Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Night On The Town With Edouard Manet

Edouard Manet, Bar at the Folies Bergere, 1881-1882

Manet takes us out to one of the swankiest spots in late 19th century Paris, the Folies Bergere, a huge establishment, a combination of dinner theater and circus, and what does he do, he spends all his time at the bar painting the barmaid. It is remarkable that Manet, who was born into money and never had to worry about meeting bills a day in his life, had such genuine feeling for the lives of these working girls. One of them is central focus of his last and greatest painting.
She is the only person who we see directly. All that exciting nightlife in the painting is in fact a reflection in a mirror behind her. We only get a tiny glimpse of the floor show, if you look up in the upper left corner, you can see the legs of a trapeze artist hanging down from the top edge. We are alone with her in her isolation from all the glamorous night life going on around her, and that is summarized in that splendid sparkling still life of bottles of champagne and liqueurs, oranges, and roses for sale. In some ways, she is as much on display and available as those bottles. We see ourselves reflected in the mirror already negotiating a sale with her; perhaps a drink, more likely the price of an assignation.
Like a sacred relic or a monstrance on an altar or a saint in an icon, she occupies the dead center of the picture. But she certainly is not there to be worshiped or adored. She is there to be available and accommodating. The most striking part of the painting is her face. It is expressionless as she looks just past us. We are not privy to her thoughts. That is the one thing here that is not available to us. Even if she offers herself to us for sale, she remains ultimately impenetrable and self-posessed. That is the most dramatic aspect of this picture. What for us is a great time, perhaps even the thrill of a lifetime, is for her a job and only a job.


it's margaret said...

Is that really her back in the mirror? I mean that's how I've always read it. and,--because, if so, it is kinda like an alice-in-wonderland thing, as that girl's hand is elevated to take something from the man..... yes?

Counterlight said...

Why yes, that is her, but she's doing something completely different with a different attitude than what she is giving us who look directly at her. Also, she and her reflection do not line up very accurately. If they did, we wouldn't be able to see very clearly either the surrounding nightlife or her transaction with her customer.
Artists, and movie directors, use mirrors for this kind of drama-in-a-drama all the time.

susan s. said...

I don't think she has her hand elevated. Maybe that is one of those vague things that happened in some of his works, but the elbow does not appear to be bent. But I am just probably seeing it differently. I clicked on it to make it bigger after reading your comment, Margaret.

Mike in Texas said...

I hope your students have some small inkling of what a fine teacher you are, Counterlight.

Having been a music professor in an earlier career, I am quite familiar with the many many blank stares of incomprehension along with the few faces lit up with understanding.