Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Working Stiff in Art: Manet's Working Girls

In 1865, Edouard Manet shocked the French public by exhibiting a painting of a whore at the biannual Salon exhibition. That's a remarkable thing to say because European painting was full of whores in those days; Salome, the goddess Venus (who was never above peddling her papayas), and any number of harem girls. This painting is a wicked parody of a famous painting by Titian, the Venus of Urbino. Titian leaves something of an evocative mystery to his nude woman in a bed. She could be a high class Venetian whore. She could also be Venus in the marriage bed. Her bed is set in a large Venetian palace chamber at twilight with a young woman (possibly a new bride) and her maid going through the clothing chests in the background. Venus looks at us boldly and suggestively.
Manet's painting is anything but ambiguous. Manet's ready-for-anything model Victorine Meurent reclines on a bed in a small room in a high class Paris brothel lit up, not by the evocative twilight, but by the hard light of afternoon coming in through a window behind us.  Instead of soft gradations of tone and color, we have screaming high contrasts of black and white throughout the picture.   Her gaze toward us is also bold, but very unambiguous. The extravagant bouquet presented by the chambermaid is from us. Her gaze is hardly one of surprise and gratitude. We are her next customer, and it's clear that's all we mean to her.  The black cat in heat at her feet clears up any lingering doubts about this transaction.
Manet is a darling of the Marxist art critics precisely because of his harsh materialism. Manet believed that the modern world was quite simple in its essence. It was about money, and only money, nothing else. Even so intimate a matter as sex was nothing more than another opportunity for a commercial transaction. His attitude toward this woman is not the least bit censorious. We need only compare her to all the evil corrupt whores in art that came before her, and all the evil whores who would come after her (especially from the brushes of Communists like George Grosz and Otto Dix; as fierce as any Lutheran screed). She's a working girl in the city trying to make a living the best way she knows how.

Great industrial cities like Paris in the late 19th century were magnets for young women who wanted something more than a rich middle aged husband picked for them by their parents. They came into the cities to work in factories, in offices, shops, and in bars and restaurants. Many of them came into town with big dreams of hitting it big in the theater or the cabaret circuit. For the first time, it was possible for a poor farm girl to dream of being a star, and a lot of them did.
Manet was clearly charmed and fascinated by these girls. He painted one of them as though viewed from a nearby table in a cafe late at night. She looks very tired, possibly enjoying a brandied plum and a cigarette before going home from work. She is tired, sad, and hopeful all at the same moment, living a brave new kind of life full of perils and rich with rewards.

Manet takes us out to one of the swankiest places in 1870's Paris, the Folies Bergere, a huge dinner theater for those willing and able to part with large sums of money in a single evening. He ignores the floor show and concentrates on the bar maid, one of scores working there on a Saturday night. She is alone before us. We see the whole spectacle of the Folies reflected in the mirror behind her, including the floor show. The feet of an acrobat hang down from the top left corner. She is surrounded by all sorts of expensive (and beautifully painted) items offered to us for sale; champagne, liqueurs, oranges, and roses for buttonieres. She herself is dressed and displayed to be available to us like the items on the marble bar. We even appear in the mirror chatting with her. However, as we see her directly before us, she is mute and uncommunicative. She is not really available to us after all. Like the whore in the painting at the top, our good time is only her job. Her expression is blank, and she looks just slightly past us. She is lost in a moment of thought which is not available to us.

Manet believed that the world was only about money. However, he saw that its effects on people's lives were very complicated. Manet's sometimes ruthless materialism may make him a Marxist star, but his outlook was too complex, and too nihilistic at times, to be useful to any revolution. Manet's political sympathies were probably quite conservative. He spent the bloody days of the Paris Commune uprising in 1871 in hiding. He greeted the soldiers of the Third Republic entering the city to put down the rebellion with relief.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful lesson, Professor! :-)

[I get more doubtful w/ every passing day that anyone will ever again hire ME as an instructor, but if I ever should be, I hope I'm HALF as good as you, Doug]

Counterlight said...

Thanks JCF,

And I can't imagine that your considerable gifts will go overlooked forever.