Manet, the Man who Invented Modernity

Christoph Bode gains perspective on a French master and admires an inspirational relationship between the brothers Caillebotte

July 14, 2011

Strange reflections: Manet's mirror in A bar at the Folies-Bergère refuses to show what it should

Manet, the Man who Invented Modernity

Musee d'Orsay, Paris, until 17 July

Impressionism sells. Last year, there was the magnificent Claude Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris. This year, we have Edouard Manet at the Musée d'Orsay and a less highlighted show on the brothers Caillebotte, Gustave and Martial, the painter and the photographer, at the Musee Jacquemart-André.

Manet is sold as "inventeur du moderne" (the English translation "the inventor of modernity" infelicitously misses some over- and undertones). Now, apart from the purely academic question of Manet's relationship to Impressionism; apart, too, from the fact that the Grand Palais' 1983 exhibition was more comprehensive (that is, gave the public more of what it had paid for), and apart from all the hype: what exactly is it that is uniquely modern about Manet's paintings?

When Le déjeuner sur l'herbe was first exhibited in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, the scandal was not only about the nudity of the relaxed female in the foreground, nor about the purported contemporaneity of the subject: even in France, at that time, for two gentlemen to have a picnic with a naked lady on the lawn was less a piece of everyday life than many presume.

No, art critics were enraged by Manet's provocative refusal to exhibit painterly skills. Rejecting the laws of perspective, Manet painted the woman in the pond too large and far too detailed (a fact emphasised by the slapdash manner in which he brought on the foliage "around" her), while the three figures in the foreground look as if they were cut out and pasted on the canvas. As Ernest Chesneau remarked at the time, "He will have talent the day that he learns how to draw and to use perspective." Théophile Thoré was similarly scathing: "I cannot guess what made an artist so intelligent and distinguished choose a composition which is so absurd."

Manet's non-handling of perspective and his foregrounding of the flatness of painting became his signatures more than subject matter or the colours of his palette (light, pure and transparent, "no stews and gravies", as he put it - although there was a progressive darkening in his later oeuvre). Baudelaire's mistress, reclining (1862) was another such absurdity: the doll-like body, head and trunk disproportionally tiny, a twisted (dissevered?) leg sticking out of the ballooning frock. Or the dark Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1867): how the extreme foreshortening of the distance between the firing squad and the unfortunate puppet emperor makes their rifles almost touch his shoulders. Surface painting, but with a political message. The conjunction with The barricade (1871) spells this out: they are firing at one of us. "Mexico" is in the streets of Paris.

Surely, A bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) is the culmination of Manet's systematic breaking of established rules. We have seen the painting so many times. Still, it refuses to be "read" in any rational way. The mirror behind the barmaid refuses to reflect what it should reflect. It doesn't show the same bottles we see in the foreground. The posture of the barmaid in the back is "not quite right". Most of all, the mirror doesn't show us. Instead, there is a dandy chatting up the barmaid, who leans towards him. Is he supposed to be us? By any laws of representational painting, that is impossible.

A bar at the Folies-Bergère is a total rejection of the idea that art should reproduce and reflect reality. As Jules Comte had it, "We should only like to note the fact that in this painting everything happens in a mirror - and that there is no mirror!" Exactly so. Far later, René Magritte would paint a pipe and write underneath, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" - the title of the picture: The treachery of images. But that message was already there in Manet's Bar. And Manet was sick and tired of critics telling him how to do it "right", how to use perspective and make use of the laws of reflection. Idiots, he called them. "I am a camera" was not his slogan. In that sense, Manet was one of the inventors of Modernism.

Was Modernism helped by the advent of photography? Because now it was free to pursue its own ends? The exhibition on the Caillebotte brothers in the Jacquemart-André, which has just ended, suggests an answer, as it traces the artistic dialogue between the painter, Gustave, and his younger composer-photographer brother, Martial. Nobody has yet claimed that Martial made an art of photography, as Nadar did. Maybe he was just a gifted amateur. But there is something fascinating in this juxtaposition of Martial's black-and-whites and Gustave's oils.

They share the same subject matter and a fascination for what is modern: railway lines, steel bridges (see, for example, Gustave's Le pont de l'Europe, 1876), the boulevards and avenues of Haussmann's modern Paris, urban life in general (and it is a chiasmic irony that the Manet exhibition is hosted by the d'Orsay, a former railway station, whereas the Caillebottes are in the incredibly arty dream palais of the Jacquemart-André, a work of art in itself).

More often than not, Martial seems to follow in his brother's footsteps, seeking the same motifs, the same angles, the same perspectives - and both show a marked affinity in their attention to "framing" their objects. Photography and art mutually encourage and inspire each other. If that was already true for the less original Martial, what does it say about the relationship between painting and photography in general?

In 1875, one of Gustave Caillebotte's masterpieces, Les raboteurs de parquet, was rejected by the official Salon. Even today, the play of light on the wooden floor and on the Lawrentian white workers' backs is utterly captivating. Gustave was not deterred by the rejection.

But, as his other incontestable masterpiece, Rue de Paris; temps de pluie (1877), demonstrates, unlike Manet, he became the painter of perspectives, of the urban perspectives offered by Baron Haussmann's "new" Paris.

Within only 17 years, between 1853 and 1870 (coinciding with the reign of Napoléon III), Haussmann demolished, rebuilt and modified some 60 per cent of the city of Paris, destroying whatever was left of "medieval" Paris - provoking the hatred of Charles Baudelaire - and resettling large portions of unruly residents. Haussmann made Paris "the capital of the 19th century" (Walter Benjamin) - and gave it wide-open spaces, boulevards and avenues, "so marvellously accessible to air, light, and the infantry", as the baron himself said with characteristic candour.

For, in creating a public space, the Second Empire not only opened up a space for traffic and recreation but also created a space for surveillance and control: no longer should it be possible to erect barricades in the streets of Paris, as in 1848. This urban architecture was meant to repress uprisings (but think of 1870, think of 1968...). Caillebotte was the painter of that new, modern kind of public space.

He lived in an apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann, and characteristically his point of view is from above (see, for instance, Un balcon, Boulevard Haussmann, 1880) - sometimes so radically that the line of horizon is lost, as in Le boulevard vu d'en haut or in Un refuge, Boulevard Haussmann (all in the same year). "Refuge", by the way, is a traffic island, invented by Haussmann to save the pedestrians from the circulation of modern traffic. The individuals in Caillebotte's paintings all seem like refugees from the circulation of modern life.

Manet's Le balcon (1868-69) is often credited with showing the isolation of individuals in the bourgeois family. But could these figures possibly have any eye contact with each other, looking outside as they do? Caillebotte gave us the reverse shot in Intérieur, femme à la fenêtre (1880). As her husband reads his papers, the wife turns her back and looks outside the window, down on the street. The writer Joris-Karl Huysmans was enthusiastic: this painting epitomised the boredom and the disillusion of modern bourgeois marital life. (But what about the human silhouette behind the window in the opposite building, the Hotel Canterbury? Does she communicate with him/her?)

Pascal said the immense silences of outer space gave him a fright. In Caillebotte, these immense silences have returned to the inner spaces of the bourgeois household. And these private inner spaces find their counterpart in those new public spaces, where you can promenade and amuse yourself, or be observed, be controlled - and charged at. Gustave Caillebotte was the first chronicler of that kind of modernity. Radically underrated, he remains exactingly modern.

The organisers of the Manet exhibition regret that they were unable to recreate the original April 1880 exhibition in the salons of La Vie moderne. It is good news that they failed to achieve this. They shouldn't have tried in the first place. You can never recreate that original moment. Because one major ingredient is always irrevocably missing: the public as it was then. What we have instead is always only us, now. The true modernist moment. Manet and Caillebotte. The refusal and the exact measure of what is "there".


Christoph Bode is chair of modern English literature, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich.

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