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The Impressionists on Trial

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

by T. J. Clark
Knopf, 338 pp., $25.00

Why did Manet’s Olympia cause a scandal at the 1865 Salon? Because the painting was a parody of high classical art? Because it was a picture of a prostitute in a realistic style? Because of the presence of a Baudelairean cat, or the odd eroticism of the tranquil nude? Because the canvas employed flat colors and a generous painterly touch in the age of the “licked” surface? The Harvard art historian T. J. Clark has his own answer: Olympia caused an uproar because she was a proletarian nude and because her hand over her sex was really pointing out the absence of a phallus. According to Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life, the key to Olympia’s “modernity” is still to be found in Marx and Freud.

At first glance Clark’s approach may appear intriguing, and, at least in art history, even somewhat novel (for in other fields, particularly literary criticism, it has been overworked). He wants to locate the work of art in its historical and sociological setting, isolated from the personal circumstances that produced it—the artist’s “self,” his cultural background, and his aims. To be sure, this approach has its claims on art history, along with those based on the artist’s sources and influences, or on a formal analysis of the relations between successive works. But although Clark has found very interesting critical writings in the press of the time, and although he shows undeniable sensitivity when he allows himself actually to look at paintings, his convictions, inconsistencies, and intellectual quirks distort what might have been a useful approach. They reintroduce into art history a ghost one imagined had been banished a long time ago: the specter of censorious moral judgment.

Essentially, Clark views the period between 1860 and 1880 through a dated historical approach and sensibility. His distaste for much of what happened at the time recalls the austere opposition of many Republicans to the so-called fête imperiale at the end of the Second Empire. He draws on analyses such as Louis Chevalier’s work on “classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses” that have been outmoded by recent studies in demographic history. (To cite a single instance, crime was not rising in the Paris of Haussmann, as Clark would have it, but actually decreased.)1 The overall approach of the book is thus rather conventional, notwithstanding its nod in the direction of recently fashionable ideas—not only semiotic and feminist criticism, but also the French “situationists” of the 1960s whose Marxist-poetical rhetoric was an updated version of the traditional Romantic criticism of the “modern.”

It may be amusing, then, for those of us who have lived for many years in Paris, to be sent from across the sea a blurred picture of our own city and its social past. Our daily landscape, after all, has not changed all that much since Manet’s time, while we have seen the movements among Paris intellectuals on which Clark has drawn come and go during the last twenty years. Clark seems to be using ideological keys that have to be forced into their locks, and in many cases the doors already stand ajar.

What does Clark have to say that is new on the great Baudelairean theme, “the painting of modern life” in the Paris of the 1860s and 1870s? Clark’s aim is to develop an idea articulated first in 1937 by Meyer Schapiro, and quoted in Clark’s introduction, that “early Impressionism…had a moral aspect.”

In its discovery of a constantly changing phenomenal outdoor world of which the shapes depended on the momentary position of the casual or mobile spectator, there was an implicit criticism of symbolic social and domestic formalities, or at least a norm opposed to these. It is remarkable how many pictures we have in early Impressionism of informal and spontaneous sociability, of breakfasts, picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and vacation travel.

Schapiro’s ideas, although they had a political basis, had the virtue—fifty years ago—of offering an analysis of Impressionism that was a departure from the contemporary formalist approach, with its concentration on sensitivity to atmosphere and painterly values. The iconography of Impressionism to which he briefly called attention has long been accepted as central to any study of the art of the period and has even become a cliché. What Clark now proposes to do is to study this iconography in its relation to social developments between 1860 and 1880. It is an ambitious and valuable aim, but one that requires an examination of all the works of the period—not just certain ones carefully chosen to fit a theory.

Of the book’s four sections two are expanded versions of articles Clark published in 1977 and 1978 on Manet’s Olympia and Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère. “The View from Notre-Dame” attempts to connect the paintings of the time to Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris. “The Environs of Paris” tries to show the relation between painting and the changes imposed by the rise of industry on the surrounding countryside. Much of the information in these chapters is already available in Jeanne Gaillard’s Paris 1852–1870 (1977) and Paul Tucker’s Monet at Argenteuil (1982), both excellent books. The principal source for Clark’s discussion of Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère (particularly as an article) was Alain Corbin’s Les filles de noce (1978).

Each chapter contains a long theoretical account of social conditions which is then brought to bear on one of Manet’s paintings: the public impact of Haussmann’s transformation of the city on L’Exposition Universelle de 1867; its more “intimate” effect on Olympia; the meretricious pleasures of the Sunday outing on Argenteuil, les canotiers. The final chapter looks at Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère and its famously ambiguous mirror, already the subject of much critical speculation.

It is worth noting that none of these paintings (with the possible exception of Argenteuil) is actually “impressionistic” and that Clark’s view of Manet as the painter of “la vie moderne” is hardly new: that is how Baudelaire, Zola, and Mallarmé all saw him. What is new is the way Clark defines “modernity”: he argues that the paintings of the period qualify as “modern” when they show the members of the rising new class that has been victimized by the “alienating spectacle” offered by triumphant capitalism. What we are seeing is people on the borderline, no longer quite a proletariat and not yet bourgeois, a new population emerging in the growing cities that sought to share some part of the benefits of a society offering a spectacle of pleasure and prosperity—as glimpsed in the department store, the café-concert, fashion, Sunday outings. Much as they yearned for all these pleasures, Clark argues, the members of the new class could only partake of the images and “signs” of them. The result in his view was that they became isolated, bitter, disappointed. This idea comes directly from the critic Guy Debord, who summed it up in a cryptic formula: “The spectacle is capital accumulated until it becomes an image.”

Clark’s discussion of the development of Haussmann’s Paris in The Painting of Modern Life is marked throughout by a shuddering horror in the face of the emerging city, seen as a sort of capitalist Sodom and Gomorrah, a place of corruption and iniquity. One is reminded of the description at the end of Zola’s La Débâcle of a Prussian officer, a Lutheran, taking in the spectacle of Paris in flames at the end of the Commune and reveling in fanatical delight at this “retribution” for the generations who devoted their lives “to vice and crime.” At length, Clark comes to Manet’s painting of the 1867 World’s Fair, which he sees as a comedy of manners, a “parade of ‘types”’ on an artificially constructed stage whose purpose is to display the city and the triumphal world’s fair as a spectacle. Clark’s description of the painting is clever and enjoyable but the connection is not clear between his account of the work and the thirty pages that precede it.

What he apparently finds modern about L’Exposition Universelle is that the people in it are dissociated from one another, defined only by their different activities: “The types in the park are drawn for easy reading and do not seem to detain one another’s attention too long.” Everything is “part of the same disembodied flat show, the same spectacle.” Are we then to deduce that Manet’s La Musique aux Tuileries, with its homogeneous social group, smartly dressed and occupied in small talk, is not a picture of modern life? According to Clark, it is “hardly a picture of modernity at all, as it is sometimes supposed to be, but, rather, a description of ‘society’s‘ resilience in the face of empire.”

What about Manet’s 1862 lithograph Le Ballon in which a socially mixed crowd is gathered to watch the release of Nadar’s hot-air balloon? Presumably for Clark this is not a picture of modern life either. But Manet was not interested in making moral judgments; he painted what he saw, and he would have been amazed at the author’s stern eye and his strange barometer of modernity.2 Had Clark been more accurate, in fact, he would have risked revealing that under Napoleon III there were places and circumstances in which “class struggle” was of no importance whatever and where ladies in crinoline, workers, and Paris gamins could meet peaceably as part of the same urban pageant, and perhaps even take some pleasure of a peculiarly modern sort in doing so.

Elsewhere in the same chapter another canvas stands in flat contradiction to the author’s main thesis: Caillebotte’s famous Pont de l’Europe. The painting is, of course, a lyric and triumphant celebration of Haussmann’s modern Paris, centered on the image of the new metal bridge. The focus of the painting is the bridge, not the couple walking toward us. Yet Clark, quite seriously, asks us to consider the relationship between the couple: is the woman his mistress or his legal wife or a prostitute? What “mysterious transaction” are they engaged in? Vice is everywhere in these big cities! Oddly, Clark says nothing about the dog casting a shadow in the foreground; yet here, surely, is the ultimate figure of lonely isolation, the wanderer, the creature without a class, the alienated victim of this bright, modern spring day!

The figure that epitomizes modern Paris for Clark, “the truth of the city Haussmann had built,” is the prostitute, Olympia. Whether Clark’s chapter on Olympia brings anything new to the subject is, on the whole, doubtful in view of the excellent recent studies done by Beatrice Farwell and Theodore Reff.3 His only new idea is questionable at best: the assertion, referred to earlier, that Olympia was shocking because she was a proletarian, a sexual proletarian—“Class was the essence of Olympia‘s modernity and lay behind the scandal she provoked”—and because her hand showed her lack of a penis. This interpretation is all the more tenuous and “irrefutable” since Clark’s main evidence for his argument is the silence of the critics.

  1. 1

    Jean Claude Chesnais, Histoire de la violence (Paris: Hachette Pluriel, 1981), pp. 42 and 74.

  2. 2

    Clark locates the scene of Le Ballon in the Tuileries, although recent studies have conclusively identified the site of the lithograph as the esplanade in front of Invalides (J. Bareau, Manet Exhibition Catalog, no. 44, New York, 1983). This is a niggling point, perhaps, but it is by putting together trifles, unpretentious but precise details, that knowledge is advanced—not by shrinking the facts to fit a preestablished theory. (By the way, Clark should have read the catalog of the 1983 Manet exhibition, where all the letters from Manet to Zola are published for the first time, including the “unpublished” letter he refers to in note 85, p. 314.)

  3. 3

    B. Farwell, Manet and the Nude (Garland, 1981); T. Reff, Olympia (London: Allen Lane, 1977).

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