Manet is one of the most intriguing and one of the strangest painters in history. It is my view that before modernism in the arts was even established Manet was what we today call “postmodern”.
This idea may appear radical to some. To others it may just be eccentric, or merely an exaggeration of the reflexive characteristic of modernism. Let’s look closer, and begin by looking at his Luncheon on the Grass.
It is one of the strangest paintings ever made. One can even feel today a little bit of the scandal it caused at the Paris Salon des Refusés – although perhaps not for the same reasons. Today the painting still shocks because it hasn’t lost any of its strangeness. The figures did not look like they belonged together then, and they don’t look it now. The three figures in the foreground look pasted onto the pastoral scene, just as much now as they did when the paint was wet. The painting caused a scandal then because it was unconventional – weird – to do what Manet did, but it’s just as weird today. Clothed with nude, figures seeming to pose artificially and bearing no organic relationship to one another, appearing to have been cut and pasted onto a theatrical backdrop, and the nude woman – the most naturalistic one – gazing straight into the eyes of the viewer – you, me, every time we look at her. What the hell is going on here?
One might decide that the painting is a failure. Manet just produced a bad painting. But even if you accept that, what was Manet trying to do?
David Hockney has an interesting theory. I don’t buy it. Setting aside the question of whether or not Manet ever took a photograph, Hockney’s theory supposes that the weird features I’ve described are the result of Manet’s photographic methods. In other words, Manet produced a bad painting because he used photographs instead of live models. I find this argument implausible. And much more plausible Simon Abrahams’ interpretation. Manet knew exactly what he was doing. He chose to make the painting as weird as it is. And the evidence for this are his other paintings.
Clement Greenberg wrote that Manet was “exceptional in his inconsistency”. Greenberg was not referring to quality, but with Manet’s restless mind, with what we might today call his urge to experiment.
It is that he so often changed his notion of what a picture should be: built-up, put-together, and “composed,” or random and informal, studied or spontaneous, intimate and subdued or grand and imposing…. he kept one eye on the Old Masters, but it was an eye that wavered…. (published in Art Forum, January 1967)
Manet quoted the “Old Masters” in unexpected contexts, or arranged them in novel ways – a common technique of postmodern artists. And he wasn’t as interested in creating a style as he was in exploring the ways in which one looks at painted images. Michael Roth has called attention to the way women in Manet’s paintings look at the viewer.* Surely this gaze is significant. For Roth, it would seem, it foreshadows the reflexive character of modern art, which, as we know, speeding through a series of Isms, raced toward various forms of nonrepresentational art. But for me it brings full circle the gaze of Cindy Sherman.
Do we really need to look at another painting to assure ourselves that Manet knew what he was doing? No, but let’s look at another one just for the fun of it. His infamous Olympia. The composition of Olympia is rock-solid. Sean Scully could do no better. it is a rectangle divided almost perfectly in half, and within the two blocks blacks and whites call back and forth in a beautiful symphony with green, brown and red. The composition would speak to us without Olympia’s gaze. Ah, but we cannot so easily dispense with that gaze – of a so-called courtesan, a naked woman (not even nude). What exactly is she looking at?
Let us return to the luncheon which we now know is not on the grass at all. It is an intellectual tableau, and yet more real than real. For what is more real than the present moment? It is that moment that captures the viewer every time he or she stands in front of it, like the man waiting for his drink in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
*The Railway is another painting – a very beautiful painting – in which a woman looks out at the viewer. In this painting the other two figures punctuate her gaze in a poignant way: the child is looking away from us, through the bars of a gate toward the railroad, while the tiny puppy in the woman’s lap has its eyes closed. This is not the gaze of childhood, nor is it the gaze of the animal world. This is the gaze of the adult human.