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The Impressionists on Trial

In this chapter, however (as in the one on Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère), Clark has done remarkably extensive research. Quoting generously from the contemporary press, he compiles the first systematic catalog of the reviews of the period, which takes up about a third of the book. His translations, moreover, are extremely good, and in the footnotes he provides the original texts in French, thereby completing the pioneering work on critical sources begun by G. H. Hamilton in Manet and his Critics (1969). Here Clark has produced a useful and meticulous account—even if he cannot help giving marks (a little like the “stars” in the Guide Michelin) according to the interest the reviews have for his own purpose. For all his partisanship, though, Clark has the honesty to find equally feeble the work of “leftist” art critics (such as the amusing Ravenel, alias Alfred Sensier, Millet’s friend, who is one of the book’s most valuable trouvailles) and that of right-wing critics such as the “legitimist” Fournier. Clark is particularly fascinated by reactionary writers—those two curmudgeons the Goncourt brothers, for example—but is this really so surprising? Here, after all, is the eternal meeting place where all nostalgic ideologies converge.

Clark has two ways of looking at paintings. The first is an attempt to fit them into a system in order to demonstrate something. Here Clark’s approach resembles a sort of intellectual contortionism, for the assumptions he makes are often contradictory, deriving variously from Marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic, and feminist schools of thought. The second approach is more direct, when Clark really seems to look at a painting, to examine it lovingly. Unfortunately, the first method takes precedence over the second and one can’t help wishing it were otherwise. For when he wants—or when he will allow himself—Clark demonstrates strong feeling for painting. He alternates between the two approaches fairly consistently, and it is almost touching to see him let himself go only to censor himself.

A strong sensibility is at work, for instance, in Clark’s description of the placid, vacant expression on the face of the woman in Manet’s Argenteuil, les canotiers. But he insists on making the expression a metaphor for the mood of a rising class that senses its own inferiority and aspires to “a new form of life—a placid form, a modest form, but one with a claim to pleasure.” Unfortunately we find that same “posed” and slightly bored look on the faces of virtually all the people in Manet’s paintings, no matter where they are or where they come from. We see it on the face of Victorine Meurend in La Femme au perroquet, and on the face of Manet’s adopted son in Déjeuner dans l’atelier; we see it on the face of the elegant lady in Dans la serre and even on the face of the artist’s wife in Madame Manet. The fact is that it was very boring to sit for Manet; everyone complained.

The barmaid at the Folies-Bergère, according to Clark, hides her social origins behind the “face of fashion,” fashion being a common manifestation of feminine alienation. Her face, with its bored expression, for Clark, is one “whose character derives from its not being bourgeois, and having that fact almost be hidden.” So much for Suzanne Manet. So much for all the fashionable women Manet painted with that same sleepy look. Clark even goes so far as to impugn the poor girl’s morals—“It is the picture of a woman in a café-concert, selling drinks and oranges, and most probably for sale herself or believed to be so….”—and this when her place behind the counter is surely proof, if anything, of her respectability, for she could easily have earned more money as a prostitute than tending bar.

Clark, I believe, has misconstrued the caricature of Manet’s painting in a contemporary newspaper, whose caption characterizes the barmaid as “a seller of comforts” (une marchande de consolation). But the “comfort” in question is not of a sexual variety; the word had a precise meaning in the language of the period and referred specifically to the “comfort” to be purchased in alcohol—as the vast increase in the number of bottles in the caricature suggests.

Sometimes, when Clark allows his interpretation to coincide with formal analysis—unfortunately all too rarely—his arguments go beyond the moral to become hallucinatory. His description of Olympia is a case in point, minute though it is. He discovers not only a Japanese screen in the wallpaper behind Olympia’s head—which may or may not be there—but also, more surprisingly, hairs in the shadow above her navel, which would make her truly an anatomical oddity—a sort of Mona Lisa for the sex freak.

It is also worth looking at Clark’s reading of the contemporary criticism on the subject of Olympia’s so-called unwashed look, the quality she has of seeming to need a bath. In the contemporary press Olympia was called “the cabinetmaker’s wife” or “the coal-merchant’s wife,” which Clark takes to be a reference to her social origins. But the French for “cabinetmaker” is “ébéniste” and, of course, the names were used to refer only to the color of coal and ebony—nothing more. By failing to take form and style into account, Clark makes an obvious blunder: the contemporary criticism of Olympia was aimed, in part, at Manet’s “realism,” his departure from the traditional chiaroscuro and modelé techniques. Clark forgets that one of Manet’s principal innovations was stylistic: he was using dark outlines to describe shapes, and the contrast between dark and light in the painting would have seemed crude to the conventionally trained eye of the time.

Again, with Manet’s Argenteuil, les canotiers, Clark looks very closely at the artist’s work and observes—here quite rightly—a visual joke, typical of Manet, in the vertical line that seems to be a reflection of a factory chimney in the water but is, in fact, made up of bits of rope and the flowers from the woman’s hat. This is a perceptive observation which contributes something to our understanding of Manet’s approach to painting. But Clark only permits himself to enter into the spirit of Manet’s visual humor in order to discover a hidden meaning: a visual metaphor for art and illusion (like the mirror in Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère). Manet, he concludes, class-conscious at last, is using a formal joke to express the objective connection between the world of labor (the factory) and that of leisure (the boat and hat). Thus factory workers and white-collar canotiers would be, at least symbolically, reunited by the artist’s intuition!

Throughout the book there is a tension between Clark the connoisseur and Clark the ideologue and it is unfortunately the latter who wins out. A particularly telling footnote throws all Clark’s inconsistencies into relief. He asserts that the social intentions underlying the work of artists such as Gervex, Goeneutte, Nittis, Raffaëlli, and Zandomeneghi have more relevance to his own interests, adding that unfortunately it is an inferior variety of painting. “The value of a work of art,” Clark pronounces, “cannot ultimately turn on the more or less of its subservience to ideology.” This comes as a relief! Misleading appearances notwithstanding, Clark would not go along with Zhdanov all the way.

In the long run, though, Clark’s relentless moralism tends to prevail. It must be very discouraging to study an art that does not conform to your own ideology, and to study artists of no political convictions who mischievously wriggle out of systems and (thank heaven) out of the grasp of art historians. According to Clark, where Manet and the Impressionists foundered was in their failure to produce an accurate portrait of society. Bourgeois that they were, they proved themselves incapable of finding “an iconography of modern life” with which “to picture class adequately.”

It is not enough to say that they were bourgeois artists; it needs stressing, rather, that their practice as painters—their claim to be modern—depended on their being bound more closely than ever before to the interests and economic habits of the bourgeoisie they belonged to.

Not only does Clark blame them for catering to the fin du siècle market, but for catering even then to (horresco referens) the American market as well. On this count he finds Monet perhaps the most guilty: guilty of forsaking a rapidly industrializing Argenteuil—teeming week in, week out with the new class industrialization had given rise to—for his garden at Giverny and the pleasures of the contemplative life and the cultivation of private sensibility.

But Monet, Sisley, and Pissarro are guilty as well. Their canvases depicted trains, railway bridges, and factory smokestacks, more to create a setting than to represent a world at work. “Industry could surely be made part of the idyll if the painter tried hard enough,” Clark writes.

The Impressionists are guilty: guilty of having had a serene vision of industrial modernity, for instance of having seen a motif of lyric modernity in the Gare Saint Lazare; guilty, in short, of having seen something more in the symbols of modern life than the suffering they could mask and the reproach they should convey. What Clark really cannot forgive Impressionism for, it seems, is exerting from beyond the grave a force to reaffirm the American leisured classes in their smug complacency. And for this crime he finds its “dissolution into the decor of Palm Springs and Park Avenue” to be “well deserved….”

And so, having placed History’s dunce cap on the Impressionists—and on Renoir in particular—Clark ends, like Meyer Schapiro before him, by holding up Seurat as the one exception, Seurat who managed to capture in its loneliness and disaffection the new borderline class of clerks, calicots, and demimondaines halfway between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Of course Seurat’s inspired Grande Jatte certainly lends itself to Clark’s demonstration: this social image is—and has been recognized to be for about a hundred years—one element in the painting. But to reduce the painting to a social statement, ignoring all its technical, historical, and metaphysical implications, seems oddly restrictive.

Here we see all the ambiguities and dangers that result from exploring art through iconography alone; for by this standard, Raffaëlli (who painted suburbs) or Léon Frédéric (who painted factory workers) would exceed Seurat in importance. “I don’t have that much to say,” Seurat used to complain. And yet there seems to be no limit to what he can be made to say by those who hold university chairs. For the last two hundred years, mixing art and moral sentiment has been the recurring hope of every clergyman with aesthetic pretensions. But where would this leave Degas, the misogynist who loved to paint women, the reactionary who sought in his paintings to capture people at work? Is Degas to find salvation in his singers, laundresses, dancers, madames, and modistes? Will they sue for grace on his behalf before the high court of feminism and modernity?

And what about the lecherous old Renoir? Do not the people in his Déjeuner des canotiers belong to the very class whose emergence is the subject of Clark’s book, depicted in the very sort of setting to which he devotes an entire chapter? Why is nothing said about this painting? For the simple reason, one suspects, that the people in Déjeuner des canotiers are enjoying themselves: they seem quite happy and no trace of “alienation” or Angst pales the cheeks of Aline Charigot, the working girl who became Mrs. Renoir. The picture and Clark’s omission of it testify to the dangers of ideology, not the least of which is simple frustration. Clark himself, formerly at Leeds University, writes in this book like a new breed of pilgrim who has come to the shores of Hawthorne’s New England seeking to breathe new life into a dying Puritanism with the formulas of historical materialism.

translated by Mimi Kramer


Painting of Modern Life’ August 15, 1985

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