Paris: Gallimard/Musée d'Orsay, 297 pp., g42.00
Outside Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, lines are currently shuffling under tall billboards that reproduce, some eight times life-size, L’Amazone by Édouard Manet. An amazone is a horsewoman, and by extension the tight-fitting black riding habit she would wear in the nineteenth century, matched by a black silk top hat. Thomas Couture, Manet’s teacher, noted how this “pretty costume…chastely delineates the forms of the upper body,”1 and Manet’s image dramatizes the tug of interests implied in his words. Equestrianism briefly frees up the woman he’s painting from the “feminine” ruffles and flounces demanded by contemporary fashion, only to squeeze her corseted torso into a stiff black silhouette. Her hair gets pinned back beneath that black silk, all but for a black fringe: between that and the clamp of her collar, her pale cheeks shine out, a sudden sensuous dazzle.
Distended by the giant poster, the androgynous foxiness just about peeps through. And then the publicity also beckons with its blowup of vigorous brushwork, putting forth that pixilated painterliness that’s become one of the culture industry’s standard cues for consumers. Manet, you can make out, went at his subject with a brisk attack, springing from paint swipe to paint swipe—here jostling, there blending—as he moved in on that succulent fresh face.
The momentum of his excitement carried through as he switched brushes to bash a mess of blues and whites around the outline of her head and shoulders. Let that denote the great outdoors—for after all, this “equestrian” was posing on her feet in his studio, rather than on saddleback in the Bois de Boulogne. Her identity is uncertain, but when she came to him in 1882, he was probably already too ill for plein air work: syphilis would within months put an end to his twenty-year career as the most talked-about painter in Paris.
No need to enter the museum to appreciate all this. The reason to join those lines is that the actual small canvas, when at last you encounter it, turns out to be a three-dimensional object. Most specifically and remarkably: the chase and dance of brushstrokes about that face have led up to the moment when the painter dares to slam in some fat central jabs of carmine—the rosebud of the model’s mouth—and scribble on top of them, in a deep crimson upraised ridge, the parting of her lips. This exhibition is entitled “Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity,” which might lead you to expect a collection of images that somehow defined a new historical era. But Manet the image-maker, reproducible Manet, is not exactly the artist that the Musée d’Orsay’s curators have chosen to represent: or at any rate, not really the artist who comes through. What the exhibition chiefly encourages you to enjoy is Manet’s instincts as a constructor with paint.
Lay on; bring to the fore; maximize. Instructions such as these seem to…
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