An Unfinished Tradition: On Édouard Manet
“You must live like a bourgeois and save all your violence for your art.” Has anyone ever fulfilled more completely Gustave Flaubert’s directive than his younger contemporary Édouard Manet? And has any artist ever been, as a result, more of an enigma? Manet’s contemporaries saw him as a realist, the heir of Gustave Courbet. If any of them had been sufficiently realistic to retain Émile Zola as an investment adviser, they could have retired in style. “So sure am I that Manet will be one of the masters of tomorrow,” the critic and novelist wrote in 1866, “that I should believe I had made a good bargain, had I the money, in buying all his canvases today. In fifty years they will sell for fifteen or twenty times more.” As the art historian George Heard Hamilton remarked, Zola’s wager on the prices Manet would fetch was accurate; amazingly, this was five years before Manet had managed to sell, as far as we know, a single picture. (Luckily there was family money to fall back on.) Although Zola grasped many of the subtleties of his friend’s art, he still thought him to be a realist. He could yet imagine that Manet “came to understand, quite naturally, one fine day, that it only remained to him to see Nature as it really is,” and thus “made an effort to forget everything he had learned in museums” in order to transcribe what he saw with unexampled freshness.
We don’t see Manet like that anymore. It’s not that he neglected to picture the life around him, but he often did so in skewed, confounding and contradictory ways. He made his style modern by quoting the art of the past—not to lean on as a model in the approved academic manner but to poach in an alienated way, at times seeming to anticipate a practice that would later be dubbed “appropriation.” Manet uses a painting by Velázquez or Raphael in much the same oblique and riddling way that Jeff Wall, for instance, would use Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) as a source for his own Picture for Women (1979). For Manet as for Wall, tradition is unfinished and therefore open to reinvention.
Zola eventually realized that Manet was not a realist after his own heart. In 1879 he wrote about the artist again, this time regretting that “he is satisfied with unfinished work; he does not study nature with the passion of the truly creative.” Just as the ordinary run of critics were finally getting used to Manet, Zola was starting to sound like them. That Manet’s paintings looked unfinished had always been their complaint. Manet seemed to violate a sort of artistic ethic, as if he could not be bothered to bring his work to a conclusion. The subjects of his many portraits, at least, knew otherwise. They sat through incessant sessions in which Manet would attempt again and again, sparing neither their time nor his, to satisfy the artistic scruples he could never quite put into words but that are so evident on his canvases. But a “lack of finish” was not the only objection Manet faced. “Olympia can be understood from no point of view, even if you take it for what it is, a puny model stretched out on a sheet,” insisted Théophile Gautier. Similarly, one Louis Etienne confessed, “I search in vain for the meaning of this unbecoming rebus”—meaning Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
What was missing, in the eyes of Manet’s contemporaries, was a coherent story holding together the people and things depicted in the paintings. Its absence made his work seem incomprehensible. Decades later, modernist critics stationed themselves at the opposite pole, saying that Manet’s paintings do cohere, and what unifies them is not narrative but form. Yet the young Manet’s violation of sexual proprieties, and his recurrent resort to politically provocative topics—The Execution of Maximilian in the late 1860s, The Escape of Rochefort in 1880–81—should undermine the notion that subject matter was inconsequential to him. Instead of seeing Manet as either an exponent of realism or an implicit abstractionist, we might be better off thinking of him as a precursor of Surrealism, whose inspiration was Lautréamont’s image of a boy “as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella.” It’s not surprising that the writer who finally understood Manet best was not Zola the realist but Stéphane Mallarmé, the Symbolist who was later acknowledged by the Surrealists as one of their great precursors. The deeper empathy was mutual, as you can see by comparing Manet’s portraits of the two.
If Le Déjeuner is beautiful, it’s beautiful like that—in the spark it generates by short-circuiting meaning. As entwined as the three foreground figures seem to be, they are also strangely disconnected from one another. Yes, the man on the right, the one with the fez-like headgear, could be gesturing toward the man on the left—but the latter seems to be in some other space entirely, physically and psychologically. So does the nude woman, who, looking out in the direction of the viewer, seems quite unaware of the male companions who lounge with her among trees that are too small in comparison with the people cooling off in their shadows. And what about the fourth figure, the woman in the background? It’s impossible to judge her distance from the other three; she seems part of a painted backdrop, a painting within the painting. Altogether, Le Déjeuner recalls more than anything Max Ernst’s definition of a Surrealist collage, as a coupling of apparently irreconcilable realities, on a plane that would apparently not suit them. It is this incipient surrealism that made the painting so detested when it was exhibited in 1863 and that accounts for its tremendous popularity today, a popularity that can be measured in part by the fact that Le Déjeuner is one of the most parodied and pastiched images in Western art—coming in third, by my estimate, after Mona Lisa and The Scream.
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That Manet has become a tremendously popular painter—and the crowds you will have to contend with if you visit the exhibition “Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity” at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (through July 3) are proof enough of that—is a curious fact, because he is also a difficult and unpredictable one. Moments of resolution in his oeuvre are few; sometimes his paintings are most interesting for their problems, for their quiet sense of unease with their own devices. Manet’s paintings rarely have the calm, soothing quality of so many of the landscapes by his younger friends the Impressionists. He doesn’t glam up the people he paints, as would a bravura brushman like John Singer Sargent (who followed Manet’s lead in looking to Velázquez for inspiration), and aside from Le Déjeuner, his paintings are rarely very sexy. His other famous nude, Olympia, is distinctly tough, without a hint of come-hither, which is probably one reason the painting kicked up a storm when it was first exhibited. Besides, there’s no sensational or pitiable back story about the life of the artist; Manet’s death at 51 did not come early enough to wring many tears from posterity. Could it be the inner quality of his work that accounts for his popularity, along with the fascination of his historical position as “the painter of modern life”? It seems the general like their caviar after all.
About that phrase “the painter of modern life.” Baudelaire coined it before he knew Manet’s art; he applied it to the illustrator Constantin Guys, a few of whose drawings are included in the exhibition. But it has long been understood to suit Manet best. Its poignancy, in retrospect, is that Manet really turned out to be the painter of modern life and not simply a painter of it, because for his successors modern painting became increasingly divorced from anything resembling those “sketches of manners” or the “portrayal of bourgeois life and the fashion scene” that Baudelaire saw as essential to the depiction of modern life. Painting was abandoning whatever journalistic function it had.
In 1967 the critic Michael Fried, who would go on to write a monumental study of Manet, famously spoke of a “history of painting from Manet through Synthetic Cubism and Matisse…characterized in terms of the gradual withdrawal of painting from the task of representing reality—or reality from the power of painting to represent it.” What was lost, in truth, was a shared sense of what would count as a reality worth representing; what was gained was a feeling for the means of representation as realities in themselves. Henceforth, ambitious painting was not going to reflect modernity primarily through its subject matter but through its technique. Picasso and Matisse—let alone abstractionists like Malevich and Mondrian—were modern painters but not painters of modern life; in their own way the German Expressionists strove to be painters of modern life, but their exacerbated sense of the clash between inner experience and objective reality made it impossible for them to be clear-eyed chroniclers of the latter. Only in the 1960s, a full century after Manet appeared on the scene, did Alex Katz and a few photorealists find more or less credibly modern ways of painting modern life again.