LESSONS IN LOOKING
Rethinking Manet and Degas
By Craig McDaniel
The Montréal Review, October 2023
Announcing the exhibition, “Manet/Degas,” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, scheduled September 23, 2023 – January 7, 2024, an issue of Art in America made the pitch: “Despite their artistic similarities, Manet and Degas were, in fact, rivals. Who stands to come out on top here? The fact that Manet’s Olympia (1863) is traveling to the US for the first time for this show may offer a clue.”
But Degas is no pushover: Did anyone anywhere ever draw better? Did Degas ever have a bad drawing day? The purpose of such an exhibition, pairing Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas, isn’t to stage an arm-wrestling match in the Café Guerbois, a favorite Parisian meeting spot for creative bohemians. The exhibition offers an opportunity to engage with a substantial selection of each artist’s body of work. To look afresh. Manet/Degas. Degas/Manet. We can engage in a small-scale rapprochement here. Now. Seeing them not as rivals, but as players on the same team, outmaneuvering the opposition.
Is our engagement with a work of art inviolable? Not if we agree: We are the author of our own engagement, we make the text/painting anew by our own looking and thinking, remembering and discovering. If asked to nominate a painting as text par excellence: many might name Manet’s Olympia, a painting created in 1863, early in his career.
Art historian Alan Krell spells out the challenge this way (he was writing specifically about Manet, but he was also writing, really, about any work of art): “It is wishful thinking to suppose that we all ‘see art’ in the same way; contexts change, and so do our perceptions. We need to reconstruct a time and a place and, inevitably, we must speak with two voices, the possible ‘then’ and the more emphatic ‘now.’”
Our view today of a painting that is one hundred and sixty years old is not, and cannot be, identical to how viewers saw the painting in the era of its initial creation. Yet we (may) try. A frequent goal of art history texts (especially the survey text) is to help usher the reader/viewer into a clearer understanding of the mindset of the cultural milieu in which the artwork was created. Fair enough. But Paris in 1863 was so distinct – politically, socially, morally, historically, economically, spiritually, aesthetically, psychologically, linguistically, scientifically, technologically – that an(y) imagery produced in that period takes on a radically disparate set of dynamics when seen with our 21st-century eyes. Simply put, the painting then is not the painting now. And, equally significant, our views of the painting now are not their views of the painting then. Notice that the situation escalates in complexity when we make explicit that viewpoints – even in a single time period -- are never singular. The vast majority of writing about art – explaining, theorizing, instructing, describing – emphasizes only selections of the variety of available viewpoints. Our essay, however, also considers what happens if we conduct thought experiments: if we make changes to the art; and if we examine how changes would reveal different aspects of what is seen, thought, and felt.
Soon after it was completed, Olympia achieved a degree of infamy (it scandalized the 1865 Paris Salon). It remains one of the more recognized paintings in the world. Probably no one passes a college art history survey in North America without staring into the (painted) eyes of the model reclining on the rumpled bed. What do we know about the painting? We know Manet posed a live model for the nude; she was Victorine Meurent, recognized in Paris at the time as an artist’s model and a painter in her own right. We also know Manet based his painting’s composition and subject after a 16th century Titian painting (Venus of Urbino).
It may surprise viewers today to learn that viewers of Manet’s era were not stirred up by Olympia’s nudity. In Paris in the 1860s, with its popular Salons, the public was accustomed to seeing art that contained naked females in titillating poses (e.g., The Birth of Venus, also painted in 1863, by Alexandre Cabanel, is prototypical). What was shocking about Manet’s Olympia was not her bare flesh; rather, the scandal revolved around factors that color the way that flesh “reads” (remember: interpretation is a process; a painting functions as a text). First, it was the painter’s depiction of the female as Olympia, a modern-day prostitute. Olympia is not the representation of a passive, lissome female character from long ago – a character drawn from mythology, history, or the Bible. Nor is Olympia an allegory (a woman symbolizing a quality, such as Justice or Liberty). And Olympia is not an erotic exotic (think: a European’s imagined concubine reclining in a fantastical harem in Algiers). What scandalized Manet’s contemporaries was the plain truth: Olympia is a woman from (their) here and now: a French female the painter imagines as earning her livelihood as sex worker, smack dab in the middle of the City of Lights.
The shock of the new: in addition to the scandal of what was being painted, Manet’s audience was shocked at how it was painted. Olympia is not great granddad’s type of painting, not an academic painting with a smooth, carefully crafted surface with subtle modulation of highlights and shadows. Manet’s approach jarred artistic sensibilities – as if the painting was completed in a rush. The composition for Olympia is a severe reduction to zones of light and dark so stark that they verge on a dichotomy of white and black. Indeed, the shocking reduction of tones and heightened contrast of the original painting becomes more evident if we produce a tonal/color inversion. Doing so, we leave behind our accustomed view of Manet’s original and see, instead, its starkness turned inside out:
Olympia Inverted, color inversion. 1863|2023
Manet embraced what his friend, Charles Baudelaire, a poet and art critic, espoused – an art of modernity, of la vie moderne. An art of the moment. Working in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s, Manet painted scenes of the urban life teeming around him. He responded to the vast, ongoing changes taking place – including the dramatic make-over of Paris’ infrastructure (tearing down the warrens of small streets, opening up wide avenues with broad sidewalks for strolling), the technological changes (including the invention and rapid deployment of photography . . . both Manet and Degas felt the influence of the camera’s “way of seeing”), economic changes (the Industrial Revolution created a huge growth of people, both working class and leisure class, flocking to the French capital). In emphasizing what was current – scenes of night life, people in parks, on apartment balconies, in a pleasure boat on a lake, young women in fashionable attire reclining on upholstered furniture – Manet depicted his world through a painting strategy that evoked his cultural moment (albeit a moment for the urban privileged). While continuing to reference compositions and aspects of representation reaching back to the Renaissance, in his painting of the moment, Manet showed how Paris looked and felt (to him) in the middle of the second half of the 19th century. He based his images on what he saw and knew; a dedicated flâneur, Manet strolled tirelessly, keenly observant of the new urbanity.
4. Lesson in looking: art of the momentary
Is a work of two-dimensional visual art a performance? A drama, dance, or song is an event, occurring across a span of time. We never see, hear, or feel Hamlet or The Nutcracker Ballet in its totality simultaneously. But we may think we can (and should) see a painting or drawing all at once, as a single gestalt, a network of forms that extend across the entire surface of the artwork. The composition appears to remain stationary, unchanging. We look at the whole at once. But do we? Can we? Should we?
Consider this oil painting by Degas:
Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, c. 1873, oil on canvas, 18 ¾ x 24 ½ inches.
The scene is a ballet school. The dancers are not choreographed, but they are in movement; backstage from a dance recital, they are not backstage from their lives. This is a key concept that underlies Degas’ art. Look! See how the young women enact real activities, bending over to fix a ballet slipper, warming up, adjusting a costume, descending stairs, studying themselves in a floor-to-ceiling mirror, lost in thought. The painting is still. This stillness occurs in two ways. First, in the sense that the painting is a tactile substance that holds its shape (the paint doesn’t flow, like lava . . .); and, secondly, the imagery and the forms (colors, lines) of the painting remain locked in the positions that Degas gave them. So, yes: The Dance Class looks physically the same as it did when the artist decided his work was finished, and he laid down his brushes.
And yet, like a dance, does our view of The Dance Class undergo change, over time? The key to the answer lies in an assertion: time is space, space is time. We do not, we cannot, see the whole painting at once. We can look at it in its entirety (if we stand a suitable distance away), but we don’t see it, not all of it. Certainly not a painting packed with such a wealth of details. To see the whole, we traverse its space, and over time (where time is space) we build up an awareness, a bank of memories, that coalesce in our mind’s eye. The painting becomes a dance of forms, forms that represent things, forms that repeat and echo, that produce patterns. The scene Degas captures appears fleeting, an art of the momentary – a moment later and the figures will shift, take new positions, move through space and time. All except the dancer in a red top, on the right, who appears transfixed, perfectly still – perhaps she’s lost in daydream, or absorbed in concentration.
For all the seeming instantaneity of the image, with its emphasis on the momentary, is Degas’ painting the result of a quick outburst of creativity? No, not at all. Degas himself declared: “I assure you no art was ever less spontaneous than mine.” Compelling evidence of the degree to which Degas’ art is not – not at all! – spontaneous can be found comparing this painting to another painting, created a year later. There’s a reason art history classes and academic conferences show images side by side – key concepts are clarified. Seeing double makes vision clearer.
Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c. 1874. Oil on canvas, Glasgow Art Galleries and Museum.
Degas’ The Rehearsal echoes The Dance Class; each painting contains the same basic format and subject matter. Yet, there are palpable differences: two different scenes, two different spaces, each populated with a different array of figures. Details vary: the placement of windows, for example, diverge and the architectural footprint of the two studios are not alike. However, the two paintings are closely allied: each is a variation on a theme – an image of the momentary, pitched, paradoxically, to an unhurried, perfect concinnity.
A pictorial concoction is (my term for) a peculiar conjunction in which near and far forms align on the picture plane (the front surface of the image), producing a link that is perceptual, conceptual, and psychological (our engagement melds seeing, thinking, and feeling). Comparing these two paintings by Degas, we locate a pictorial concoction in operation in virtually the same position in each. In The Rehearsal, look to the left: if you enjoy wit and surprise, you should be tickled pink to see how one dancer’s legs, from the knees up, are hidden from view by a spiraling staircase. Compare this concoction, in position and shape, with the box-like staircase in the earlier painting, The Dance Class. (I’ll give a shout out to my wife, an art historian, who brought this detail to my attention.) The pictorial concoction, collapsing the wooden stairs with the more distant dancer’s legs, produces the illusion that the dancer wears the staircase as she might wear some fantastic wooden costume! We know logically the dancer’s torso is simply blocked from view by the stairs, but the impression of the image is that she is ensconced within the stairs; or, more strange, that what we see is what there is – stairs with legs.
The color schemes in this pair of paintings mirror one another. Almost exactly. Each painting is suffused in an overall pale tonality, enlivened by a splash of a more saturated complement. The Dance Class immerses our eyes in greenish blue, which contrasts with the red color of the dancer who sits, meditatively, in the right center. In The Rehearsal, Degas switches to an overall pale reddish orange tonality punctuated by the scarlet color of the dance teacher’s shirt and a complementary-colored azure green jacket worn by the solitary seated figure, positioned on the right of center. While his art-making required great care and preparation, the end result – the finished picture – produces a passing spectacle, caught on the fly.
Another painting by Degas, Before the Ballet, aims for, and hits, the same target: an impression of a momentary impression.
We look at the painting, we witness evanescence. Again, time is space; there is a continuous transfusion of materiality and immateriality into one another. Notice the rectangular shape of a window aglow at the top center; the window’s shape rhymes with the rectangular negative space created by the legs of the seated dancer whose right toes seem to brush lightly against the window (although that too is an illusion). Another powerful rectangle, created by two dancers, forms at the top left of the painting. (Rectangles are powerful: once we see them, we cannot not see them.) Degas rewards our careful looking. The detail of the leg of the seat that protrudes between the legs of the dancer with her legs raised, combined with how the skirts of that dancer and the dancer on the far right of the painting fuse, work together to form a single, singular visual form – is that a weird creature with two heads and the legs of an arachnid?
What if we look at a painting by Édouard Manet in comparison to the last painting we looked at by Degas: The Dead Toreador versus Before the Ballet.
Manet, The Dead Toreador, circa 1864, National Gallery of Art, Widener Collection
Some quick background: while Degas concentrated his output on a few key subjects (he created hundreds of artworks about the ballet, along with numerous studies of jockeys on horses, young women at their bath, and the female proletariat), Manet’s oeuvre spans a broader array. In the 1860s, he acted on his love of Spanish art. Thus: a painting of a dead bullfighter.
Manet’s The Dead Toreador / Degas’ Before the Ballet. Each painting extends across an almost identical elongated horizontal format. Each is panoramic, as if the painting opens its arms wide and begins to encircle us, filling our peripheral view with the world inside the art. A key element in each is the relationship of spatial movement to temporal movement. Degas’ image appears momentary; Manet’s verges on timeless. Degas’ dancers are caught in motion; Manet’s bullfighter will never move.
If you saw the recent blockbuster movie Oppenheimer, your ears may have perked up when the name of the great German physicist Heisenberg came up. Long story short: H discovered “The Uncertainty Principle.” At the subatomic scale, something surprising and mysterious takes control. If we know the position of a particle, we don’t know its speed. And, if we know its speed, we don’t know where it is. Well, here’s something to think about (and the math isn’t complex): in a painting (or drawing or still photography), if we see something in movement, then time (in the image) is stopped. Is stoppered. Frozen. (A la Heisenberg: if we know position, we don’t know speed.) Take Degas’ The Dance Class: we know the dancers on the stairs (the dancers who are represented by only their legs) are moving, they are in mid stride; we might call the detail Ballet Dancers Descending a Staircase.
The dancers are moving and, therefore, voila! time in the painting is not moving. (Looking even closer, we can add nuance: the dancers’ legs are barely moving; by softening the edges, Degas blurs slightly the position of forms in space. What we see is a vibration: the figures move ever so slightly in a very slender sliver of the passage of time.) On the other hand, an opposite condition applies in Manet’s image of the dead bullfighter: his death means his body is at a standstill, and, therefore, time in the painting does not need to stop; time, in fact, keeps running. There are cases of ambiguity; the universe of paintings is strange too. A few decades after Degas in his prime, the Italian Futurists experimented with painting images of movement in which both physical motion and time appear to speed by. In the case of Degas’ Before the Ballet, the situation is full of doubt. Are the dancers holding themselves still as they stretch their legs and arms, or, has the painting process captured them, for a split second, in the midst of a continuous movement? We really can’t say. To complicate the matter: the argument could be made that the two seated dancers are the same dancer, seen over time in different positions.
Is beauty universal, fixed for all time? Is there an ideal beauty? Writing in 1876, writer Henry James offered his dour analysis of the Impressionists, “The beautiful. . . Let it alone, they say, and it will come at its own pleasure; the painter’s proper field is the actual, and to give a vivid impression of how a thing happens to look, at a particular moment, is the essence of the mission.” Today, Impressionism’s major practitioners (Degas and Monet are central figures; Manet is a significant forerunner often recognized as closely allied, especially with his late paintings) are held in the highest esteem and their art enjoys broad popularity. A significant reason for their popularity is that so many of today’s viewers see their paintings as remarkably beautiful.
So: What happens to our viewing relationship to paintings made in an earlier cultural moment? Do we judge them by the standards of their original time, or do we, must we inevitably, see them through the lens of our current cultural concepts and values?
If we approach Manet’s painting, as it appears, but looking at it in a mirror, what do we see? Look. Closely.
Olympia Redux 1, Mirror Reversal (1863 / 2023)
We see the painting’s reflection reverses more than only the composition. The reversed Olympia gives fresh urgency to both female agents, white and black. Making the painting anew, we see it new. (The tonal reversal of the painting, illustrated earlier, also occasions a changed interpretation, as the focus is on the nude as a self-assured Black woman served by a white maid.)
Yes, the pose of the nude on the bed echoes the pose of nude females in earlier eras of art. The female as concubine, as a mythological character in a state of undress. What is altered in Manet’s picture is not only that the nude looks directly back at us, what is altered, startlingly, in Manet’s picture is how the nude looks at us: she looks as if she’s in business for herself. We viewers, voyeurs, and gentleman callers aren’t calling the shots. In the act of watching us confidently, the figure on the bed embodies herself, she calls into question her heretofore condition as an objectified physical vessel, a vessel for male pleasure. The painting reverses: the male gaze becomes the female gaze. Her pose poses a threat to what art historian Stephen Eisenman points out as “male political prerogatives and a mockery of masculine sexual desire.” In order to counteract Manet’s bold subject, the critics of his era made observations (projections?): some saw Olympia as unclean, needing a bath . . . something, anything to take the focus away from their own feelings, their male selves under attack . . .
What also becomes decisive in the reversed version of Manet’s Olympia (shall we call this painting: Aipmylo?), is the heightened prominence of her Black female attendant. We tend to look at a painting left to right – that is the Euro-American cultural norm; now in the reflected version, the Black woman becomes another star of the painting. She is not an afterthought. It is her stare, her gaze, in the direction of her nude mistress that thrusts the painting—and our engagement with the painting—out of the aesthetic of 19th century Paris and into our own contemporary world, packed with theories . . .
Unpacking the pose of the Black servant – physically and socially, politically and culturally – has generated much discussion of late. And provided us with an additional level of understanding. Manet used a neighbor named Laure as the model (she lived near his studio in the north side of Paris). Offering her thoughts about a 2018/2019 art exhibit, Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today, the curator, Denise Murrell, observed that Manet’s treatment of Laure leaves her in her everyday role, avoiding exoticizing her, “She’s not bare-breasted or in the gorgeously rendered exotic attire of the harem servant . . . Here she almost seems to be a friend of the prostitute, maybe even advising her.” In contrast, Lorraine O’Grady, writing in the early 1990s, zoomed in on the figure of Olympia’s Black maid: “Forget ‘tonal contrast.’ We know what she [the maid] is meant for: she is Jezebel and Mammy, prostitute and female eunuch, the two-in-one.” In such a reading, Laure’s presence is another factor that amplifies the representation of modern female sexuality in Manet’s canvas, causing such a disturbance with Manet’s opinionated audience.
The conditions surrounding Laure’s status as the servant in Manet’s Olympia pivot powerfully on the heightening, or denial, of the Black woman’s agency. In 1863, when Manet painted Olympia, slavery had only been abolished (for the second time) in the French colonies for a mere fifteen years. Writing in 2015, Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby frames the changing context, “How does our understanding of this painting change if . . . we see the black woman in Olympia as . . . a newly enfranchised member of the working class?”
Our reversal, flipping Manet’s composition left to right, shows how even an alteration in the direction of our visual scanning of the image (itself a result of deeply ingrained cultural habit) can impact our interpretation.
How tall is Olympia? Based on her proportions, she appears approximately 5 feet tall. If she stood up we might allow her two more inches, thanks to the pale gold Louis XV pumps (with heels) which give her a little more pizzazz.
How did Manet and his contemporaries see her? The average height of a French woman in the 1860s and 1870s was approximately 5 feet tall. So, Olympia, as a call girl, a courtesan for wealthy clients, looks the size a Parisian in the 1860s would have expected. Indeed, that’s part of the problem: Olympia looked just like a young French woman of the late 19th century (which, of course, she was); her body type did not sustain the trope of an idealized female (such as a Venus) that remained in vogue in the tradition of French academic painting, and the mythologized nudes of earlier Renaissance paintings. To help visualize the distance that separates Manet’s Olympia from the idealized form, we can elongate the painting’s horizontal dimension: doing so, the revised Olympia more closely resembles the proportions of the nude in the Titian painting (that influenced Manet), and in an earlier Giorgione painting (that influenced Titian). But differences remain – elongated, Manet’s Olympia is not submissive, nor coquettish. She remains her own agent.
Olympia Redux 2, Elongated (1863 / 2023)
Context is content: Manet’s contemporaries understood the situation: French political history is complex, with earlier and partially effective edicts controlling and limiting the practice of bondage, but it is not until 1848 that enslavement and its trade become fully and finally outlawed throughout France and its colonies. As a young man, Manet joined the French Navy and traveled to Brazil in 1849; there, he observed firsthand what he described (in letters home) as the “revolting, frightening, stupid, and repugnant” system of slavery, a system that was still dominant in Rio de Janeiro. At the very time (1863) Manet is in Paris painting his Olympia, the American Civil War is being fought. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation is issued January 1, 1863. Context is content, for sure.
Mirrors move us to see ourselves and the world anew: Is Olympia a history painting? Yes, a million times yes. There is a battle being waged.
In response to the question posed in the announcement for the Manet/Degas exhibit – “Who stands to come out on top here? The fact that Manet’s Olympia (1863) is traveling to the US for the first time for this show may offer a clue.” – We responded: But Degas is no pushover: Did anyone anywhere ever draw better?
Edgar Degas, Dancer with a Fan, ca. 1880, Metropolitan Museum of Art
To make the case, others may have selected one of Degas’ hundreds of fabulous pastel drawings – his fellow artists, astounded by his glowing colors, begged to know his “secret” – but we think this charcoal sketch proves our point. It is uncanny how Degas’ drawing of one of the dancers who will be at the center of a painting (Dancers in the Classroom, circa 1880) basks in glowing light; and how wonderful to recognize that the shape of the fan she holds mirrors her skirt; how delightful to behold: together they form a memorable hourglass shape. Once again, Degas has produced an unusual visual event (remember the stairs with legs we discussed at the start of our essay?!). Another example of how a compelling combination of formal rhythm and sensual surprise is at the heart of his art.
But we don’t want to leave off thinking about Degas without commenting that he, like Manet, could invest his art with surprising psychological depth. There are many superb examples to select among (his portraits of families are particularly acute in emotional sensitivity); instead of a family grouping, we’ll offer a simpler canvas.
Edgar Degas, Madame René de Gas, 1872/1873
The simplified composition isn’t by accident. For his portrait of his first cousin and sister-in-law, Estelle Musson Balfour de Gas, Degas eliminates details and reduces his color palette. The result is an image that speaks volumes: Madame René de Gas produces a visual world that emphasizes Estelle’s near blindness. Additionally, Degas himself had recently learned “the 1871 discovery of the deterioration of his own vision.” The painting was completed in New Orleans, where Degas had traveled in 1872-73 to visit his relatives and see (some of) America! Is the painting too sad? Does Degas evoke a woman who looks forlorn? No, on the contrary, Degas dignifies her condition, by showing such empathy in the reduction of visual clutter that one customarily sees in everyday surroundings. And, to make the point more vivid, witness what happens to the painting if we reverse its composition:
Reversal: Madame René de Gas, 1872/1873 | 2023
Now, instead of the sense of calmness projected in the actual composition (shown first), in the mirror reversal, our cultural tendency to “read” the image left to right propels us, and the figure’s viewpoint, more swiftly out of the picture . . . there is a tad less calm, and an ever-so-subtle increase of an urgency to flee.
We focused on a small selection of works by Manet and Degas. What is left unsaid? – That each artist’s approach is more varied, and variable, than this essay has the scope to explore. And, that our own engagement keeps changing: We never step into the same painting twice.
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