What is modern painting? For about the last 150 years, we’ve been given two different answers to the question. The first, based upon the criticism of the French poet Charles Baudelaire, is that painting is modern if it addresses the peculiar character of modern life: the fugitive nature of urban experience, the alienation of work under the regime of capital, and the fleeting consolation provided by commodified pleasures. If an artist depicted these or similar subjects, he was modern. (The modern artist was usually figured as male since women were generally denied access to the delights and degradations of modernity.)
The second answer to the question of what makes painting modern is a formalist one. Painting is modern if it abjures representation, storytelling, and allegory in favor of pure painting, that is, art for itself alone. To accomplish this—to purge itself of everything extraneous—painting had to become focused solely on its materials (paint, flat canvas, stretcher, and, possibly, frame) and the formal attributes that arise from them: namely, color, tone, direction, surface texture, and facture. Classic statements conveying this perspective on modern painting were made by the young Symbolist painter Maurice Denis in 1890 and the American critic Clement Greenberg in 1962. The first wrote: “Remember that a picture—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some kind of an anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors in a certain order.” The second wrote that modern painting possesses just “two constitutive conventions or norms: flatness and the delimitation of flatness.” These ideas are still influential. The contemporary German artist Tomma Abts echoes them to describe her geometrical abstractions: “The forms don’t symbolize or describe anything outside of the painting. They represent themselves.”
In the past few decades, art historians and critics have tried to merge these definitions. According to this synthesis, modern painting is the product of a peculiar combination of form and content. The contradictions and alienation of modern life found their most robust expression in an art that rejected symbol, narrative, and an unmediated depiction of reality. Modern painting, including abstract art, was in this sense still representational, but only in an etiolated sense: it illustrated “reification” or “thingification,” the process, endemic in modern capitalism, of turning people into objects and social relations into commodities to be bought and sold. Critics and art historians who propound this modern synthesis often take Édouard Manet to be the first master of reification, the original modern painter.
Evidence of that mastery is intermittent at best in “Manet and Modern Beauty.” The exhibition, which debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago and opens this month at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, focuses on the last half-decade of the artist’s abbreviated life. (He died of syphilis in 1883, at age fifty-one.) Some of the works on view are no more than ingratiating portraits, such as the one of the politician, arts administrator, and Manet champion Antonin Proust (who was responsible for Manet’s being named, in 1881, a chevalier of the Legion of Honor). The picture is animated as Manet’s always are, but offers little insight into psychological character or modern social stratification. The half-length portraits of Monsieur Julien de la Rochenoire (ca. 1878–79) and Alphonse Maureau (1878/79) are a little better. They are unusual for being pastels, a medium associated more with Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt than with Manet, and exhibit highly agitated surfaces. The former is inflected with commas and accents of color, and the latter with broad horizontal and vertical smears. You would never guess from Manet’s pictures, however, that La Rochenoire was both a painter (conservative) and organizer (radical), nor that Maureau was briefly an Impressionist. Neither work is as critically interrogative as modern portraits by Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, or, a decade later, Van Gogh.
Manet had a more mobile style than is generally supposed, and he tailored his facture to the occasion. Shown at the Paris Salon of 1879, Boating (1874–75) was an Impressionist picture intended to publicly cement the artist’s stature as leading light of the “new painting” (as it was called), even if he consistently refused to exhibit with the core group, which included Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Morisot. Meanwhile, In the Conservatory (ca. 1877–79), exhibited at the same Salon, was almost an academic painting. It is large, highly finished, and full of anecdote: a debonair gent leans down to engage a fashionable Parisienne in conversation. He is bearded, wears a wedding ring (as does she), and holds a cigar—short but still phallic—in his left hand. She wears a pleated gray dress and feathered hat, holds an umbrella in her lap, and stares ahead as blankly as painting can possibly simulate. No Salon painter could have conveyed the sexism of the age with greater charm. The critics were rapturous.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is Jeanne (Spring), from 1882, acclaimed by one critic at that year’s Salon as “an absolute masterpiece, the Mona Lisa of the master.” Like In the Conservatory, it is painstakingly rendered and pays great attention to the subject’s face, figure, and fashionable accoutrements. Critics inventoried the “pompadour dress,” “cabriolet hat,” “twenty-five button suede gloves,” and “café-au-lait parasol.” But unlike its Salon companion, The Bar at the Folies-Bergère (notably absent here), it provides no visual ambiguities, no frisson of degeneracy, and no challenge to the masculine, spectatorial gaze. It is every bit a salon picture, the equal of works by Alfred Stevens, James Tissot, and Jules Bastien-Lepage. (This last artist’s Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt, for example, shown in the Salon of 1879, is similar in terms of format, brushwork, and the subject’s stylish accessories.) Moreover, Jeanne was intended as an allegory, though just one other painting of the seasons was completed—Autumn (Méry Laurent), 1881 or 1882, also included in the present exhibition.
The matter of the “modern” in “Manet and Modern Beauty” should therefore be posed in the interrogative. Was Manet ever truly modern? Judging from the current exhibition, the answer is no. Or he was modern only when he was the least modern in the Greenbergian sense—when he embraced challenging, and even rebarbative, contemporary or historical subjects: ragpickers, prostitutes, drunks, female bartenders, and debauched picnics. Without that content, the result is a shallow formalism that is indistinguishable from fashion.
This article appears under the title “Manet and Modern Beauty” in the October 2019 issue, pp. 81–83.