Sunday, January 27, 2008

Edouard Manet: Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

This past week marked the 176th anniversary of the birth of the great Edouard Manet. A realist in his early years, and later a close friend of (and inspiration to) the Impressionists, and something of an impressionist in his own right, however much he may have eschewed such artificial categories, Manet was one of the most brilliant and accomplished painters of the 19th century, and his work remains widely celebrated -- and justifiably so. He and his work -- and above all the masterpieces Olympia (1863) and Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) -- were enormously influential, and he was a key forerunner both of Impressionism and of modernism generally.

From the very start of his career, as with The Absinthe Drinker (1958), Manet portrayed in his art the affairs both high and low of the people of his time, that is, he portrayed life as it was being lived from a detached yet intimate perspective -- like the great novelists who were his contemporaries, he was a keen observer of the world around him. He is noted in particular as a sort of chronicler of the lives of the mostly haute bourgeoisie -- their daily activities and especially their entertainments presented, as with such exemplary works as La Musique aux Tuileries (1862), The Balcony (1869), and Masked Ball at the Opera (1873) -- but he examined an impressively broad spectrum of French society, and in particular urban French society, as with Corner of a Café-Concert (1880), one of the essential works in the permanent collection of London's National Gallery. And there were his explicitly political and historical works, too, such as The Barricade (1871, another version here), the multiple versions of The Execution of Maximilien (1867-69), and a naval scene from the U.S. Civil War, The Battle of the Kearsarge and the Alabama (1864).

My favourite of Manet's paintings is below, Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère (1882). Consider the intricacy, the fascinating details -- such as the feet of a trapeze artist in the upper-left-hand corner -- the amusing fact that Manet signed his name on the beer bottle in the lower-left-hand corner, the uncertainty of perspective (is that a mirror behind the young woman?), and what attracts me the most, the look of melancholic introspection of the young woman behind the bar, a real woman named Suzon, staring into space, through and past the crazy Parisian world around her, an island unto herself -- or is it numbness?

For more, I recommend a piece by Jonathan Jones that appeared in The Guardian in 2000: "The dislocation of Suzon's world is deliberate. Paris is a hall of mirrors where Suzon floats helplessly, clinging to her bar... Manet captures the coolness, cruelty and glamour of modern life. This is one of the keystones of modern art." I'm not so sure she's clinging to her bar, her anchor in a sea that threatens to overwhelm her, and I'm not so sure she's floating helplessly. To me, she is lost in thought, in the world but not of it, working but, in her mind, elsewhere. It is the mystery of Suzon, as much as the Paris of Manet's time, that enraptures me.

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