Wednesday, January 23, 2008

You Say You Want a Revolution

What could the 31-year-old Edouard Manet have been thinking during that tumultuous year of 1863? Born January 23, 1832, Manet had just completed The Luncheon on the Grass ("Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe") (above, from 1862-1863) and Olympia (below, from 1863). After failing to get The Luncheon exhibited at the 1863 Paris Salon, Manet turned to the Salon des Refuses and fired the first shot against academic painting in the war that would lead to Impressionism and all modern art. The Luncheon (which I always find odd for the juxtaposition of the fully clothed men eating with the stark naked ladies) caused the first scandal of Manet’s career and marked him as an outsider, something he never wanted to be. Forced to lead a revolution he never wanted to begin, Manet became the inspiration for an entire generation of artists yearning to be free to paint any way they wished.

Oddly enough, the Paris Salon accepted Manet’s Olympia (above) the next year, perhaps hoping to cool down the flames of dissent by allowing Manet to exhibit and face critical appraisal. The woman in Olympia looks out at the viewer with an unflinching gaze, proud and unashamed of her nude body (and of her suggested profession of prostitution). Manet took the idea of the classical nude and placed it in a contemporary context, stripping away the façade of mythology and making a further joke of that façade with his title. Showing his love of Velazquez and the Old Masters, Manet paints Olympia realistically, yet strikes the first note in the symphony of modernism that would follow. Like his friend, the realist novelist Emile Zola, Manet strove to bring the real life around him into his art, regardless of the standards of the time. Seeing both The Luncheon and Olympia at the Musee D’Orsay was a memorable experience for me, but I can’t imagine the shock they delivered back in 1863.

Technically, Manet was a master. A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (above, 1882), with its amazing panoramic mirrored view of the bar “behind” the viewer standing in front of the painting, matches any illusionary effect done before or since. Amazingly, Manet literally places you within the world of the café, amidst the loud conversation, music, and human traffic that Manet himself knew so well in his travels. Toulouse-Lautrec and others depicted the bustling café scene of that era from the vantage point of an observer, but only Manet gives the impression of being wholly within the flow of life of such places. The barmaid in the painting actually seems poised to take your order. Manet is the ultimate transitional figure in art—a realist painter who thought like an Impressionist in wanting to place the vibrancy of modern existence on canvas. To the Impressionists, Manet served as a founding father, providing the courageous example that they followed in their own revolution.

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