Sunday 23 January 2022

Manet's Mysterious Bar

 It's Manet Day again – the birthday (in 1832) of Edouard Manet – a date that seems to have become a fixture on the Nigeness calendar. Usually I celebrate by posting one of the beautiful flower paintings that he made in the last months of his life. This year, however, I'm posting 'A Bar at the Folies Bergères' (a treasure of the Courtauld gallery), the last large-scale painting he completed. And it does feature an exquisite little flower piece in the foreground, the colours set off against the black of the barmaid's dress. Manet painted this picture entirely in his studio, being too ill for a prolonged session at the Folies Bergères. He set up a prop bar counter for the foreground, and painted the background from memory and existing sketches.
It is a haunting, enigmatic painting, one that has attracted much analysis. Most obviously, there seems to be something wrong with the reflection in the mirror (as there often seems to be in the works of Velazquez, Manet's master). Certainly the looming figure of a top-hatted moustachioed man at top right seems out of scale – and why is the barmaid's reflected back so far to the right? This has been explained (perhaps) by an Australian academic, Malcolm Park, who, in a doctoral dissertation, argued that, if Manet's viewpoint is not from a frontal head-on position but from somewhere to the right, everything falls into place, and the barmaid and moustachioed gent are not in conversation at all. The trick is that Manet makes us assume that his viewpoint is frontal. Well, maybe... For myself, I'm happy to let the mystery be, to ponder what it might represent – a vision of paradise, the ultimate sadness of fallen humanity, the world the dying Manet is about to lose? – and simply to enjoy the painterly beauty of what is surely one of Manet's great meditations on the relationship between reality and illusion. And surely a masterpiece. 
Two more little details: note, on the left, the wine bottle bearing the artist's signature, and, on the right, a bottle of what is unmistakably Bass – English beer, perhaps denoting Manet's anti-German sentiments. 

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