As you walk into sculptor Seward Johnson's "Olympia," you are suddenly immersed in a three-dimensional version of Manet's famous study of a brazen and beautiful prostitute.
"I've taken the vision that comes from a two-dimensional image and given it the power of the third-dimension, which is a presence," says Johnson. "It's like meeting a star … something like that, you know?"
Johnson's life-size versions of artistic icons have been described as Alice stepping through the looking glass, allowing viewers to see the paintings in a new, and more profound way.
"Here she is," says Johnson of his "Olympia," "lying in all her splendor … waiting for us."
Johnson's exhibit, "Beyond the Frame," which just opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., takes on some of the world's best loved impressionist and post impressionist paintings.
"Outside the frame, that's my territory," Johnson explains. "That's where I have my fun."
Fun seems to be a requirement, rather than a perk of Johnson's work. In Claude Monet's "La Japonoaise," he gives the model bare feet and a Samurai looking up her dress.
In Pierre Auguste Renoir's "Dance in the City," it is realized the man is whispering sweet nothings into his partner's ear.
And the behind the scenes view of Manet's "Argenteuil," well, lets just say the subject really is getting a feel of the scenes behind his lady friend.
"Yes, he does seem to be [very friendly with her]," says Johnson of his "Argenteuil." "And of course Manet just didn't know that. It's something that I knew … And voila!"
David Levy of the Corcoran Museum is the first museum director ever to present a Johnson exhibit. This is a big deal, because as the art world sees it, Levy is breaking all the rules by taking a chance with this exhibit.
Levy says, "I mean, Seward Johnson is such a no-no!"
By "no-no," he means many art critics have panned his work as mundane and sappy, even though millions of Americans have been delighted to see Johnson's pieces trucked into their towns and set up in public parks and plazas. His best-known statues are celebrations of ordinary people doing ordinary things.
"It's a kind of contradictory situation between popularity and acceptance," says Levy. "I mean to put it in blunt terms, this guys comes from one of the wealthiest families in America … and it's just not the stereotype."
Indeed, Seward Johnson is no starving artist. He is an heir to the fortune of Johnson & Johnson, the health care products company.
Although he never had formal training in art, in 1968 he started teaching himself to sculpt. Soon after he took part of his fortune and built a foundry, "Grounds for Sculpture," near Princeton, N.J., to construct and cast his pieces, as well as those of other sculptors who work as part of his team to complete the gigantic works of art.
"Art is communication," Johnson says. "I feel art should make you think more intensely. It should make you happy. It should change you."