Having done proper homage to Monet in my last post, let me turn to my two favorites among the impressionist group: Manet and Degas. While Monets accomplishment wins my highest respect, his work does not excite me the way the work of Manet or Degas (or, of course Cezanne) does. The reason is simple: I am a lover of structure, of solving the problem of controlling the surface within the frame. Monet mostly ignores it; Renoir is even worse.
Manet and Degas were older than the others in the group, and had learned form and composition before their exposure to impressionist ideas. Manet, in fact, never admitted to being an impressionist, albeit a member of their circle. And he was not; his enterprise was never defined by impressionist theory or practice. His mission was to force the viewer to admit that, whatever the subject of the work, a painting is only paint applied to a surface, that art is ultimately only about art.
One way in which Manet emphasized his creed of “art for art’s sake” was by frequently referring to the work of other artists in his own work. A fascinating example of this is his “Fifer” which refers back to a work by Antoine Watteau, “The Pierrot”. This work is unique in Watteau’s oeuvre, unlike any other work he did. A travelling player in the traditional Pierrot dress stares directly at the viewer, expressionless, more a role than a person. Manet’s “Fifer” has the same bland eye contact without expression, defying the viewer to make any personal contact with him.
Let me continue with more of Manet’s references to earlier paintings. His “Olympia” created a scandal when it was displayed in Paris. This is clearly a Parisian Courtesan receiving you the viewer, her client and accepting the bouquet you have brought with you. The reaction of the cat is the final slap in the face. And yet, it was unmistakably a reference to a famous and well respected work by Titian. This work was a scandal in its time by making eye contact with the viewer, challenging you to deny that you are enjoying the view. But Manet’s goal is not to scandalize, except as a means to an end. He wishes to force you to deal with the work as paint, luscious passages of paint. The bouquet all by itself is a triumph.
Goya is an artist whom Manet referred to more than once in his paintings. Goya’s “Executions of the 3rd of May” was the second of two paired works, the first (“The 2nd of May”) illustrating the uprising of peasants which led to the executions on the following day. Goya in this work is using imagery and light and dark for its maximum emotional impact. The highlighted figure is shown as a crucified Christ, though his uncomprehending stare says this is not a purposeful sacrifice. The French firing squad is shown as dark and menacing.
Manet’s “execution of Maximilian” has an entirely different effect. Any sympathy with the plight of Maximilian is erased by the smoke which completely hides his face, and the firing squad, far from being menacing, looks like toy soldiers. The effect, deliberately, is to empty the work of emotional content, and leave only the paint.
If Manet does have a social commentary in his work, it revolves around the theme of alienation. Particularly in his later work, he brings together heads and figures who might be supposed to have some human connection, but shows that there is none. On one level this is a device for robbing the subject of meaning so that the paint can take its rightful place as of primary importance. However, these juxtapositions of disconnected people also seem to comment on a fact of urban (modern) life.
In the “Railroad”, one immediately assumes that we see and mother and daughter, the epitome of a meaningful relationship. This tie is emphasized by the color harmonies which join the two visually. However, there is no psychological contact or interaction between the figures, who are each in their own world. “The Barmaid” explores another facet of this disjunction, which we can call “ships passing in the night”. Here the barmaid’s head, as she delivers beers to the next table, is brought into a strict figure eight with the head of the smoker; the two heads a bound together compositionally. Yet neither is aware of the other, and the “union” will be broken an instant later.
What I should have done with each of these examples is to beg you to look closely at the paint. Manet is presenting you with wonderfully handled paint, and that is ultimately what a painting must be about.