Edouard Manet, Exploring the Inner Man, Metropolitan Museum of Art (1983)



 The extremely violent and unfair attacks on Edouard Manet (1832-1883) on aesthetic and moral grounds by French Academy artists, the public and most critics during his lifetime are well known. His original, intensely realistic vision and uniquely fluent oil technique (at the Metropolitan Museum through November 27) revealed the lie of academic formula, just as his straightforward approach to the nude ripped aside the hypocrisies of pseudo-mythological innocence masking essentially lascivious intentions. Such a vibrant, living art could not be allowed to exist unchallenged by the cultural boors and barbarians of the day.


 Not unnaturally in our time, after a century's dilution of art by a superficial "art-for-art's-sake" emphasis, today's critics speak of Manet mainly in terms of his aesthetic accomplishments, nearly ignoring the considerable power and implications of his content.


 This fixation on Manet's aesthetics is understandable, in a way, because they are so striking. The story of the paint itself is exciting with its pebbly, thickly, freely, coarsely brushed areas in the hands, face, flute, carrying case and spats of "The Fifer," for example, contrasted with the thin, smoothly and deftly blended paint of jacket, trousers and background. Such contrasts and verve in paint handling are quintessentially Manet, and appear in varying degrees in all his paintings. Also very personal, is an equally natural blockiness or direct simplicity of form seen in heads and hands, in which the paint, nicely pasty in substance, is patted and pulled into a satisfying semblance of snub noses, broad cheeks, big ears, thick lips and stubby fingers and thumbs.


 But these characteristics might be empty virtuosities without an equally weighty content. His people are vital and alive, but with an increasingly introspective melancholy and isolation that seem reflective of Manet's own personal alienation from the conventional art world of his time and its official successes he so craved.


 Also very important in accounting for the sober appearance and mood of many of his people, is the fact that in 1879 at age 47, the first symptoms of locomotor ataxia, the third stage of syphilis, began appearing. This disease would kill him four years later. During the last years of his life, Manet grew so weak while painting that he would have to throw himself on a couch in his studio, lying down until he could recoup enough strength to continue. It seems distinctly probable that the presence of the disease, even during its quiescent stages, must have had its affect on his system and state of mind.


 It seems clear as well that there is a general malaise of spirit in French, perhaps world, culture of the time as revealed by the desire to escape the pressures of the day evident in Impressionist painting and attitudes. Gauguin's flight to Tahiti is the archetypal symbol of the age. Also important in expressing this negative atmosphere, are the café, cabaret and opera pictures of Manet, Degas, Lautrec, Renoir and Cassatt which speak not of enjoyment but the alienation of one person from another, often male from female.


 Manet's strikingly unusual use of light and dark -- literally white versus black -- of almost spectral intensity, powerfully contrasted in painting after painting, seems expressive of deep-seated, perhaps warring opposites within society and his own character which he seeks to reconcile through the cathartic experience of his art.


 Light and dark have, of course, the deepest symbolic resonance and significance ranging from the "light" of the sun, good, God, Christ (the Light of the World), consciousness, enlightenment and spiritual fulfillment, to the "dark" of night, dreams, death, unconsciousness, the unknown, evil, despair, ignorance, etc.


 The flashingly bright nude body of model Victorine Meurent contrasts strongly in "Olympia" with the black background, and again in "Luncheon on the Grass" with the dark-jacketed men. Pale flowers against dark backgrounds; a white-bellied fish next to a dark pot; a dark chest of drawers half covered by a white cloth; Emile Zola's gleaming white book nearly stabbed into his black coat; the shining collar, trousers, hat, tablecloth and pot in "Luncheon in the Studio," radiant and radiating from the young man's centered, dark coat, are a few of many examples of the intensely symbolic, expressive relationship of light and dark in Manet's paintings.


 Manet's lithograph, "Cats' Rendevous," featuring black and white felines in curling, nearly yin-yang contortions recalling Van Gogh's spiraling cloud in "Starry Night," couldn't be a clearer example of intensity of contrast and feeling revealing an artist's inner needs.


 His "Masked Ball," 1873-74, with men in black top hats and evening clothes contrasted with some of the women in white, again strikingly expresses the deepest levels of psychic fantasy operative within the artist. This was no doubt stirred up, in part, by the excessive and unwarranted criticism of his art which forced him into a corner, making him question the legitimacy of his achievements, requiring him to re-evaluate and re-substantiate his artistic and life goals in the face of the howls of the mob.


 Interestingly and revealingly, among Manet's choices of subject following the debacles of public ridicule and attack against "Luncheon on the Grass" in 1863 and "Olympia" in 1865, are "Jesus Mocked by Soldiers," 1864-65, "Dead Christ with Angels," 1864, four versions of "The Execution of Emperor Maximillian," 1867, "The Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama," 1864, and other works related to these warships.


 Manet, in his suffering and alienation, is identifying with Christ and Maximillian. The artist is literally being put to death, as it were, by the ignorant and evil forces of the world. The conflict between the warships is clearly the struggle within himself and with the world at large.


 "The Railroad," 1872-73, is a remarkable painting expressing Manet's personal isolation and sense of being trapped by his destiny: an unconscious and unintentional artistic revolutionary trapped in a bourgeois skin...aside from whatever effect his hidden illness may be having upon him. The black bars, of course, are the key pictorial element separating the young girl and the older woman (Victorine Meurent again), both dressed in dark colors, from the realization of their hopes and dreams symbolized by the white immateriality of the steam (we have black and white again). However, the girl facing away from us through the bars toward the steam is too young to fully know of thwarted desires, which knowledge Manet certainly possesses and presents to us in the saddened gaze of the older woman.


 The isolation is strongly expressed again in the sad meditations of the girl seated over her drink, chin and cigarette in hand, elbows on the table, in "The Plum," 1878, and in the averted gazes of customers and barmaid alike, who totally fail to interact with one another in "Café Concert," 1878, and "Girl Serving Beer," 1879.


 The great "Bar at the Folies-Bergere," 1882, painted the year before he died, is a masterpiece of vivid realism, sumptuous paint quality, significantly contrasted lights and darks, and subtle, exquisite color, value and shape relationships. It is also the wistful portrait of a barmaid pinioned between the bar and mirror behind her glittering with the reflected gaiety and vitality of life. There can be no doubt that the girl is Manet himself, sorrowfully aware that his end is near, the disease so weakening him now that he cannot escape the inevitability of his demise, which occurs in the spring of 1883. For him, participation in life is as fleeting and unattainable as the insubstantial reflections behind the barmaid.


 In the two versions of "The Escape of Rochefort," 1880-81, a radical Republican fleeing prison by rowboat through churning, turbulent seas, Manet expresses his own desire to flee his fate. One of the artist's few mediocre paintings, the stagy "Lion Hunter," 1881, who kneels before his fallen prey, may well be a symbolic, but ineffectual attempt to slay the "lion" of his devouring disease.


 The 1879 painting, "In the Conservatory," depicts a man hovering ardently over a woman amidst lush, nearly tropical, life-enhancing greenery. It again suggests -- beyond the surface reality of Manet's life as sophisticated boulevardier -- his attempted linking of opposites (perhaps this time male and female aspects equivalent to his expressive use of black and white). However, the artist's life-long quest for apparent union with, or integration of, his conscious and unconscious needs, seems to meet yet another rebuff from the vaguely gazing, unresponsive woman (the man is actually Jules Guillemet, though looking very much like a self-portrait).


 In three late garden landscapes of 1882, pathetically touching in view of the physical debility sending him to the country in vain hope of regaining some strength, two have paths leading to a blocking wall or house façade, the third toward a vaguely discernible, tree-shrouded building. In the dematerialization of the later work, one senses that Manet's trying physical journey has come nearly to its end, that he is about to commence the journey of the spirit.


 Of questionable satisfaction following a lifetime of artistic effort and insult, was the Legion of Honor awarded Manet, the result of political pressure by his friend Antonin Proust, late in 1881, sixteen months before the artist's death. But Manet and his work have been vindicated by impartial history. As Zola wrote during the furor of 1865 -- losing his position as critic for doing so -- "A place in the Louvre is reserved for Manet. It is impossible, impossible I say, that he will not have his day of triumph."


Copyright by Don Gray


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