02 October 2011

Manet unfurled

"Cafe at the Folies Bergere" Manet

I was driving to San Luis Obispo for the Plein Air Festival and half-way there I had some sort of epiphany , I just couldn't get the painting "Cafe at the Folies Bergere" off my head.
Ok, there might be an explanation. Last weekend I went to see Manet's paintings at the Norton Simon Museum  in Pasadena. I also had just finished reading the book I mentioned in my previous post: "The Judgment of Paris"... so I guess Eduard Manet was at  the back of my head "somehow".
By the way, if you live close by, do yourself a favor and go to the Norton Simon where you'll find  a few  choice paintings by Manet,  like  "The Ragpicker", a clear homage to Diego Velazquez in it starkness.
But back to the point,   I'll admit I always considered poor syphilitic Eduard kind of  an over-rated  painter.  Never mind that the Impressionists thought of him as a trailblazer. A case of the tide raising all boats I thought.

The Ragpicker by Manet

"Menipo" by Velazquez
Not today. I like the "Cafe at the Folie Bergere" piece well enough: The orange hair of the maid echoing the fruit bowl, the black  of the silhouette complemented by the lace and colors of the bottles in the bar , the soft almost sad expression  of the figure, the balanced triangular composition...
This is a nice painting.

It is also  Manet's last painting. He died shortly after finishing it. Would Manet have wanted to "leave" something behind, an artistic testament of sorts?
Well, It is unlikely that he would have chosen this painting in particular to do that. As a matter of fact, his "Olympia" was probably more of a statement than this melancholy maid in a bar. But, to me, this one painting  acquires a more transcendental meaning when I realize how much effort Manet devoted to go beyond the beautiful shapes and colors and give us a "truth". It is impressive how much study Manet had devoted to soak up the sources of great art, specially Velazquez and Titian,  to translate them into images for the eyes of his contemporaries. In a way, Manet was more himself by imitating his idols and imitating them at every turn.

The maid looks beautiful but real nevertheless. Her arms are not artificially slender; her pose is not that of a classic goddess, she has weight and could be any waitress in any bar.  Unlike most other paintings by Manet where his subjects have a certain vacant expression,  this red-head  does have a soul: a sad, may be bored, may be slightly amused but direct gaze. The mirror in the back reminds the viewer of Velazquez's mirror use, be it in the Meninas or in his "Reclining Venus", a device to break the space represented. The brush stroke is loose and expressive, also a Velazquez trademark. It's obvious application is  unable to conceal it's material nature, its truth. It's almost almost sloppy.

Detail of "las Meninas" (mirror) by Velazquez.
I am touched by this life-long effort. Here is a painter who made his mission to paint the truthful world using the best masters he could find as a guide. That some of his paintings are beautiful is almost besides the point as the canvas surface is just the entry point to what boils beneath. His work was undoubtedly triggered by beauty, wherever it might reside, not fetched but found,  much in the same way what we call the "divine" is inherent to what's human.  I am happy I took a second look at Manet. Whether I imagine some of these things or not,  I think his intentions were clear, Manet painted the world he lived in very much like Velazquez or Titian did. To use art as truth, it has to hurt a bit but what's the point otherwise?

"Infanta Margarita" Velazquez

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