Monday, 19 January 2009

Edouard Manet
Courtauld Institute Gallery, London
5th December 2008

Un bar aux Folies Bergère, 1882
Oil on canvas 96 x 130cm

Hung perhaps a little too high, the painting nevertheless commands the large room despite fierce competition from a number of paintings by Gauguin and Cezanne, and the best attempts of a huge gilt frame to bury it. It is a portrait of a young woman, Suzon, who worked at the Folies-Bergère, one of the great Parisian “cafés-concerts” and her central position on the canvas ensures that you see and assess her before anything else in the painting. She stands waiting to serve, behind a marble topped bar that is adorned with a variety of bottles and a large bowl of tangerines. As the viewer you are placed in the position of a customer at the bar, but you cannot catch her eye. The look on her face is distracted and she gazes past you with sad melancholic eyes.

I am quite surprised how controlled the mark making is, the surface is quite flat with just a few flurries of thicker paint for the highlights. I am guessing that it was painted quickly with few corrections. The lights on the blue jacket are done with white rather than by revealing a lighter layer below. The lights in the room shimmer in the mirror and the surface seems to vibrate with the delicate touches of colour on a predominantly grey surface. The oranges are the strongest note, but there is also red in the Grenadine bottles, the Bass labels, and green in a bottle of crème de menthe, two pale flowers, one lilac, one yellow, in a vase and the pinks in her cheeks and the columns reflected behind her head.

The axis of the painting seems to run right through her, starting with the ironing crease in her grey skirt, through the line of buttons on her jacket, to the corsage at her breast and finally to the locket around her neck and a symmetrical frontal view of her face. Perhaps her thoughts stray to the locket, maybe a token from a lost lover. She has her weight on one leg and supports herself with her hands on the bar. Clearly it’s been a long night. Gradually you realise that behind her is a large mirror and in fact she is the only person in the painting who is not a reflection. The reason why the reflection takes time to absorb is that the objects on the bar are not mirrored exactly, Manet has deliberately moved them. Furthermore there is a reflection of Suzon serving a customer that has been shifted to the right. Most of the literature (and there is a lot!) suggests that you are this customer, but I prefer the argument that Manet has painted a temporal disconnect[1] ie this is an earlier moment in time that lingers in the reflection.

The painting presents a world open to multiple readings and interpretations and the literature dwells on the notion of Manet’s modernism and the discontinuity between the two realms, the actual and the reflected. Is it perhaps a metaphor for desire and its impossibilities? Manet left no clues to his intention, but to me the painting speaks of the unbridgeable gulf between men and women, the rich and poor, mirror and window[2], and of course life and death. It was his last major painting and he probably knew he was dying, so after sitting with the painting for over an hour, I read it as his farewell to the Parisian life he had known and although his reflection lingers, the girl at the bar sees him no longer.

[1] How Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" Is Constructed Author(s): Thierry de Duve and Brian Holmes Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 136-168 Published by: The University of Chicago Press
[2] Windows control appearance through the framing edge, whereas mirrors are also self reflexive, in other words, we see ourselves in the representation.

©blackdog 2009

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