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Painting through the Wall Isabelle Graw on Édouard Manet at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Édouard Manet, "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe", 1863; Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt Édouard Manet, "Le déjeuner sur l'herbe", 1863; Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

Critics have rightly found fault with the show at the Musée d’Orsay for singling out Manet, once again, as the sole inventor of modernism. [1] They have a point—the comprehensive exhibition’s focus is indeed on Manet as a singular individual. Still—and this, to my mind, is its great merit—the show seeks to take the social dimension of his work into account by embedding the artist and his oeuvre in a great variety of interrelations. It might be objected, of course, that opening Manet’s oeuvre toward its contexts in social history is something scholars of art have long accomplished. [2] Yet the insight, for instance, that especially his later paintings—most importantly his "Nana" (1877), which is unfortunately not included in the exhibition—do not merely immerse themselves in female life-worlds but moreover emblematically stage social shifts in the example of new images of femininity, had previously been accessible only to readers of scholarly literature and not to exhibition visitors. [3]

The Paris show, by contrast, incessantly confronts the beholder with the fact that Manet’s paintings have the ability to break down, or rather: to explode, the boundary between their inside and their outside. They can do so in a variety of ways, for instance by means of allegory; thus in "L’Olympia" (1863), where the black servant-woman not only embodies the other but also literally brings the merciless rule of economic forces in the outside world into the picture. It is she, after all, who tries to hand a bouquet (presumably sent by a benefactor) to the courtesan resting on the canapé, reminding us of how her employer remains economically dependent, despite the appearance of self-sufficiency. Relations of economic dependency, that is to say, enter into the scene of the closed interior—just as the maid must secure her employer’s continued benevolence, the prostitute could not sustain her lifestyle if her patrons failed to continue to appreciate and bankroll her services. On the other hand, the contemporary literature also reveals that courtesans could be quite petulant and imperious, pitilessly keeping male desire in check. It was only when they aged that their power waned; see the example of Dumas’ "Lady of the Camellias" (1848). An aura of pride and confidence accordingly surrounds the young woman in Manet’s portrait, who seems to have no need for her admirers’ affections, paying no attention to the bouquet of flowers. Crucially, however, the transition between the interior and the outside world proves fluid here, an instability Manet often also hints at by symbolic means, such as the balcony railings and lattices that appear in many of his paintings. They are emblematic of the fact that the boundary between the private space and the public sphere has become permeable. Manet’s obsession with transparent fabrics such as laces and veils likewise suggests that permeability is his central theme; thus in "La maîtresse de Baudelaire" (1862), which shows the poet’s lover enthroned in a huge dress transmuted into an abstract expanse of white before a sheer white lace curtain that tellingly serves as a sort of upper picture frame. "Berthe Morisot à l’éventail" (1872), too, is illuminating in this regard: a black lace fan conceals the sitter’s face. Derrida had already identified transparent fabrics and, even more importantly, the veil as exemplary "parerga", which, he argues, raise the question of the relationship between the picture’s inside and its outside, making a rigorous distinction between what is intrinsic and what is extrinsic to it fundamentally impossible. [4] Manet’s painting points up that any attempt to determine unambiguously what is within its frame and what is not would ultimately rest on an arbitrary decision. For his paintings never end at their frames; they always exceed them. That is most clearly recognizable in his "Courses de Longchamp" (1867), where the racehorses with their jockeys gallop straight at the beholder. This painting does not merely assert that it reaches out into the world beyond its varnish; it forcefully irrupts into the lives of those who stand before it. We are inevitably reminded of T.J. Clark’s observation that the form of this new art cannot be discussed independently of its subject matters. [5]

The Paris exhibition offers a particularly good opportunity to study such perpetual interplay between form and content, between method and motif. As an example among many, let me mention "La liseuse" (1879–80), a painting set near the end of a stroll through the exhibition in a thematic section devoted to Manet’s portraits of more fashionable women. The loose and quasi-Impressionist style with which the paint has been applied as though in passing corresponds to the liberalization of mores the picture manifests. The motif of the woman seated by herself in a beer garden and immersed in reading a fashion magazine captures the place the women of the late nineteenth century have recently conquered in the public sphere, and more precisely the activities that result from this increase in visibility. Her gaze is accordingly ever so slightly distracted; she peers over the pages of her magazine, which the painter suggests with a few rough and rapid brushstrokes, as though seeking to keep an eye on her environment—pick up on opportunities for flirtation or assess other women’s getup—while displaying herself. The painting builds a monument to the female voyeur and her tendency to superficially appraise what she sees even on the level of pictorial technique: it looks like a perfunctory sketch; as though Manet, who had frequently been reproached for showing unfinished and sketch-like pictures, had chosen, toward the end of his life, to feed the flames, having the backing of the Impressionists in this regard.

The exhibition clearly indicates its emphasis on social history from the very outset: it starts with Henri Fantin-Latour’s group portrait "Hommage à Delacroix" (1864). The painting can be read as striking evidence that Manet, far from operating as a maverick, worked in close association with friendly critics and writers. He is suggestively the only artist of the many included in the scene who is framed by two critics, Baudelaire and Champfleury. In real life, Manet had also received strong support from Zola, and later collaborated closely with Mallarmé. The appearance of critics and painter as peers in the picture also recalls that back then, unlike now, the critic merited, and was accorded, a status equal to theirs.

The writings of the critics are laid out in various glass cases scattered throughout the exhibition rooms; this visitor would have wished to find more information on Manet’s fellow painters and innovators, such as Whistler or Legros. Yet the show does not enter into a sustained engagement of the "generation of 1863" (Michael Fried). Instead, it draws attention to the influence of Manet’s teacher Thomas Couture, which has still not been sufficiently appreciated, by integrating some of Couture’s pictures. He had everything Manet aspired to at the beginning of his career—his works earned recognition at the Salon and fetched high prices in the art market. A mixture of the anxiety of influence and patricidal instinct probably fueled the fierce quarrels between Manet and his teacher we know of; Antonin Proust reports that Manet firmly refused to be called, like Couture, a history painter. [6] Yet despite these attempts to distance himself, his paintings bear the distinct traces of Couture’s pictorial method, as the exhibition shows. Couture’s "Portrait d’Henri Didier" (1844), for instance, evinces many qualities Manet’s early portraits, such as "L’enfant à l’épée" (1861) would pick up and take further: the seemingly artificial light on the face that seems to radiate from the luminous white the collar; the emphasis on the staged aspect of the figure—the model is patently posing for the artist and the beholder alike; and the tendency to point to the specific material quality of painting by applying the paint in thick blotches in selected places, such as the hanging sword belt, again in order to emphasize the inauthentic and artificial aspect of the depiction. This emphasis on the materiality of the paint, I believe, should not be understood solely in the modernist sense, as painting’s reflection on its own medium, a deliberate return to the specificity of the genre. Rather, the primary issue, I would suggest, is a final farewell to the old aesthetic ideal of the semblance of life. For unlike Couture, Manet had his early figures emerge, as though out of thin air, from the brownish-earthy background, painted now coarsely, now in saturated colors. Couture, by contrast, had still worked, thus in "Portrait d’Henri Didier" (1844), to furnish his paintings with elaborate backdrops, draperies, and accessories, as though to highlight the credibility of the figure he depicted. Where Couture labors to create the impression of animation, Manet’s "Le petit Lange" (1861) seems to exaggerate the old cliché that the artist, in a godlike act of creation, fashions his figures from dust in a way that sets the stage for its ultimate disposal. Manet’s works always clearly show that the impression of animation is a fiction—an artificial effect produced by the means of painting. [7] The importance of posing and the pose in his art accordingly only increased over time; the culmination of this tendency appears in "Le fifre" (1866), a flute-player who looks like a cut-out, almost falling out of the picture, which emphasizes the artificiality of his appearance as well as the physical drill and discipline the boy’s trade required.

Although central works such as "Bar aux Folies-Bergère" (1881–82) are absent from the exhibition, the show succeeds in illustrating how, in light of the era’s expectations regarding painting, a picture such as "Le déjeuner sur l’herbe" could cause such a stir at the Salon des Refusés. Interestingly, the critics led the charge in censuring Manet for allegedly leaving painting behind, stepping beyond the bounds of the genre. They did, in other words, sense that it was painting as a firmly circumscribed entity that was under threat here; although, as an essay in the catalogue recalls, not all critics expressed negative views. [8] But the caricatures published at the time offer striking evidence that "Le déjeuner sur l’herbe" drew a lot of scorn and derision. The critic Castagnary, for instance, classed it as "bad painting"—and back then, that label was not yet meant as a compliment. [9] However even today’s beholder can understand how the picture must have struck the contemporaries as an affront. As though in a collage, the canvas not only presents a juxtaposition of different painterly styles, ranging from Raphael to Titian and Chardin. The picture also seeks to blend a variety of genres—the portrait, the landscape, the still life, the history painting—attesting not only to Manet’s presumptuous attitude, but also to his declaring the boundaries between the genres obsolete. We are obviously not looking at any sort of "pure painting" in the modernist sense. Not only have the barriers between the picture and the world outside it been torn down, as the direct gaze the female act casts upon the beholder, a feature many art scholars have discussed, demonstrates with striking intensity. What is more, the painting overcomes the intra-aesthetic orders and demarcations that had been in force until Manet: a picture that, we might say, already adumbrates the "post-medium condition" (Rosalind Krauss) of art.

It is a pity that the show’s title—"Manet, inventeur du Moderne"—would seem to perpetuate the modernist narrative in which Manet figures as the father of pure painting. The curators hasten to distinguish modernity in the sense they intend—the modernity of Baudelaire—from the modernism of, say, Clement Greenberg. But in today’s perspective, there is more at stake in Manet than merely the execution of a Baudelairean program, as the exhibition, malgré soi, as it were, in fact quite adeptly illustrates. There can be no doubt that Manet, like Baudelaire, devoted himself to the phenomena of "modern life", as the section "Le moment Baudelaire" demonstrates with remarkable clarity. The problem is just that the impression sometimes arises that Manet took Baudelaire’s themes—the praise of artificiality and maquillage, down to the black cat of "L’Olympia" (1863)—a little too literally, implementing them assiduously and almost one-to-one in his paintings. In his pictures from the early 1860s, the Baudelairean concept is indeed patently pervasive, but, I believe, they indicate a much more consequential double movement: Manet contaminates the specificity of painting by supercharging it with its social conditions while incessantly reminding the beholder of its specificity, for instance by emphasizing the material qualities of the application of paint. This paradox—that despecification is compatible with the insistence on specificity—acquires explosive force today, as the boundaries between the arts dissolve while painting retains its special status. To my mind, the show would have benefited from bringing out such affinities between Manet’s art and issues in contemporary art with greater clarity.

(Translation: Gerrit Jackson)

Édouard Manet, "Manet, inventeur du Moderne", Musée d’Orsay, Paris, April 5—July 3, 2011.


[1]See Peter Geimer, "Manet in Paris. Kann ein Mann die Moderne erfinden?",, April 14, 2011.
[2]From T.J. Clark’s legendary history of the reception of his oeuvre, which first enabled readers to truly grasp the scandal "L’Olympia" (1863) caused, to Carol Armstrong’s brilliant study of the connections between Manet’s painting, the construction of identity, and the crucial techniques on which rests, such as maquillage or fashionable self-staging. See T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life. Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986) and Carol Armstrong, Manet Manette (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).
[3]See Beth Archer Brombert, Édouard Manet. Rebel in a Frock Coat (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 139.
[4]See Jacques Derrida, "The Parergon", in The Truth in Painting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), S.15–148.
[5]See Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, 5.
[6]Antonin Proust, Édouard Manet: Souvenirs (Paris: H. Laurens, 1913), 31.
[7]See Barbara Wittmann, "Anti-Pygmalion. Zur Krise der Lebendigkeit in der realistischen Malerei, 1860–1880", in Armen Avanessian, Winfried Menninghaus, Jan Völker, eds., Vita aesthetica. Szenarien ästhetischer Lebendigkeit (Zurich and Berlin: Diaphanes, 2009), 177–91.
[8]See Stéphane Guégan, "Manet en vue, Manet à vue", in Guégan, ed., Manet inventeur du Moderne, exh. cat. (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2011), 33.
[9]See Archer Brombert, Rebel in a Frock Coat, 131: "Before the exhibition of the refusés, we could not imagine what a bad painting could be. Now we know."