Manet

June 30, 2011
Manet

Edouard Manet (1832-83) was the complete Parisian and Paris is the ideal place to see his work – and not only because so many of his greatest paintings are to be found in the Musée d’Orsay. A short stroll across the Pont Royal takes us to the Louvre, where Titian’s Fete Champetre (c.1509) provided a model for the painting of 1863 that made Manet’s reputation, Dejeuner sur l’herbe (‘Luncheon on the grass’). Nearby, in the same enormous room that houses the Mona Lisa, one finds Tintoretto’s small self-portrait, painstakingly copied by the young Manet.

Titian, Tintoretto – these were the artists that Manet admired. Later he would be smitten with the Spaniards, Goya and Velasquez, but his sympathies were always with the old masters. He dismayed friends and supporters when he declined to participate in a privately organised group event of 1874, known today as the first Impressionist exhibition. Even though he was recognised as a leader of the avant-garde, Manet did not seek the approbation of a collective.

It has been 28 years since Paris last staged a Manet retrospective, and much research has been done over that time. The result is a Manet who seems rather less radical than the one we previously knew. The earlier Manet allegedly took nothing from the teaching of his early mentor, Thomas Couture, one of the textbook examples of le juste milieu – the lukewarm ‘happy medium’ that has drawn such scorn from modern critics and historians. The new Manet seems to have learned a lot from Couture, and this seems far more plausible.

To be fair, the work of revision began with the late Francoise Cachin’s retrospective of 1983, which aimed to rescue Manet from some of his more reductive admirers. The chief distortion was – to use a philosophers’ term – teleological, which means that we evaluate something in light of the effect it would have at a later date.

The American critic, Clement Greenberg, placed Manet at the beginning of a chain that saw painting grow progressively flatter, rejecting any suggestions of theatricality. This evolution would lead inexorably to the action painting of Jackson Pollock and the stained and poured abstractions of Morris Louis. Consequently 1863, the year that Dejeuner sur l’herbe scandalised Paris, was declared Year One of the Modern movement – one of those bold, seductive simplifications that shape the messy materials of history into the clean lines of fiction.

We love to imagine artists such as Manet as Romantic geniuses, angrily rejecting the past as they forge a new kind of painting, regardless of the hostility of the critics and the masses. But this is a caricature of the truth: the great artists pay their dues like everyone else. Their innovations do not arrive like bolts of lightning.

Of all the French masters of the late nineteenth century – with the possible exception of Degas – Manet was the most complex personality. He is well summed up by the title of Beth Archer Brombach’s 1996 biography, “a rebel in a frock coat.”

A dandy from a well-off background, whose father was a judge, Manet rebelled against almost all the elements of traditional painting. The use of space in his pictures disrupts the carefully thought-out rules of perspective that had ruled since the time of the Renaissance. In Manet’s works, most notably in a large canvas such as The Execution of Maximilian (1868), the space is compressed and flattened.

He is equally disdainful of the convention that paintings must be illuminated by one consistent light source. In works such as Dejeuner sur l’herbe, light is used for dramatic effect, throwing the naked body of the seated woman into striking relief. In many works it seems as if there are multiple or alternative sources of light.

Perhaps Manet’s most significant innovation is the way he refuses to treat the figures in a painting as objects that arrange themselves passively for the viewer’s delectation. In Olympia (1863), to give but the most notorious example, the modern courtesan – short and stocky, with black choker and shoes to accentuate her nudity – stares out at us brazenly. Unabashed by her nakedness, she dares the viewer to be the first one to lower his (undoubtedly “his”) eyes.

The confrontational nature of Olympia is accentuated by the way light falls full flush upon the reclining figure, as if from a doorway the viewer has just flung open. We are taken by surprise, implicated in the scene beyond the point of no return.

This has to be compared to the typical salon nude, such as Cabanel’s Birth of Venus (1863), which Emile Zola compared to pink and white marzipan. Cabanel’s nude is a gorgeous confection of creamy flesh, head thrown back, draped over a rock in an attitude of surrender. The thin gloss of a classical subject acted as an alibi for a socially acceptable form of soft porn.

Manet was not interested in purely passive subjects. In his best paintings the play of gazes is intended to engage and tease the viewer. In Gare St. Lazare (1872-73), a woman looks directly out at us, or perhaps over our shoulder. The small girl at her side looks at something obscured by a cloud of steam from a train. The philosopher, Michel Foucault, suggested that this work showed how Manet was the first to consider the recto and verso of painting, as if to make us aware that there was something behind and in front of the picture – now reconfigured as an object, not a window onto the world.

In Le Balcon (1868-69) three figures framed by the cavernous black space of a window are each absorbed in their own thoughts. One looks to the right, one to the left, another straight ahead. It is the opposite of a conventional ‘conversation piece’ – more a study of modern alienation, with three well-dressed people observing the spectacle of the street below.

It would be fair to say that most painters rely on instinct rather than intellect, but one is always conscious of Manet’s precocious thought processes. Picasso said that Manet’s work proved that painting is a matter of intelligence, but the artist’s intellect was not confined to the studio, it also shaped the way he wished to be perceived.

Like Zola or Baudelaire, Manet believed that in the modern era it was necessary to court popularity. This was to be achieved by a consistent presence at the official Salons. Even allowing for the solo ‘retrospective’ he held in 1867, in emulation of Courbet, Manet never lost sight of the huge attendances at the much-reviled salons, while the break-away shows appealed to only a small group of cognoscenti. In time, disenchanted avant-gardists such as Renoir and Monet would come to share this view.

Towards the end of his career Manet would achieve the success he craved, receiving numerous portrait commissions and the Légion d’honneur. At the same time he painted some of his most overtly political works, showing left-wing sympathies that sit oddly with his bourgeois roots and aspirations. One might speculate that Manet’s taste in both painting and politics was an intellectual affair, unencumbered by received ideas and prejudices.

This retrospective may sound stupendous, but it has many surprising flat spots. It is not only that one regrets the absence of several great works, notably A Bar at the Folies-Bergères (1881-82), from the Courtauld Institute in London; it is the inclusions that prove troublesome. The emphasis on Thomas Couture’s influence has been over-corrected, with too many pictures by this staid and opportunistic artist. As for Manet, his own late portraits show a falling-away of his powers, almost certainly as a result of the tertiary syphilis that would bring about his premature death.

The problem may be that it is increasingly difficult to find anything new to say about artists such as Manet, Monet or Degas, who have been so exhaustively analysed over the past few decades. This leads museums to exaggerate the importance of minor discoveries, and to pad exhibitions with supplementary material of dubious value. Orsay director, Guy Cogeval sees this as a policy of going back to “basics”, but it is also a strategy of sticking to a tested product, at the risk of doing it to death.

After having viewed large exhibitions by Gino Severini and Kees Van Dongen over the past week, it was striking how conservative Manet seemed in comparison. The point, however, is that later artists were beneficiaries of the breakthroughs Manet made in rewriting the rulebook of modern art. If his paintings seem less startling today, this was not the way they appeared to his contemporaries. Théophile Gautier, for instance, was bewildered but impressed by this “strange painting that seems to be everything that art is not, yet relates to it.” Even to his peers Manet was a paradox. If he seems less surprising today it is only because the world has grown so much stranger.

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, June 25, 2011

Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, until 3 July