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December 23, 2004

Manet's The Luncheon & A Bar at the Folies Bergère

Posted by Christie Davies

Manet Face to Face: The Luncheon & A Bar at the Folies Bergère

Courtauld Gallery, Somerset House, London
14th October 2004 to 9th January 2005
Daily 10am - 6pm (Last admission 5.15pm);

Neue Pinakothek, Munich
20th January to 10th April 2005

The Luncheon (Le Déjeuner dans l'Atelier) 1868 has a young man in a vivid black velvet jacket in the foreground leaning against a table covered in the debris of a long, sprawling, elaborate French lunch and looking boldly out of the picture, ignoring the scene behind him. He is caught in a strong light, as are the objects on the table immediately next to him – a knife, a cup, some fruit. On the other side of the table are two far less sharply delineated, rather withdrawn figures. A man in a grey top hat, absorbed in his smoking, puffs out a cloud in the dirty way smokers do; his face is in shadow, his beard vague and his jacket is a subdued black in contrast to the bold velvet coat of the youngster. To the side is a woman in grey whose features are also only vaguely shown holding a coffee jug. As Kipling sang:

"Will you 'ave yer coffee now?"
No reply.
The organisers comment that Manet has challenged the conventions of nineteenth century painting by painting a domestic scene in which the individuals do not interact. Yet why should this particular innovation be seen as dramatic? Were the title of the painting not translated as The Luncheon, a word that now has a certain archaic indeed comic formality about it, why would we necessarily expect them to interact? The eating's done, things fall apart, time for a French folding of the hands in sleep. That lunchers, when not out to grass, do interact in other paintings of the time is neither here nor there. The organisers go on to note that similar complexities are evident in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère) 1881-2, a picture to be found in many a glossy book on glassy table, the one where the famously bored and melancholy barmaid has her back against a mirror that reflects the opposite side of the naughty auditorium, one full of whores and toppers. Yet neither she nor the bottles on the bar are 'correctly' shown in the mirror; the reflections do not correspond to the objects they are supposed to be reflecting.

The exhibition's organisers comment:

Both The Luncheon and A Bar at the Folies Bergère resist attempts to find a single meaning for what is seen. In subverting conventional expectations of clarity and coherence they present a disturbing account of the modern world as a place where the details do not add up and where experience is open to multiple interpretations.
Surely this is not true of The Luncheon? Even in the most crassly narrative of paintings such as William Powell Frith's trite scenes from Paddington in The Railway Station 1862 or in Derby Day 1858 there are enigmatic figures who do not fit into the interactions of the others. Besides, are there no earlier pictures where a single central figure is bold and boldly detached from a vaguer background? The Luncheon is remarkable because of the skill with which Manet has rendered it, not because it conveys a disturbing lack of clarity or coherence. We only see The Luncheon as the fore-runner of modernity because individuals who radically detach themselves from social interaction are now a commonplace of contemporary art and literature. Who now reads The Way We Live Now or feels moved by Frith? Rather we are amused by Frith's froth in the way we are by a collection of Giles' cartoons or a clever jigsaw. The Luncheon is by contrast unconfused and single minded. No wonder Frith was resentful.

A Bar at the Folies Bergère does pose more difficult problems. The organisers try to resolve these by showing us both an X-ray photograph revealing Manet's first attempts and also his earlier Study for a Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1881. In the Study for a Bar at the Folies Bergère, the barmaid's back seen in the mirror is a true reflection of her and Manet deliberately departed from this in the main painting. In A Bar at the Folies Bergère the left hand side of the picture to the barmaid's right does show in the mirror behind her a more or less accurate reflection of the crowded theatre. However, on the right hand side there are in effect two barmaids in similar clothing, as if they wore a common uniform, the bored one facing us and looking straight ahead and the other with her back to us serving and looking at a man in a top hat standing at her side. There are subtle differences between the appearances of the two women that do remind us of The Luncheon and which have nothing to do with the mirror. The barmaid who is facing us wears ear-rings and every strand of her light brown hair combed forward to her eyebrows is clear. The other barmaid is vaguely shown, her hair blurred, her ear-rings not seen.

As in The Luncheon it is the solitary person in the foreground of A Bar at the Folies Bergère and the objects immediately in front of her, the oranges in their glass bowl, the flowers in their glass vase that are bright and vivid; the back view of her "colleague" is not. This enables Manet to detach her from her setting. Her colleague stands close to and engages with the customer in the top hat with a view to a variety of sales but our barmaid is not looking at us. She stares forward looking bored and melancholy and if thinking about anything at all she is thinking about something else; she is kilometers away. She was probably sacked that very evening after she had been slow to serve an irritated sex and absinthe seeking Frenchman in a hat who then complained about her. Or perhaps her appearance of uninterested, disinterested innocence was contrived for their enticement or was it an off-stage case of women with sad faces and gay behinds?

The barmaid of A Bar at the Folies Bergère looks quite different from the barmaid in the Study for a Bar at the Folies Bergère, who is a sharp featured tart with fake blond hair piled high on top of her head, the kind made famous in British comedy by the talented character actresses, Liz Frazer and Barbara Windsor. Yet it is the bored, withheld barmaid, like the young man turning his back on the lunch table that we remember, those images of individuals pulled and pulling out of a social scene, one in a boldly confident way, the other in quiet withdrawal. It does add up.

The organisers are to be congratulated on selecting, bringing together and explaining two of Manet's great achievements in this way. For visitors from the former West Riding who object that a mere two pictures for £5 – the entrance fee - is not good value for money, I would point out that the ticket also gets you into the galleries and into the vortex of Wyndham Lewis' drawings.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, Transaction, 2004.


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