Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère

Édouard Manet
Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère
oil on canvas
Courtauld Gallery, London

"Un Bar is a painting of surfaces: that verdict applies not just to the things in the world it seizes on as paintable – the gold foil, the girl's makeup, and the shine on the oranges – but to its insistence that painting is a surface and should admit the fact.  Where solids and volumes are suggested in the picture, as of course they have to be, the business of shading is got over in a few brilliant strokes – a patch of shadow to turn a wrist, black-and-white hatching on a bottle of champagne, abbreviated lines of white on the oranges and glass of flowers.  The paint surface itself is mostly dry, with almost a scraped quality, a bit harsh, a bit brittle, on the edge of being flimsy.  This has to do, among other things, with the amount of white paint worked dryly across the other colors – the powdery white of the chandeliers and crystal, the white of marble, lace, makeup, rose, and buttons, the smudges of white put everywhere to stand for dazzle and discoloration in the mirror.  These marks draw attention to themselves; they make it clear that the picture surface is all one thing.  So does Manet's way of drawing here – his arrangement of the edges of his main forms.  The barmaid's waist and shoulders, her hands on the counter, the cut glass against her arm, the chandelier just touching her reflection's head: the picture depends on these sharp edges and intersections, in much the same way as Olympia had done; it is organized around juxtapositions on the flat.

Thus the inevitable platitude imposes itself, and need not be avoided – the picture is flat, it confesses and savours its own literal two dimensions.  It even arranges particular signs of this flatness, offering the viewer those two thick-painted, pasty circles of electric light, each placed conveniently against a distant wall; or the red triangle on the bottle of Bass at right, peeling away from its label onto the picture surface; or the neat parallelogram of the trapeze, just touching the picture's top left corner, its crossbar bisecting a third electric light already bisected by a pillar!  These signs all point to the paradoxes of painting, and do so in a knowing way; but they have their effect precisely because they are incidents, and do not dictate the picture's overall idiom.  Un Bar is a surface and yet it invites the viewer – with plenty of other effective signs – into a series of quite firmly established spaces.

Behind the girl is a mirror.  One can make out the yellow moulding of its frame on either side of the barmaid's wrists, and take in the general haze and dazzle on the glass – the illusion being strongest towards the left, where white paint obscures the distant balcony, or over the heads of the crowd at the right.  A mirror it palpably is: one has only to notice the edge of the marble counter reflected in it, or the back view of the bottle of pink liqueur, for the illusion to be inescapable.  And is there not even the reflection of the central white rose in its wineglass, wedged in between the second barmaid and her client, hard against the picture's right-hand edge?

But as soon as the general grounds for such a reading have been established – and I take it that most viewers discover them fairly soon – the difficulties in sustaining it begin.  If that is a mirror behind the barmaid, then what exactly is being reflected in it?  If it is a mirror, then the second young woman, toward the right, must be the mirror image of the one who looks towards us.  She must be, and she cannot be.  There are clearly things about her which are meant to suggest that she is the same person seen from the rear.  And yet how could the barmaid's reflection be there, so far towards the right?  Does it mean – it must mean – that the mirror's whole surface is somehow arranged at an angle to our vision, quite a sharp angle, in fact, going back from right to left?  Again, that could almost be so; and yet one look at the plain straight edge of the mirror's gilt frame and the line of the counter just above it in the glass, puts paid to the possibility; and this leaves aside the more general problem of how this slanting mirror would fit in with the picture's overall formal logic.

For that overall logic is strict and emphatic.  Every main thing in the picture is presented frontally, face on to the viewer, layer after layer aligned to the lower edge, where the frame itself cuts the marble.  And the mirror is seemingly a main part of that arrangement: it is one more flat surface taking its place among the rest.  Are we being invited, then, to insert into this orderly sequence of spaces another space altogether, a quite contrary diagonal?  We surely cannot do it, by and large – or not in a way we can keep in being, and make part of a reasonably coherent picture; that tilted mirror will not stay in place, it keeps lining up again parallel to the bar and the balcony; the reflection at the right escapes from the person it belongs to."

– from The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers by T.J. Clark (Knopf, 1985)