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Related Post: Édouard Manet: Enigmas.
A few days ago, I wrote a post on Édouard Manet‘s Déjeuner sur l’herbe and pointed out that Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia (painted in 1863 and exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon), a sister painting, were enigmatic works of art. Beginning with Manet, art historians tend to look upon a realist or seemingly realist work of art as transitional. The foremost among realist painters was Gustave Courbet (10 June 1819 – 31 December 1877). Now, these transitional works of art take us from Realism to Impressionism, alighting briefly on the Barbizon “plein air” school, but other influences are possible. Such may be the case with Manet.
Literature as a Possible Key to the Enigmas
Literature may offer insights into Manet’s enigmatic paintings. Manet was a friend or acquaintance of writers and poets associated with French Symbolism.[i] Where writers are concerned, Manet knew Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé (the most esoteric and hermetic among these writers), Paul Valéry and others.
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In the Symbolist Manifesto, written, in French, by Jean Moréas (15 April 1856 – 30 April 1910), born Ioannis A. Papadiamantopoulos, in Greece, and published in 1886, symbolism is described as follows:“In this art, scenes from nature, human activities, and all other real world phenomena will not be described for their own sake; here, they are perceptible surfaces created to represent their esoteric affinities with the primordial Ideals.” In a nutshell, ‘to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.'” See Symbolism (arts), Wikipedia. “Ainsi, dans cet art, les tableaux de la nature, les actions des humains, tous les phénomènes concrets ne sauraient se manifester eux-mêmes ; ce sont là des apparences sensibles destinées à représenter leurs affinités ésotériques avec des Idées primordiales, …” Manifeste des symbolistes, Le Figaro, Supplément littéraire, p. 1-2, Saturday, 18 September 1886.
A Note on Charles Baudelaire
The Symbolist Manifesto was published later than Manet’s epochal Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia (1862-1865). However, Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (Gutenberg EBook # 6099 [FR]), a major literary turning-point, was published in 1857 and is a symbolist and modernist collection of poems. In « Correspondances », Baudelaire states that man passes through “forests of symbols” (des forêts de symboles) and he makes associations, which he calls correspondances, that sometimes jar. Yet, although they do not seem to fit or belong, they may be and are very poetical:Il est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
– Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants, … (There are perfumes that are fresh like children’s flesh,
sweet like oboes, green like meadows
– And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant, … )[ii]
In short, in Déjeuner sur l’herbe, what one sees may be allusive, which would link Manet to symbolism. The naked ladies of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe may be a reference, as may the gentlemen. They may in fact be remembrances, but whatever they are, they do not truly belong. Nor does Olympia. The public did not like Olympia, but it may simply be that instead of painting a Titian Danaë, or Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which Olympia resembles, Manet showed a demi-mondaine [FR], a modern high-class prostitute or cocotte. This was shocking and a rather peculiar form of modernity.
As for A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, just where is the man? Moreover, is the second woman a reflection of the woman tending the bar? Manet was a trained artist and knew perspective. Therefore, when and if he encroached on the rules of perspective, he did so consciously. At any rate, something jars.
Not all of Manet’s paintings are as evocative as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère or La Pêche, featured above, but these four paintings feature an uncanny element, such as the couple shown at the bottom right of La Pêche (Fishing). As their clothes indicate, these persons lived in another age. They are Baudelaire’s Vie antérieure (past life).
So it would appear that Manet depicted the ills of modernity and did so in his own modernist manner. He discreetly juxtaposed elements that do not seem related and some of which are symbols. I am using the word “discreetly” because, at first glance, with the possible exception of Olympia, one is unlikely to notice Manet has imported extraneous elements into these paintings. This could be a characteristic of Manet’s modernity.
Let me close, by repeating that the enigmatic Manet may have been influenced by French symbolism. In Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère and La Pêche, shown at the top of this post, something does jar. These paintings may be related to the symbolist movement in French literature, but they may also constitute an early form of modernity that expresses resistance to modernity, a resistance conveyed by the inclusion of elements that do not quite fit: “esoteric affinities” (Symbolist Manifesto, quoted above).
According to the Encyclopædia Britannica,
Manet also influenced the path of much 19th- and 20th-century art through his choice of subject matter. His focus on modern, urban subjects—which he presented in a straightforward, almost detached manner—distinguished him still more from the standards of the Salon, which generally favoured narrative and avoided the gritty realities of everyday life. Manet’s daring, unflinching approach to his painting and to the art world assured both him and his work a pivotal place in the history of modern art.[iii]
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[i] Symbolism is not confined to literature, French literature in particular. As a movement, it includes writers and artists living in several different countries. (See Symbolism (arts), Wikipedia.)
[iii] “Edouard Manet”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 22 Jun. 2013