Tuesday 12 April 2022

The Perils of Interpretation

 I see that Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergères, one of the great French paintings of the 19th century, has been relabelled as part of the Courtauld Gallery's £57 million 'refurbishment', one of the aims of which is to draw the hapless gallery visitor's attention to 'issues such as racism and sexism in artists' works' – how refreshingly original and unexpected... A propos Manet's masterpiece, we are now informed that the barmaid's 'enigmatic expression is unsettling' – fair enough so far: there is much that is unsettling about this painting, in fact practically everything –  but then comes the clincher: 'especially as she appears to be interacting with a male customer'. Imagine – a barmaid at the Folies Bergères interacting with a male customer! What an unsettling experience that would be – 'Lawks, a man! What's a poor girl to do?'  In fact it's debatable if she is interacting at all with the mysterious, out-of-proportion man at the right-hand edge of the painting – as I mentioned the last time I wrote about A Bar (on Manet Day this year), there are other ways of reading the picture – and if she is, if that man is indeed fixing her with his 'male gaze', there is nothing the least menacing or lecherous about his expression, which is of a piece with the air of melancholy and mystery that pervades the painting. 
  Amusingly, the Courtauld's would-be woke interpretation has itself been attacked for 'misogyny'. Art historian Ruth Millington points out that 'It completely shifts the viewer's attention away from her and on to the man in the picture. This interpretation, in a woke attempt to call out misogyny, unwittingly centres the male gaze. The writer implies that the woman is unsettled by the man's presence, framing her as a passive victim of her circumstances ... In a painting of multiple gazes, it's unfair and misogynistic to emphasise the male perspective.' True enough, especially of a painting so entirely dominated by an enigmatic female gaze – that of the model looking back at the artist and, unsettlingly, at us.  (You can read more of this story in the Telegraph, but online it's hidden behind a paywall.)
  I guess it's a good thing the Courtauld doesn't possess Manet's far more questionable Olympia – 

Or, come to that, Felix Vallotton's La Blanche at La  Noire


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