Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The January issue of Art in America has a couple of decent articles on Manet, one of which actually surprised me.
Really, maybe it shouldn't have. But it's easy to get accustomed to thinking about certain artists a certain way.

What do I know about Manet? Well, when I show his work to my students, I typically cast him as utterly modern. His reduction of figures to essentially flat, washed-out underpainting shows an acknowledgement of the flatness of the picture plane and a rejection of chiaroscuro and licked finishes; his odd mismatches of figures and scenarios—the bearded bohemians in Luncheon on the Grass; the courtesan standing in for a reclining classical goddess in Olympia—reflect what that inveterate realist Courbet famously insisted: that painters should only depict the present moment, eschewing received historical subjects and devices in favor of what’s authentically now.

Of course, I think that sums up every intro art history professor’s take on him.

Anyway, Alexi Worth’s article, "The Lost Photographs of Edouard Manet," argues that those flattened, washed-out bodies, framed by severe, thin shadows at their outermost edges, are all the product of the harsh frontal lighting of popular photography at the time.

This may not seem like much of a breakthrough insight…but for some reason, I always exclusively associated that willfull flatness with painterly strategies--never photographic ones. Yet it seems perfectly obvious, particularly in the main example that Worth uses, The Dead Christ and the Angels. It’s also apparent in Olympia, and for the central female figure in Luncheon on the Grass.

We typically think of photo based works as meticulously detailed and naturalistic…but according to Worth, Manet used photographic technique to flatten and reduce.

Further, in a painting like Masemoiselle V…in the Costume of an Espada (1862), Worth argues that Manet is combining photographic sources with images taken from paintings—say, Goya or Velazquez. The fragments remain fragments, unresolved, not fitted to match one another, or to make a satisfying pictorial whole. Suddenly, Manet becomes not modern, but postmodern.

Of course, it could be that this just reflects the kind of ad hoc problem solving that artists have engaged in for centuries—combining familiar sources with novel solutions, testing to see what elements will work.
The Dead Christ and the Angels, oil on canvas, 70 3/8" X 59", 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Olympia, oil on canvas, 51 3/8" X 74 3/4", 1863. Musee d'Orsay.
Mademoiselle the Costume of an Espada, oil on canvas, 65" X 50 1/4", 1862. Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

since you are a gopnik-hater, i was wondering if you saw the footnote credit to him in this article (I think it's footnote #3)?

5:34 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Good heavens!

I may have to re-evaluate this whole thing! ;)

6:21 PM  

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