PRINT May 1985


The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers

The central thesis of this much awaited book is that Modern art emerged from a desire to represent the uncertainty and class tensions of Paris’ new urban ism. Concentrating on three figures of the late 19th century—Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, and Georges Seurat—T.J. Clark explores the convergence of form and content in early Modernism. He argues, for example, that Manet’s Olympia, 1863, through surface detail, signifies the subliminal connection between prostitution and class struggle, thus negating the myth of the courtisane perpetuated by the salon. Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère, 1882, he suggests, represents the increasing alienation of a new consumerist culture, a culture built on a rank of workers (e.g. clerks, shop assistants) that existed outside traditional categories of class. And finally, as a corrective to Manet’s correlation between the Modern and the marginal, Clark points to Seurat’s Un Dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte, 1884–86, as a preeminently successful attempt to “find form for the appearance of class in a capitalist society.”

Clark ascribes a moral aspect to most advanced painting of the late 19th century: Manet and his followers, he argues, wished to expose a visual truth, to represent the debased polarization of classes that was a consequence of Baron Haussmann’s restructuring of Paris. Clark sees the Romanticist “epoch of dreams” as ultimately yielding to a starker reality, one that eschewed painterly illusionism in favor of the flatness of modernity—the flatness of posters, fashion prints, and photographs. Clark’s central premise, that such painting represents the reality of class struggle, never fully resolves the issue of Manet’s extensive and radical paraphrasing of art history. Manet’s appropriations, his denial of painting’s realist assumptions, were radical precisely because they proclaim painting’s independence from the real world, thus allowing for a complex of formal and conceptual innovations. Had Clark better integrated this more traditional reading with his premise that representation is subject to the tests of social practice, his basic argument would have been stronger. Moreover, Clark fails to deal with the concomitant issue of photography and its role in the formation of Modernism—an issue that is not unrelated to a discussion of representation and political reality in early Modernism. Overall, Clark’s thinking is provocative: against the grain of a reactionary revisionism that now inflects 19th-century studies, Clark insists on a fundamental distinction between the advanced and the retrograde.

Maurice Berger


T.J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985), 338 pages, 118 black and white illustrations, 30 color plates.