Manet through Rose-Colored Glasses

By Galvez, Paul | Art Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Manet through Rose-Colored Glasses

Galvez, Paul, Art Journal

Manet through Rose-Colored Glasses Carol Armstrong. Manet Manette. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 400 pp., 53 color ills., 133 b/w. $50.

Édouard Manet wielded color with the magnificent naiveté of a child. He also happened to be the first great painter of modern life, as Charles Baudelaire would say. This makes it all the more surprising that discussion of the relationship of color to modernity in Manet's work seldom matches the intensity of other debates surrounding the artist-his plundering of motifs from the old masters, for instance, or the special place reserved for him in the art criticism of the period's greatest writers.

That is, until now. Carol Armstrong's Manet Manette makes chroma the lynchpin of Manet's modernism, from the first twinkling of his talent in the early 1860s all the way to the denouement of his late self-portrait. Her lines of inquiry radiate in all directions: the artist's multifaceted exhibition strategies, the pitfalls of his era's positivist art criticism, the pressures exerted on his art by mechanical reproduction and commodity culture, his dialogue with the Impressionists-all these topics rightfully receive their due. If one has to pick and choose what to talk about, I would nominate the chapter on Manet's "Spanishicity" (to use Armstrong's term for the painter's obsession with France's southern neighbor), since it seems to me that one will find the strengths and weaknesses of the analysis presented there to various degrees throughout the entire book.

In 1863, Lola de Valence was the main attraction of Manet's exhibition at the Galerie Martinet, and thus she is also the star of this chapter comparing Théophile Gautier's vision of Spain with Baudelaire's. While Gautier imagined toreros and espadas as charming relics of Old Spain, the author of Les Fleurs du mal could not help but transform them into Iberian cousins of homegrown prostitutes and street performers. Commentaries abound on the similarities between Baudelaire's writing and Manet's canvases of the 1860s, but Armstrong's is the first I have read to examine the connection primarily through the intermediary of the verses Baudelaire attached to the painting: "But one sees scintillating in Lola de Valence / The unexpected charm of a jewel rose and black." Starting from this poetic mingling of color and sex, Armstrong is able to pinpoint several passages from the "The Painter of Modern Life" and "The Work and Life of Eugène Delacroix" (both published in the same year as the Martinet exhibition) in which Baudelaire celebrates the charms of modern forms of applied color, in most cases different kinds of clothing or personal ornament.

But her key example is undoubtedly the section of the former essay headed "In Praise of Cosmetics." Her reading of Baudelaire's homage to make-up is a two-pronged attack. The first assault comes against classical aesthetics' elevation of drawing at the expense of color, a theory predicated on the idea that drawing delivers direct access to the ideal beauty of nature whereas color is nothing more than false imitation, all the more damnable because it was often quite pleasing to the eye. Cosmetics was a convenient way for traditional theorists to combine the negative quality of fakery with that of visual pleasure, since make-up is nothing if not artifice in the service of seduction. This first rebuttal is not unique to Armstrong, or even to Baudelaire. Indeed the writings of Jacqueline Lichtenstein and of Jean-Claude Lebensztejn have shown (among other things) that the frequent association of color with the figure of the courtesan goes back to the days of the ancient philosophers.1

Her second target is the dominant-one could say almost dogmatic-interpretation of the Baudelaire essay in which the essence of modernity is said to reside in the act of flânerie, embodied in the aimless gaze of the man in the crowd. Armstrong does not contradict this reading but argues that it has overshadowed other aspects of Baudelaire's ruminations, in particular his obsession with maquillage. …

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