New York

Edouard Manet

The incredible thing about Manet’s career is how controversial it remains. From eaves dropping on the crowd here and reading the press afterward, it is clear that large numbers of people are still stuck with the impression that he was a terribly clumsy painter who sort of blundered into a few good paintings. The persistence of such a judgment, a judgment based on an expectation of correctness, tells us quite a bit about how deeply ingrained is Giorgio Vasari’s understanding of the history of art. It also, surprisingly, tells us something about the work, for what is so interesting about that, and what is so commonly understood as clumsiness, is its restlessness, a restlessness which in fact disguises a need for a certain kind of correctness. And what makes it so moving is that this restlessness is expressed in terms bounded by a desire for stability.

The fact that the Metropolitan was unable to get several of the most important paintings, including Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, was less damaging than has been made out. Of course it would have been wonderful to have seen the paintings, and of course their presence would have enhanced the installation. But they are so well-known that their presence was felt anyway, while their absence simply amplified the sense of loss one always encounters looking at Manet’s work. Indeed it could be argued that Manet’s entire output is concerned with forms of desire and loss. There is a very obvious interest in looking at young women, and there is an interest in looking at them in different ways, trying to reinvent, restate the contemplative aggression of the male gaze. There is an interest in fashion, the common expression of the transience of things—one thinks here not only of the many styles of hat Manet painted, but also of larger patterns and shifts in taste such as that from the gloomy Spanish fad to a healthier pleinairism. Even the melancholic still lifer, in their intrinsic conservatism attempting to arrest the precipitous decay of the subject, speak of a desire, as do the extremely touching landscapes, or rather gardenscapes, of the last year, desperate attempts to keep painting afresh even while the subject (in the sense of both subject matter and subjectivity) is lost.

Manet wanted to stop time, to foreground the present, and it is this that marks him as a Modernist. He did not want to be a Modernist; he wanted to make acceptable, traditional paintings. But he could not make such paintings, for he could see that such work would lack conviction and meaning in a Modern world. He lived in a Paris experiencing tremendous upheaval in social, political, and economic terms, in a France that by and large remained aloof from such change. Manet’s radicality as an artist stems from his recognition and understanding of that contradiction, making it the central fact of his art. In a sense it was his realistic, almost cynical brand of conservatism that led him to ever greater experimentation.

Tom Lawson