PRINT December 2004

Carol Armstrong

Manet was an artist who cared a great deal about how his art was exhibited; who, indeed, thought of his own studio as an exhibition space, painting and pairing pictures so that they could talk to each other across that space, and to the memories of pictures from the history of art that they invoked in that space. He was just as adamant about where and how he did not show his art, famously refusing to join his friends Monet and Degas and the others in the Impressionist exhibitions. For as much as he may have been considered a modern by those friends, their critics, and their public, he himself wished to be a courtier-artist who kept company with courtier-artists of the past, now relegated to the museum, such as Titian and Velázquez. He wished, moreover, for his pictures to be seen singly, in pairs, or in trios, and in relation to great single pictures by those courtier-artists of the past, rather than in modernist series.

Manet, of course, has been much exhibited since his death as well. Of all of his posthumous exhibitions, he himself would have liked “Manet at the Prado” best, of that I am quite sure. Why? Because there Manet became the courtier-artist he wanted to be. There his art was shown in the context of the Prado’s great, out-of-the-way collection of paintings by great painters of the past, particularly those whom Manet himself loved best, most notably Velázquez. There his paintings and prints were shown in the context of a palace collection, to which he himself made his pilgrimage in 1865, part of which for a while had been organized, as it happens, by Velázquez, the premier painter of the Spanish court—as a king’s but also a painter’s collection. And there four of Manet’s great single pictures of the 1860s were lined up, one by one, in an enfilade of single-picture panels down the length of the main gallery of the Prado, where they could dialogue with paintings by Velázquez and others on the walls on either side of them (rehung for the purposes of this exhibition); and then a good portion of the rest of Manet’s oeuvre was shown in a series of rooms of their own, ranging from the ’60s paintings to the post-Madrid work of the ’70s and early ’80s, which was less and less obviously Spanish-derived.

Three of the paintings that were mounted in singles down the center of the main gallery were painted after Manet’s own trip to the Prado in 1865. The last one, The Balcony, 1868–69, whose composition is an updated, Parisian variation on another painting in the Prado by another Spanish painter, Goya, is, despite that fact, the least Spanish in appearance and subject, the least Prado-looking, the most “modern.” It was separated from Goya’s Majas on a Balcony, 1810–12, by several rooms, and I for one did not think much about the relationship, which for so long has been so obvious, between the two pictures of balconies. Nor does Manet’s Balcony lend itself to anything in the way of direct comparisons with the seventeenth-century paintings on the walls on either side of it, either nearby or at a farther remove: It doesn’t offer proof, for instance, of the kind of direct borrowing from a Velázquez source in the Prado (Menippus, 1639–41; The Buffoon Pablo de Valladolid, 1636–37) found in the Philosopher, 1865–67, and The Tragic Actor, 1865–66, which were both in the exhibition. And it doesn’t suggest, either, the sort of instructive comparison that the exhibition made possible between rather different paintings by the two artists, such as, say, Velázquez’s large, multifigure, mythological subject The Forge of Vulcan, 1630, with its still life of a little white pitcher on the shelf, and Manet’s small, single-figure portrait of the modern courtier Théodore Duret (1868), with its still life of a green book on the floor, a burgundy-velvet stool, a lacquer tray, knife and spoon, carafe, glass, and lemon. That was a pairing, across the space of this exhibition, that made differences as well as similarities emerge, depending on which you most wanted to see.

But perhaps, after all, The Balcony does offer something like that, a resemblance within difference. At any rate, I suddenly saw something in the painting that I don’t remember ever having seen before, but that I can’t keep from seeing anymore: a haunting by Las Meninas, 1656–57, which was hung on a side wall of the main gallery, but at a distance; The Balcony and Las Meninas were never visible together in “Manet at the Prado.” But suddenly the latter hung in the background air of the former, like a specter of an invisible presence, like one of the dim paintings by Rubens that hang in the background of Las Meninas, like the mirrored ghosts of the king and queen, like the courtier who comes or goes through the back door of the same painting’s recesses, integers all of the court framework within which Velázquez worked. These days we all think Las Meninas is a painting to die for; it has been the object of contemporary admiration, from Michel Foucault’s marvelous discussion of the painting at the outset of The Order of Things to the recent video treatment of it by Eve Sussman at the 2004 Whitney Biennial (89 Seconds at Alcazar, 2003). Though he never said anything about it, I imagine Manet being bowled over by Las Meninas, too.

And I wonder if seeing Velázquez’s picture didn’t actually help to cause the kind of shift in Manet’s painting practice that is announced in The Balcony. For me, suddenly, standing before that canvas in the Prado having just seen Las Meninas, it seemed to echo with the realization that, no, Manet couldn’t be the court painter he wanted to be, and tried to be in his earlier, directly quotational pictures; that what he had to do, instead, was paint the modernity of the modern Paris that was his home, but paint it in a way that would make it resonate with the past from which it differed. For the social and pictorial conundrums that make Las Meninas the mysterious puzzle-painting that it is are those of a world gone by, a world that could only be dreamed by the modern painter, wished by him, fantasized but not actually inhabited. But powerfully compelling to the artist anyway, artistically, precisely because of that.

But what made me fantasize Las Meninas in front of (or rather in back of ) The Balcony? The differences between the two paintings are most immediate: on the one hand, two women in modern dress, one of them Manet’s new friend and painting compatriot Berthe Morisot, behind a balcony facing outward onto the implied but unseen street with its unknown passersby (where we must imagine ourselves standing), a modern gentleman between them and a dark interior world behind them contrasting dramatically to their bright, green-shuttered foreground; on the other hand, a more evenly lit interior space facing onto its imaginary extension, all part of the space of the royal palace, peopled with eight elaborately posed and costumed courtiers, including the painter himself, and a ninth in the background, hung with paintings on all sides, and bracketed by the stretchered back of the one the painter is working on on the left, and the lit rim of a window seen from the side on the right. Despite the common humanity of the double encounters with estrangement and sociability that both paintings stage, the differences in the social structures and spaces of their two worlds are marked: the unit of the individual versus the community of the court, the apartment and street versus the palace. The different places of the painters in relation to their worlds is also evident: in the one the painter is outside what he paints (which, barricaded off by its painted balcony railing, was shown in the crowded, alienating market hall of the Salon), in the other he is inside (the studio that he paints, which in turn was inside the palace, and which continues to present itself as a threshold rather than an unpassable barrier). Finally, the dissimilarity in the way the two painters painted is pronounced, for the thick application and opaque, oily density of the colored matter and fact of The Balcony’s painted-ness pops forward insistently in a way that it never does in Las Meninas, which fades and falls from its vividly brushed color notes back into its rubbed ground, its background wall and canvas support, in a manner that, evoking the dimly luminous tonality of slightly out-of-focus photographs, makes the painting hospitable to current treatment in photographic media.

Yet there it is: The Balcony echoes with Las Meninas. The lapdog in the foreground of the one echoes contrarily with the hound in the other; the close triangulation of heads (Morisot’s, Antoine Guillemet’s, and Fanny Claus’s) resounds vaguely with the different dispersal of Velázquez’s, the Infanta Margarita’s, and that of her curtseying maid; the grouping of hands (Morisot’s light finger-clasp of honor, Guillemet’s fist and cheroot-bearing grip, Claus’s glove-adjusting movement) reverberates remotely with the painter’s brush- and palette-hands and the Infanta’s taking of the pitcher from her kneeling maid. The green shutters at either edge of the nineteenth-century painting, even their proportionate widths, ring reminiscently with the canvas-back and window rim of the seventeenth-century one, and then the shadowy interior of The Balcony, with its phantom child, its ghostly objects on an equally spectral shelf, and its whispered hint of a still-life painting on the wall, murmurs with the memory of the pictured, mirrored, and courtiered back wall of Las Meninas. Most noticeably, the outward-facing fascination with female fashion in the one is resonant with the foregrounding of court apparel in the other, and the fascinated equivalence between paint and cloth, however differently articulated, circulates between both paintings, making each vibrate with the other when seen, thought, or remembered in the same museum.

I’ve paired other pictures by Manet with Las Meninas in the art historian’s old standby, the double-projection slide lecture: and there, in the same museum with that canvas, was A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881–82 (toward the end of the exhibition), whose brilliantly mirrored world of capitalist spectacle stands up usefully to comparison and contrast with Velázquez’s court painting and its background mirror. But the reverberations suddenly felt in The Balcony were something else again. They brought home some things, not only about Manet and Velázquez—this was the show that was really about that pairing, not the one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2003—but also about questions of “influence” and dialogue and the very boundary between the resemblances and differences, the comparisons and contrasts, with which we work, both in the day-to-day practice of art history and in the general rule of thought. That’s why “Manet at the Prado” is important to talk about now, at a time when the discipline of art history is in a quandary, when the practice of art is so lacking in discernable rules of the game, and when painting seems to fall in and out of favor in the contemporary art world with almost cyclical regularity. Let alone the question of why Manet, a question I have heard and read more than one artist and critic in the current scene pronounce. A question I have a hard time answering, because the answer seems so self-evident: Not, he was the father of modernism—also something gone by now—but rather, he was a superb and intelligent painter. It’s a question that is a symptom, so let’s take it on.

Other recent exhibitions, such as “Manet and the Sea” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art earlier this year, show us a different Manet from the artist on view at “Manet at the Prado.” There we see an unquestionably modern Manet, a Manet on vacation from the museums and exhibitions of Paris, a Manet at once moving in his elegant simplicity and quick, careless facility (a touch here makes a flower, a stroke there makes a sail) and remarkably malapropos in his larger landscape efforts, with their unmodulated chunks of blue-green sea—a Manet, in short, of Baudelairean speed and bourgeois leisure, of marketable throwaways, impatience with the rules, and disregard for the past. A Manet who was not always at his best, in my opinion, but who could have been exhibited in the Impressionist exhibitions had he chosen to be. A Manet for now—or at least the now that was then. But a Manet who would have seemed out of place in the Prado, next to Velázquez and his court collection.

The two Manets were sometimes all of a piece: Like Velázquez, he often combined two ways of painting in a single canvas. But the Prado Manet, separated out from the beach Manet, is the Manet we can learn most from now, in the now after modernism’s demise. We live in an age of traveling exhibitions, of museums whose collections move around inside and outside of the buildings that house them, and of faster and faster circulating, increasingly disembodied reproductions. We live after the shock of modernism, so that it, too, has become part of our past; it is just one of those pasts that circulate in the present. (Which is to say, it is no longer the master narrative of current art and need no longer so rigidly confine and define our reception of a painter like Manet.) And we live at a time when the diffusion of art amid the larger diffusion of visual culture dematerializes the image to such an extent that it is often hard to remember what materials feel like and why they matter. Manet lived at a time when all of this was beginning to happen—after all, he saw as much past art in reproduction as he did at the Louvre, with its accumulated loot from different places and pasts, and he made reproductions himself. (Importantly, however, these reproductions were etchings, not photographs.) But Manet never forgot about materials; he made distinctions between his etchings and paintings, and between his hand and those of the artists he admired, and those distinctions were eminently material. He was a painter who thought in paint—and indeed loved paint—like no other.

And then he made his pilgrimage across the Pyrenees to a place that France was just beginning to put on the European art map, to a collection that was by then and still is largely a stay-at-home collection that requires a special pilgrimage such as the one Svetlana Alpers and I made last December to see it. Just as Manet had to go to the Prado to see Velázquez “in the flesh” and have that flesh make a material difference, so we had to go to Madrid to see “Manet at the Prado.” And to have resemblances and differences and echoes across several centuries and one mountain range reverberate in our memories as they must have reverberated in Manet’s. To have that interplay between the material presence before you and the haunting of your mind by another, and to realize that that is the way “influence” works: not as a flow or a cause, as a determination and an act of passive reception, but as a dialogue between materials and memories, between the tact of physical fact and the evanescence of the mental image. It works that way—or I guess I think it should—for the art historian as much as for the artist. It is a matter of historical predilection as to whether you focus on continuities and resemblances (as Svetlana does) or discontinuities and differences (as I tend to do), but either way the relay between one and the other, between present and past, matter and mind, should count, for it is what art is made of. My own complaint about art now is that it is more often than not not made of that anymore. That’s what the question “Why Manet?” is a symptom of; but that in itself is also the answer to the question “Why Manet?” And that’s why “Manet at the Prado” was the best Manet show, and one of the best art exhibitions, I’ve ever seen. For it was located in a museum—both a physical place and a mental space—where art mattered, and matters still.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the Study of Women and Gender at Princeton University.