A Bar at the Folies-Bergére is a painting that has occupied me for many days. Édouard Manet’s work is wonderful, but there is something more, for me, in his work that I am drawn to. The other day as I was re-stacking some books, there, as though waiting for me, were three books on Manet and his work. My hand brushed up against them as I put the other uninteresting books away. Well, how could I resist? Why should I? I asked myself. Don’t answer that! just grab the books and run. I can’t swear that I did not skip back to my desk, blithely ignoring the piles of work I was suppose to be doing as I sat down with Édourad.
Let me step back a moment into Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. I love it. It references Fête Champêtre by Giorgione (or maybe Titian), but it has the opposite effect on me. As a woman, I find this Manet painting particularly affecting. There on the grass is a person of extraordinary poise. One gets the feeling that she is perhaps the smartest one of the group and without artifice, or disguise, or clothing for that matter, she is presented as being completely in command of herself. Unlike the Muses of Fête Champêtre, she is not the object of the painting, rather her visage, her eyes, her calm certainty is the subject. She is not the equal of the men- they are her’s. She is what I would aspire to: her ability to have the courage of her own nudity*.
Unfortunately, what I feel more of an affinity to is the girl standing at the bar in A Bar at the Folies-Bergére. She is competent and patient, but I look at her and – I know that look; and it’s not just because I have served my share of penance in the restaurant business. The sparkle and noise that surrounds her is empty of meaning. She is searching for some understanding, for someone to see her, but is resigned to be one more object at the counter crowded out with pretty bottles of champagne, flowers and (my favorite detail) a bowl of oranges. There is a life inside of her and how Manet turns her seeming ennui into a kind of quiet despair is brilliant.
Manet was an interesting man living in an extraordinarily vibrant time. He was the sort of man men like Émile Zola passionately defended, and was friends with a lot of brilliant people, men and women, including Charles Baudelaire. I love his poem Obsession, and I place it here with A Bar at the Folies-Bergére because it speaks to what lies beneath but is not hidden, never completely hidden- Not when we simply look, and see, and then recognize each other. It’s this look that Manet captures, a feeling that says – Sometimes I am afraid to move lest I provoke an eruption.
Great woods, you frighten me like the cathedrals;
you howl like organs; in our curs’d hearts lie
chapels of endless grief where old râles rattle,
echoing your De Profundis a reply.
Ocean, I hate your tossing and your tumults,
my spirit finds them all again in me;
I hear in the monstrous laughter of the sea
the bitter laugh of the vanquished,with sobs and insults.
O night, how you please me without stars
whose light speaks only in the banal tongue!
I see the black, the empty, and the bare!
But the shadows are themselves a canvas where
from my eyes a thousand ghosts are flung,
of vanished beings with familiar stares.
-Baudelaire, translated from French by C.F. MacIntyre
*What is my great artistic credo? Listen to your heart, and don’t be afraid of giving off unexpected sounds. Have the courage of your own nudity. – Alexander King presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love