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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Manet, the Bridge

An Atelier in the Batignolles (detail),
 1870, Henri Fantin-Latour, depicts
Manet better than most of the man's
One of the things that has always fascinated me in studying various eras, or schools, or movements in art isn't the artists whom art historians have tucked neatly within whatever period or stylistic grouping they've ordained, but those artists who don't fit within these groups--what I've come to call "bridge" artists. Van Gogh is a perfect example. He's not an Impressionist, and though he's sometimes referred to as a post-Impressionist, his work finds little comfort among that of Gauguin, Matisse, Vlaminck, Kokoshka, and the others of that era. Van Gogh is a bridge between Impressionism and their work, just as Cézanne is a bridge between Post-Impressionism and Cubism. In fact, Cézanne might well be considered an even longer bridge between Impressionism (skipping completely over Post-Impressionism) to Picasso and Cubism. Another such bridge is the work of Edouard Manet.

Despite no small amount of philosophical influence upon the artists involved, it might be going to far to say that, had it not been for Manet, Impressionism would never have happened. Yet some knowledge of Manet, his background, and his work, makes the development of Impressionism much more understandable. Manet was trained as an Academic artist. Indeed, though he dabbled some in Impressionism, he never displayed with the Impressionists and never considered himself one of them. By the same token, no one, least of all the academicians, would ever have considered him an academic. In fact, for the most part, they hated his work. Yet his content is very often of the old school. It was not what Manet painted that alienated him from the Academic traditions but how he painted. And this is what makes him a bridge between the two diametrically opposed groups.

The Mocking of Christ, 1865, Edouard Manet
Perhaps one of the best examples of "Manet the bridge" can be seen in his 1865 work, The Mocking of Christ (above, sometimes titled Jesus Being Mocked). It's a large, life-size canvas depicting a mostly nude Christ, seated, being taunted by a bearded Roman soldier and two other figures. In various forms, it was a scene frequently painted by academic artists. Yet this is a thoroughly modern painting. It has much the feeling of a snapshot from a performance of a passion play. It appears staged, set before a backdrop of infinite blackness, sharply, even harshly lit, with figures appearing more contemporary than biblical. The helmeted Roman wears a full beard. Roman soldiers were traditionally clean shaven. (His head may have been added to the body of another figure, inasmuch as it appears slightly too small, given the hulking bulk of the soldier, below, left.) The kneeling figure wears what could only be considered Medieval garb, while the standing figure bearing Christ's cloak seems rather barbaric, neither Roman nor Jewish (although perhaps quite French). The figure of Christ seems to have what looks very much like a fake beard, somewhat redder, fuller, and longer than the rest of the hair on his head (below, right). Manet was criticized for using a common laborer as his model in painting Christ. His knees are knobby and graceless, his feet large and misshapen, his body scrawny and pale. Nowhere in this scene is there to be found any beauty, color, or warmth. To modern eyes, at least in his depiction of Christ, Manet appears to be right on target--a poor, unattractive, hardworking, tortured man of immense spiritual strength. The Academics cringed.

The Mocking of Christ (detail), 1865,
Edouard Manet
One of the things that has always linked Manet with Modern Art is the apparently flatness in his figural modeling. That's especially the case in The Mocking of Christ. I've always had the theory that Manet used the crude, flash powder photography of his day to photograph his models and then painted mostly, if not exclusively (in some instances, even slavishly), from the resulting prints. Such a method would explain a lot about the technical aspects of this painting and much of Manet's other work as well (such as Luncheon on the Grass). Here it would explain the rather tight composition, the news photo-like cropping of the kneeling figure's posterior. It would explain the relative lack of color and the tendency toward sepia. It would explain the total lack of background detail. It would explain the frontal lighting, the total absence of shadow, the minimal modeling, the "sturdy" feet, even the apparently fake beard. In the mid 1860s, photography was no longer in its infancy, but neither was it advanced enough to be a common or convenient tool for painters. Manet appears to have been learning how to use the newest photographic technology of his time and, tellingly, falling victim to some of the obvious pitfalls artists painting realistically today have long since learned to expect and avoid.

The Mocking of
Christ (detail), 1865,
Edouard Manet
If Manet made heavy, and somewhat clumsy, use of photography in creating this work (and the clues are too numerous and too obvious for me to believe otherwise), it would appear that, in addition to encountering the pitfalls of photographic sources, he also seems to have discovered the advantages as well. There is an immediacy to this painting that is far outside the Academic tradition. The drama is not in the action of his figures or in their authenticity (as was the Academic habit) but in their visual impact. Manet has cast such a glaring light upon the physical, and here even more on the emotional, torture his Christ endures with such incredible peace and passivity that it seems to almost literally smack the viewer in the face. His captors are not seen as ugly or evil but, like the viewer, mere mortals, incapable of understanding the perfect goodness of the man in their midst. Manet's attempt to instill a "you are there" presence is only partially successful. He succeeds only in capturing a re-enactment of the mocking of Christ, but it is one as powerful as any painted retelling of the event before or since. This painting, for all its technical, academic faults, "works" in the modern sense. Like Manet, the artist-bridge, it bridges the gap of 2000 years between Christ's humiliating death and our understanding of it today.

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