Saturday, August 30, 2008

After Work

Edouard Manet, The Brandied Plum, ca. 1878

We've come a long way from the PreRaphaelite's too-sensitive-to-live to Manet's too-cool-to-care. And yet, beneath all that cool-as-a-cucumber some real humanity shines through in Manet's work, as it does in this enchanting picture. It shows a young girl who looks tired, probably after a long day at work, enjoying a plum brandy and a cigarette. The painting is beautifully composed to suggest that we see her in a casual glance across a cafe. Manet incorporates the new influence of photography and Japanese prints with their fragmentary compositions with broad brushwork that still looks fresh and sparkling after more than 140 years.
Manet appears to have been enchanted with a whole new class of urban working girls who began to appear in major cities throughout Europe and America at this time. These were mostly young girls from the countryside or the small towns who came into the city looking to Hit the Big Time either in the Theater, or in the new popular culture of the cabarets that created the first of what we would recognize as celebrities and celebrity culture. If they were lucky, they got a place in a theater or cabaret chorus. Usually, they worked as waitresses, barmaids, or shop girls. Some of them did a little prostitution on the side. Unlike their sisters who stayed home and were so exhausted with housework that they were too tired to object when their fathers arranged for them to be married to rich elderly bankers, these girls were tough and resourceful. Manet seems to have admired those qualities, and they come through in this painting. Manet appreciates the precariousness of their lives. The expression of this girl is ambiguous. The casual pose and cigarette loosely held in the fingers suggest cool self-posession. Her face, however, betrays not only exhaustion, but a touch of sadness. And beneath that 1870s version of urban hip, she looks very young.

Manet didn't believe in much of anything. For this reason, he speaks to the nihilism that dominates our era, the idea that the world and everthing and everyone in it are ultimately worthless and disposable. While the Marxist art historians may adore him, it's hard to imagine Manet signing up for anything so demandingly doctrinal and apocalyptic as Marxism. Hell, he might as well become a Christian.
What redeems Manet is that he avoids a very bad habit of modern thought that will only get worse in the 20th century, reductivism. He shows this young girl in all her splendid mystery and complexity. He makes no effort to explain her or to show her "essence." He's not interested in reducing her to anything in order to place her in some larger ideological or doctrinal system.

No comments: