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Manet Musings

This spring I was fortunate enough to lead an art history study abroad program to Europe, where I had many amazing, even life-changing, experiences with art. In fact, I had so many of them that I became overwhelmed about blogging and wrote nothing but the occasional Facebook post. But I knew that I needed to start blogging again and that I should probably start with Manet.

I, like almost every modernist art historian I know, adore Manet. And I kind of hate that I love him, given that everyone else does, but I can’t help it. Now over the years, I’ve had lots of artist crushes: in fourth grade, it was Leonardo; in tenth grade, it was Van Gogh; my senior year in high school, it was Monet. But it was in the art history survey class I took as a sophomore in college where I was introduced to Manet in all of his glorious sophistication . . . and I was smitten.

Manet introduced me to the extraordinary world of modern Paris and inspired a passion for nineteenth-century literature: it was Manet who made me want to read Zola and Flaubert and Baudelaire and even Proust, thus taking me into literary spaces that continue to fuel my creative fires (I keep toying around with an idea for a paper on Manet’s Olympia and Zola’s Nana and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance). Manet also helped me to look again at Old Masters that I had dismissed as tired and boring–think Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez–and to discover their conceptual genius and marvelous handling of paint. My interest in earlier nineteenth-century painters such as Goya and Ingres grew sharper because I knew that Manet had prized their work and saw himself as their descendant.

As a first-year doctoral student, Manet was my go-to guy, my good-luck charm, my security blanket. In my theory class, I chose to review a book on Berthe Morisot, in part because I knew of the artist’s close associations with Manet. When I had to pick a paper topic for my Velázquez seminar, I immediately noted the similarities between Manet’s work and the seventeenth-century painter and wrote a Michael Fried-esque paper on theatricality in the philosopher portraits of Veláquez and Manet (and later that year, I presented this paper at my first professional conference). And I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I had to translate Baudelaire’s The Painter of Modern Life for my French qualifying exam–because I had read it before in English while writing a paper on Manet as an undergrad. Looking back, I’m a bit abashed of how tightly I clung to the artist.

And still cling to the artist. My students know how I feel about Manet: how I admire his sophisticated nods to art of the past while recognizing the demands of the contemporary art market; how I relate to Manet’s desire to be both accepted by the Académie and viewed as the leader of the avant-garde in modern French art; and how I respect the complexities of his representations of women. It would be fair to say that I don’t just teach Manet–I preach Manet.

This is a long-winded prologue to my review of the Manet retrospective at the Musée d’Orsay. I saw the show twice: once with students and once with colleagues. The first time I saw it, I was disappointed. The second time I saw it, I was devastated. Not because Manet’s art didn’t amaze, impress, inspire–because it did. Manet’s métier is astounding: his virtuosity in terms of color, of spatial constructs, of light and dark, of form, and of finish are almost unparalleled (but I’ll write about Giotto, Rembrandt, Goya, and Delacroix later). The psychological tension of his works are so much more palpable in person than in an illustration.

In terms of the works that were there, it was astoundingly comprehensive. There were the expected masterpieces of Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass and Bar at the Folies-Bergère. And there were relatively unknown works, such as his An Amazon, or Summer from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, along with a number of rarely-shown religious pieces by this alleged secularist, such as his Saint Francis. And then there were my favorite paintings–those inspired by his love affair with Spanish art. In my opinion, Manet is at his best when he is looking to Velázquez and Goya, and it was thrilling to see his Dead Toreador and Carmen and Lola de Valence and The Balcony displayed side by side.

So Manet’s art was magnificent, but the exhibition of his works wasn’t just flat–it was ugly. The show aimlessly wandered about the artist’s oeuvre, throwing in a few contemporaries’ paintings for variety (although it must have been utterly confusing to the novice as to why one would suddenly see a Morisot or Degas in the mix, as their presence was never explained). With both visits, I found myself moving in and out of rooms, looping back to the beginning and skipping from room to room trying to find some thematic thread that held the show together. All I could come up with was chronology. Seriously, this was the best the organizers could do?

To a Manet lover, this was heartbreaking. I’ve started worrying about the possible ramifications of this failed exhibition: Will future generations look to this exhibition (and its accompanying catalogue, which offers the blandest art history possible), and dismiss Manet as one of those overrated masters? Will he become a has-been as future modernist historians look increasingly to the twentieth century and art of the now? In other words, is Cézanne the new Manet? Will Manet only be of interest in terms of how the likes of Picasso and Murakami appropriated his art? Is Manet now the poster child of the Establishment? And if he is . . . am I, by virtue of my love for him?

Conversation topic: Talk to me about Manet. What does Manet mean to you? Do you like his art? Is he overrated? Am I overly obsessed?

8 comments

1 Alberti's Window { 07.18.11 at 5:12 pm }

I love Manet! No, you are not overly obsessed! Like you said, all modernists (including Greenberg) look back to Manet as a starting point for modernism.

I love all of the black and white contrasts that Manet includes in his paintings, perhaps because the stark juxtapositions remind me a bit of Caravaggio. I also love that Manet distances himself from true illusionism and embraces ambiguity. “Luncheon on the Grass” is especially interesting to me, because it rejects the clear-cut, identifiable narrative that was required of academic art.

2 Robert J. Hudson { 07.19.11 at 2:03 am }

My initiation into the world of Manet took an opposite route, as I was introduced to his genius via Baudelaire. Personally, as far as the 19th-c. and realism are concerned, I still prefer Courbet (and have an affinity for Caillebotte–which we can discuss predilections elsewhere later); nonetheless, I do recognize Manet as the master of the mode. While Courbet set out to shock the world and make a colossal conceptual statement vis-a-vis the unrepresentable, Manet, with his “Olympia,” on the other hand, was more than content to fall in line with Titian, Giorgione, Ingres, Goya, (Cabanel later), etc.. and present the reclined female nude–his Venus–in a fresh and provocative way. Has he become the “poster boy of the Establishment”? I think not. Have Titian and Goya lost their capacity to stun and inspire awe (even if the initial shock has faded) because they were appropriated by subsequent generations? Absolutely not. Between Monet and Manet, the former remains the least imitable but is also the most commercialized (ever?). Manet and “Olympia” sit provocatively on the shoulders of giants and manage to bring in the ineffable–that eternal in the transitory, so dear to Baudelaire–by which he assures his staying power in the canon. Concerning the previous comment, I really like the aligning of Manet with the Carravaggisti, as there certainly is a muted chiaroscuro effect that exudes and embodies early Third Republic Paris.

3 hbj { 07.19.11 at 6:30 am }

Hi Monica! The comparison between Caravaggio and Manet is apt and it really is all about their exploration of tonal contrasts. It’s a bit simplistic, but I tell students that we can think about different kinds of lighting in art as similar to the switching out of light bulbs–you know, Rembrandt uses the soft, amber light with a low wattage, Caravaggio’s light is a bit whiter and brighter, and then Manet puts in that unflattering florescent bulb and suddenly you are confronted with harsh angles and lines. One of the more persuasive arguments I heard at the Manet symposium held at Philadelphia a few years ago was that the graphic quality of Manet’s art–those contrasts between white and dark–stemmed primarily from Manet’s desire to have people notice his art hanging on those overcrowded walls at the Salon. Knowing the likelihood of his art being displayed poorly (“being skyed”), he exaggerated the contrasts so that when people were scanning a wall, their eyes would be drawn to his paintings.

4 hbj { 07.19.11 at 6:53 am }

Bob, I KNEW you were an art historian at heart (I suspected as much when you told me about your transformational Van Gogh experiences). Courbet must be appreciated for his conceptual gestures, but his art is positively desiccated and provides no visual pleasure. I’m too much of a sensualist to care much for Courbet–Caillebotte, on the other hand, is another story. He’s incredibly underrated and I have much to say about his representations of men–but this is the subject of another post. Your comment about Manet capturing Baudelaire’s eternal-ephemeral mandate–an argument one finds in art theory through the ages, but one that he managed to vivify by virtue of his gorgeous prose and dandified persona–is spot on. I really like your use of the word “stun” because I think there is much to be said about that effect with Manet and others. Is this one of the benchmarks of so-called good art?

5 Robert J. Hudson { 07.19.11 at 12:10 pm }

Caillebotte’s series of Raboteurs, his rooftops of Paris, his Place de Clichy under the rain and, of course, his Sails in Argenteuil definitely stunned me at Orsay and in Chicago. Underrated and truly magnificent he is!

While much of his conceptual work may be found lacking, Courbet’s Normand landscapes capture Normandy and embody the esprit du pays better than anyone else ever has. What’s more, his Johnny Depp-esque(!) self-portrait, his pensive Baudelaire (of which I have a reproduction in my office), the coquette “Venus and Psyche” and “Sommeil” provide a sensorial experience to those with even the most voluptuary tastes. Since we speak of artistic paternity here, I align Courbet with one of my all-time favorites Georges de La Tour. Both of their dim, flickering “lightbulbs” reveal marvels on the canvas! [BTW: Thanks for the set-up to allow me to support my predilections.]

6 hbj { 07.19.11 at 12:26 pm }

You are right . . . if you move outside of canonical Courbet, you get sensuality. This is especially true when in comes to his images of women–good heavens, look at his Naissance du monde–or maybe you shouldn’t:). And I’ll concede that some of his portraiture is fabulous–said Johnny Depp-esque portrait especially (which looks to a Delacroix portrait at Rouen that you probably know). Georges de la Tour made me stop and think about specializing in seventeenth-century French painting . . . until I realized that I’d have to spend a lot of time with Le Brun, Vouet, Le Sueur, and so on, and I just couldn’t bear the thought. His St. Joseph was one of my favorites in the Louvre this time around.

7 Mookiemu { 05.22.13 at 7:25 pm }

I used to like Manet when I was in my twenties, but now I find him grossly overrated. Personally I think that Velasquez would have been offended at the comparison.

8 Yy { 06.09.13 at 3:20 am }

i LOVE manet. i think he was incredible both artistically and theoretically. olympia to me is an attempt to undermine the patriarchal hegemony in parisian society at his time. whether he was conscious of it or not, it was revolutionary. i actually used his work as part of my essay on the discursive construct of women…and got a really good grade. am eternally grateful.

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