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.
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.
Manet's Olympia painted almost 20 years earlier.