Sunday, September 26, 2021

Solitude, Loneliness, and Manet

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

There are a lot of articles and essays out there now extoling the redemptive qualities of quiet and solitude. They fall like a thud on me after almost 2 years of pandemic isolation. After so much quiet and solitude over the last 2 years, I’m as messed up as I’ve always been. My always abiding depression is through the floor these days. I’m back in therapy to handle it. The solitude of monks and hermits is one thing. The solitude of quarantine and enforced confinement is quite another. From what I can see here in my corner of New York, people – especially young people – crave noise, crowds, and going out after being confined for so long. The bars and cafes in Williamsburg and Greenwich Village are full and noisy again on the weekends (and some weeknights) even with pandemic cautions still in place.

Poster for the Folies Bergere showing a bar maid and the layout of the vast dinner theater.  On two floors of the theater we see large mirrors along the wall so people could eat and drink without missing the show. Manet's bar maid poses in front of one of them.  

The whole issue of solitude in pandemic stifled New York makes me think less about Caspar David Friedrich’s solitary wanderers than Manet’s last great painting, The Bar at the Folies Bergere completed in 1882 a year before he died. In that painting, a solitary bar maid stands leaning forward on the bar, the lavish excitement and entertainment of the Folies all around her. Gas light globes glow. Massive chandeliers sparkle. People dressed to the teeth watch each other as much as they watch the show. We get a glimpse of the entertainment in the legs of an acrobat hanging down from the top of the painting on the left. All of that appears in a large mirror behind the bar. On the right reflected in the mirror, a gentleman looks at her searchingly for another kind of sale. She seems as engaged with him in the mirror as she appears detached in front of us. Much has been said about the off-perspective reflection in the mirror. The still life objects on the bar are as off perspective as she is. Manet did this deliberately, perhaps to highlight the contrast between what customers and her employer expect from the bar maid and what she actually experiences. She stands amidst the Bass Ale, champagne, crème de menthe, liqueurs, mandarin oranges, and flowers for boutonnieres that she sells. She wears a revealing lowcut dress with a corsage, herself available for sale just like all the other items around her. For all the lavish sparkling excitement around her, she stands alone and unmoved.

The bar maid and the man reflected in the mirror.  He is clearly intent on much more than champagne.  She is every bit as obliging in her reflection as she is remote and inscrutable facing us.

Flowers for sale, mandarin oranges in a crystal bowl, a bottle of creme de menthe, liqueur, and Bass Ale.

Flowers for sale as boutonnieres.

Liqueur, Bass Ale, and bottles of champagne on a marble top bar.

The crowd at the Folies watching each other as much as watching the show.

The legs of an acrobat high in the ceiling.

The bar maid.  An actual bar maid from the Folies Bergere posed for this painting in Manet's studio.  Her name is recorded only as Suzon.

The corsage on Suzon's dress.  A spectacular passage of painting.

The bar maid Suzon returning our gaze, but looking just past us.  So different from other women in Manet's work who meet our gaze confidently such as Victorine Meurent in Manet's Olympia painted almost 20 years earlier.

The bar maid’s blank expression at the center of the painting launched a thousand ships full of text over the past century. But anyone who has spent time in the service industry will recognize that expression immediately. It’s the poker face stare just slightly past the gaze of the annoying customer trying to get their attention. It’s the natural reaction of people forced into a servile role by the need to pay the rent. It may be that Manet identified with the bar maid, an actual bar maid from the Folies Bergere named Suzon. He spent much of his maturity in the public eye, a celebrity in Paris. As was the custom of the day, guests would always drop by his studio to watch him work. The audience became so large at one point that he hired a waiter to serve them drinks. Manet was always in the public eye. He cultivated his public image very carefully. His work always provoked discussion and argument. And yet, for all that time in the limelight, Manet sold very little work. He lived off a comfortable inheritance. Even so, by this point of his life in the years before his death, those obligations of celebrity came to feel very obligatory. Manet may have come to feel like Suzon catering to his audience no matter how and what he felt.

The Bench, 1881, Manet's painting of his garden in Versailles behind the house he rented.  The shabby garden, the decrepit bench, and the discarded bonnet speak eloquently of Manet's declining health and his sense of his own passing.

In those last years of his life Manet mostly felt pain. He suffered the effects of tertiary syphilis. He could barely walk. The pain in his legs was excruciating. The cost of medical treatments consumed most of the inheritance he depended on. He had to raise money to keep paying for his treatment. He painted several small magnificent flower still lives to make money. We can see some echoes of those splendid flowers and still lives from his last years in this painting. Still life always played a large role in Manet’s paintings, and so here at the end of his life. Suzon the bar maid shares the stage with superbly painted lavish still life items, and places herself as one more beguiling item among the others for sale. Manet rented a small shabby house with a shabby garden in Versailles to save money and to have a place to work. Even so, many people came to visit as he painted the Bar at the Folies Bergere in the winter of 1881-1882. Manet apologized that he was unable to rise from his seat to greet them. Suzon was there in the studio too on many occasions posed in a mock-up of the bar complete with a marble top table, champagne bottles, and bottles of Bass Ale as in the painting.

Manet’s last major painting of his life is one of the great paintings of the 19th century, and one for the ages speaking to us as vividly now as it did to the Parisian public of 1882. This magnificent painting captures for us as it did for the late 19th century Paris public those tragic ambivalences of modern life that even now, we must live with. 

The Plum Brandy, c.1877.  A painting of an exhausted young woman, possibly a shop girl after a long day of work, enjoying a drink and a cigarette.  She seems to be taking a break before going out on the town.  I've always loved this painting.

 Manet always painted the working girls of Paris with a certain sympathy, the bar maids, waitresses, shop clerks, secretaries, prostitutes, etc. all those who came into the city to make their own lives rather than play the roles of concubine, house servant, and breeding chattel assigned to them by tradition and religion. Those struggles for independence and success frequently depended on humiliating compromises and ended in exhaustion and sometimes failure. Rarely did those young dreams of fame and fortune come true for this still new population of working women in Paris. It is not hard to imagine Suzon in Manet’s painting as one of them. Her story could be that of thousands even now in cities like New York, London, Mexico City, Shanghai, Lagos, etc.

Sunday, September 19, 2021



Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child, c.1480 - 1490

I've always loved the Magnificat and as I get older is gets more meaningful, especially in this frightened and cruel age.  Our Lady reveals herself to be a "socialist" (according to the current American usage) by placing herself squarely on the side of the poor and downtrodden.  She announces what kind of Messiah the child she carries will be.  He won't be the one we always wanted then and now, an irresistible force that fixes everything, rights all the wrongs, levels everything, and renders us powerless to resist obedience to his command.  Instead, her Son will be Our Friend, always with us and for us no matter what, and will always be there at our ends waiting to welcome us home.  He wants from us the one thing He cannot command, our love.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Minoru Yamasaki

The World Trade Center in 1999

The World Trade Center photographed by Peter Hujar

I never liked the twin towers of the old World Trade Center much, nor did I really hate them much either. They were big incommunicative presences over the city. They were huge but had nothing to say. They didn’t really dominate because they never commanded. They just took up a lot of space on the ground and in the skyline. Kids loved them because they were so simple and memorable in form. Advertisers and logo designers loved them for the same reason. I saw them daily, especially during the two years I worked in the World Trade Center Borders. Like a lot of New Yorkers, I miss them now that they are gone. I’m not sure if it’s the buildings I miss or the memories of a less angry and traumatized city. Or maybe I just miss being younger. It’s probably all those things, and like most other long-time residents in New York, those personal losses are wrapped up with the loss of the buildings. And so, on September 11 we remember the Twin Towers like we recall old friends and family on anniversaries of their passing. They were big presences, neither friendly nor hostile looming above the city visible from everywhere. 

 From 1996 to 1998 I knew the towers up close when I worked in the magazines department of the Borders store. I’d travel through the complex every morning with a two-wheeler to pick up the day’s shipments of magazines and newspapers. The Towers and the WTC complex around them looked a lot better up close than they did from a distance. That’s the opposite of the Empire State Building that still has one of the most stirring building profiles ever. I never get tired of seeing the Empire State Building towering over midtown. Up close, it’s a little disappointing. The detailing is rather dull and repetitive, in part because so much of it was machine made and stamped out. That’s such a contrast to the amazing detailing on other Art Deco monuments like the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center. And it’s a contrast to the old World Trade Center. The up-close detailing of the building was still machine-made and stamped out like that on the Empire State Building, but it was certainly not dull. In fact, it was elegant and in the smaller buildings worked well with the street traffic around the buildings. The detailing and street level design saved the World Trade Center from its own brutal self. These vastly out-of-scale buildings should have been soul-crushingly brutal, but they were not. What should have been a barren empty plaza in front of the buildings I remember as being always crowded with tourists and employees on break. That the buildings up close did not crush all who approached them and that the central plaza seemed so welcoming is entirely the work of the World Trade Center’s architect, Minoru Yamasaki.

The ground floor of the World Trade Center with Fritz Koenig's The Sphere from 1971.  It is now very battered, but still on display in Liberty Park near its original site.

Detail from the ground floor articulation of the World Trade Center towers.

Ground floor lobby

Ground floor lobby

Some of the steel and chrome tracery at the top of the North Tower during the final stages of construction in 1973 with two construction workers in the foreground.

The former #5 World Trade Center where the Borders Books was located where I worked for 2 years.

The former #4 World Trade Center

A proposed design by Skidmore Owings and Merrill from 1960 for the first planned site of the WTC on the lower East Side near the South Street Seaport.
The idea of a world trade center in New York City was first proposed and then legislated by the state government in 1943.  David and Nelson Rockefeller were the driving forces behind its creation and construction.  The Port Authority was to own and manage the complex.
The state government of New Jersey objected to this site.  They pointed out that the Port Authority belongs to the governors of both New York and New Jersey and said that their tax payers would rightfully object to paying for a big project that benefitted only New York.  The Port Authority decided to move the site to the lower West Side and combine it with a commuter rail hub serving New Jersey.

Berenice Abbott's photo of Radio Row from 1936

The World Trade Center construction destroyed a large part of the original lower West Side.  Radio Row was a large district full of small scale electronics dealerships and repair shops dating back to 1920.  The businesses in Radio Row resisted the eminent domain decree, but ultimately lost in court.

The former St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, a tenement church that was the sole remnant of a Greek and Syrian neighborhood on the site.  Until it was destroyed on 9/11, it stood alone in the middle of the WTC parking lot.
Now, that destroyed tenement church of St. Nicholas is replaced by a much larger and grander church designed by Santiago Calatrava and due to be open sometime this year.

Minoru Yamasaki with a huge construction model of the World Trade Center, about 1964

A woman looking at a smaller display model in 1964.

Excavation of the World Trade Center site in 1968.  The WTC was built partly on original Manhattan bedrock and partly on old landfill from numerous extensions of the land into the Hudson River down through history. 

The great slurry wall known as "the bathtub" on the right.  It kept river water from seeping into the construction site.  It is the sole survivor of the original WTC construction still doing its original job of holding back the river.
On the left is the South Tower under construction.

Construction in 1969.

Construction in 1971

Minoru Yamasaki used architectural history to serve an optimistic vision of the future, an American future. The ribbed vaulting and tracery of Islamic and Gothic architecture influenced Yamasaki continuously throughout his career. He adapted its design and structural ideas to new materials such as steel and reinforced concrete, and certainly to new uses. He used past forms to create an architecture that looked forward to the future. Louis Kahn used ancient Roman building forms and materials to create an architecture for the ages, to be timeless. Yamasaki designed buildings to encourage people to imagine the future. Visions of the future never age well, and a lot of Yamasaki’s buildings have a quaintness that comes with long past imaginings of the World of Tomorrow. It’s no accident that the current fashion for what is now called Mid-Century Modern drives a revival of interest in Yamasaki’s work. Like much of Mid-Century Modern design, his buildings have the nostalgic cachet of the American Empire in its glowing sunset on the eve of the Vietnam War.

Other buildings by Minoru Yamasaki:

One Woodward Avenue 
(formerly Michigan Consolidated Gas Building), 
Detroit, 1962

One of his best office buildings in my opinion.

I think this glass entrance lobby is outstanding.   Yamasaki had a great feel for the transition from the street to the building interior.

Pacific Science Center, Seattle, 1962

A great centerpiece, an unexpected re-use of a historic building unit, a four arch bay with a lattice vault, something out of both Islamic and Gothic architecture.  The medieval past remade to point to a promised future.

Lambert-St.Louis International Airport, St. Louis, 1956

Another great remaking of a traditional building form -- a groined vault -- to anticipate the future.

A photo taken during construction in 1955.

North Shore Congregation Israel, Glencoe, Illinois, 1964

I don't know, but I doubt Yamasaki was a very religious man.  Yet he designed some beautiful religious buildings.  Among the best is this synagogue.

Minoru Yamasaki on the cover of Time magazine, January 28, 1963
illustration by Boris Artzybasheff

Minoru Yamasaki was an extraordinary man who overcame many hardships including racism and poverty to make a very successful career as an architect. He was born in Seattle in 1912 to Isei Japanese immigrant parents. He first studied architecture at the University of Washington where his talents were recognized. He worked five summers in a salmon cannery in Alaska to help pay for his education. He traveled east to New York hoping to find opportunity and some relief from the pervasive anti-Asian racism in the American west at the time. He packed dishes for an import/export company making a small and precarious living while pursuing a master’s degree in architecture at New York University. He went to work for the firm of Shreve and Lamb that designed the Empire State Building, very notable since he would design the first buildings to top out that once celebrated Tallest Building In The World. It’s also notable that this architect of a Tallest Building in the World had a fear of heights. Some speculate that acrophobia may have played a role in the design of the World Trade Center towers. It was Shreve and Lamb that protected Yamasaki and his parents from deportation during World War II. After the war, Yamasaki became internationally famous and in demand as an architect. Not all his buildings were successes. He designed the Pruitt Igoe houses in St. Louis, a notorious fiasco. Most of his projects however were successes with lasting reputations. He died of cancer in 1986 in Detroit.