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.

1 comment:

Rick+ said...

I love how you went into detail I never would have seen. At first glance, my only thought was, "She seems wistful." Walking us through the depth of what can be seen really enhances the painting. I won't soon forget it.