift between life and decay; notice how everything in this piece is decomposing, breaking down, becoming odder, drabber, sadder, muted, deceased.
In Manet’s original piece, a naked woman, presumably having remained undressed after a bath in the nearby river, sits for a picnic with two dapper, rather well-dressed men, while behind them an assumedly unobserved woman in a gossamer gown washes herself, all benign and angelic. But in Alotta Money’s reimagining, the theme and context become as dark as the composition, and certainly as dark as the Covid-19-inflected world of existential dread we were all then just coming to understand.
The original Manet piece is characterized by a depressive and muted color-palette, a dampened and dour set of hues that seems a strange choice when considering how simple, even banal, the piece’s subject is: men in conversation, women bathing, and all having an apparently pleasant afternoon of picnicking along a river. Alotta Money takes the mottled color scheme of the original and elevates the details therein to match it. For example, in Manet’s original, the three central figures sit blithely atop a blanket, picnic materials strewn hither and thither, and the forest and river background are much larger, much more present, much more domineering over the rest of the piece. Money takes us in closer, almost claustrophobically so. Manet’s more minute details — the minutiae of picnic equipment smattered throughout his idyllic setting — have been replaced with tabloid newspapers (which ask “Faut-il Avoir Peur du Coronavirus?” or, in other words, “Should we be afraid of the Coronavirus?”) and random rolls of toilet paper, an ode to early-pandemic purchasing stressors. Upon the naked female’s leg, Money has inked the most onerous of tattoos, one which reads “Live and Let Live.” Into the hand of the black-clothed male, the artist has placed a small bottle of what looks like polish, but which could be drugs or medicine. Perhaps it’s simultaneously all of the above.
Okay, so Alotta Money has already imparted his unique, punkish worldview onto this most placid of Impressionist landscapes. And the thing I admire most about Alotta Money is his aptitude for one-upping himself, a kind of internal gamesmanship. As the painting animates towards what I suppose we can call its second stage, we see disparate colors beginning to blur together, becoming wispy, reminiscent of burnt-out 70mm film. On a small rowboat in the background, the silhouette of the grim reaper slowly appears. And we’re treated to an impromptu anatomy lesson as the faces of all four humans peel back (or are wiped away) to reveal expressionless skulls underneath. Money’s point is fairly obvious: Yes, we should be afraid of the Coronavirus, and acting otherwise might be a deadly proposition. Minted on March 15th of 2020, the artist could have had no idea how the world would soon twist to confirm his conjecture.
Now, I was not in France at the outset of the pandemic, but if it had been anything like it were in the United States, then there would have already (as if the populace had been seeking a reason to war with itself) brewed a culture war between those who were fearful of what the pandemic would bring and those who wanted to remained, well, willfully ignorant of it. Last Luncheon is a two-fold criticism of such nonchalance, not just in how it turns an idyllic forest setting into a horrorshow, but how it turns a timeless emblem of French artistic mastery into a thin facade for foolishness. We can see it then as a commentary on all of French society, on its being a stereotype as a bastion of high-minded ideals whereas, in reality, it’s just another place of people, people who are flawed, people who do stupid things, people in denial, people in fear, all who may indeed wear the proper, fitted suits of noblemen, who may paint themselves in thoughtful brushstrokes of green and black and grey and brown, but whom no amount of proper dress can ultimately protect.
When I watch Last Luncheon shift back and forth from its first stage to its second, as it giveth life to its subjects and taketh away, I’m taken aback at the depth and scope of Alotta Money’s social criticism, and I’m haunted by the phantasmic feeling of his ever-burning anger. Can’t you feel the emotion simmering over this image like a layer of gasoline atop still water? As a marker of a certain man’s mindset during a certain time in history, I’ve seen few more successful examples. As itself a primary source of a historical significance moment, I think Last Luncheon justifies itself. As an unforgettable artwork? It’s an Alotta Money. And that — being unforgettable — was kind of his whole thing.
R.I.P. to one of the true crypto art GOATs.