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Édouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882 (Courtauld Gallery, London) Speakers: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker For more videos see Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(jazz music) Dr. Zucker: Manet's painting from 1881-82, Girl at the Bar of the Folies-Bergere. Dr. Harris: This is a bar in Paris. It was sort of a night club. Dr. Zucker: More than a bar. Dr. Harris: A pretty expensive nightclub. It was frequented by the upper middle class in Paris and it had all sorts of amazing things going on. Man: Where is this painting now? Dr. Harris: It's actually in the Courtauld Art Gallery in London. Man: Oh, it's in London. Dr. Harris: Yeah. Man: I haven't seen it. I've only seen reproductions of it, like most people listening to this. Many reproductions, but this is the first time that I ever noticed those two pair of shoes (laughter) hanging down from the upper left hand corner of the painting. What is going on? Dr. Zucker: They're connected to legs and presumably, a body above that. If you look really closely, can you see that they're standing on a trapeze? Man: Yes, it looks like an acrobat. Dr. Zucker: This was a circus. Man: It was a circus. So we're seeing through the reflection of a mirror? Dr. Zucker: Ah, well, this is a complicated moment. This is a painting that's really about seeing and vision and light in so many ways. Of course, Paris at this moment, social and political issues, but at first, I think when you look at this painting, it seems as if you're seeing in back of her this deep space, but if you look very closely, right around her wrist, you'll see the bottom of the gold frame that separates the mirror that we're actually looking at. Those legs that are hanging there in the upper left of the painting, are in fact, in back of us. Dr. Harris: Right, and it's an acrobat. Man: So it's an acrobat, so it's a spectacle going on in back of us. Dr. Harris: I think, actually, in the Folies-Bergere, from what I've read, there were several spectacles going on at once. Man: She's looking at me, isn't she? But how come she's looking at this other guy also? Dr. Harris: That's the problem, because when you first look at the painting, it looks as though we're approaching her, we're presumably the male, the consumer here, going and purchasing a glass of wine or a drink from her and we seem to be some distance from her and her look and her posture seem a little bit distant. There's a kind of ambivalence in her expression, but when we look at the reflection, it seems different, right? Dr. Zucker: More collapsed, I think. Man: The reflection, it looks, somehow, more engaged. She looks as though she's slightly maybe even bent towards the man. Dr. Zucker: And the man is much closer. Man: And the man is much closer, but when she looks at us, there's a certain vacancy in her eyes. Where does that come from? Dr. Harris: Well, art historians have spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. Why the discrepancy so that there's a presumed intimacy that seems to be in the reflection between the man and the woman? Perhaps the implication of a flirtation going on, a kind of sexually available working class woman in Paris in the 1880s, who certainly would've had a sense of sexual availability, compared to upper middle class women, who would've been more sheltered away. That intimacy versus the kind of distance that we feel and that vacancy in her face. Is one the way that they artist feels about the woman and the other a wish about her? I think these are some of the ideas people have had. Dr. Zucker: And also who's perspective we're holding. Are we holding our sympathy with her or with him, as the viewer. As you had mentioned just a moment ago, it almost seems as if we are that viewer, we embody that viewer and he is us, as the consumer of this painting, as the consumer of the drink, perhaps as the consumer of her. You were speaking of ambiguity or an openness of the way in which we interpret her face and her facial features and her expression. If you really look at that face, I think there's the possibility of seeing a kind of intense, actually a kind of sadness there. There's a kind of openness to those eyes and a kind of remorse that is, I think, very affecting, really, and really quite powerful. Manet, just as we're looking at this detail for a moment, just look at the handling of the paint. It's just incredible. Look at, for instance, the locket, or whatever she's got on her choker there and the openness of that reminds me of his still lifes. That open handling and almost liquid handling of the paint exists within her eyes, as well. It almost makes me feel like her eyes are almost welling up. (crosstalk) Very close to it, yeah. Dr. Harris: This is actually a sketch for the Bar at the Folies-Bergere, that seems to show a very different perspective that seems a little bit more true, in some way, because in this case, the man and the woman do have a distance that does seem to match our experience of her, if we are the man in the painting reflected back, the space seems to make sense more here than it does. What do you think? Man: No, absolutely, but there's no way that we can insinuate ourselves in this painting as we can in the other painting. In the other painting I actually feel jealous of the man. I feel that he's taking my space. Dr. Zucker: You're almost in line in back of him, is that it? And you want to occupy the space that he occupies. Man: Right, it feels like - Dr. Harris: How come he gets to - Man: How come he gets to be close to her? Exactly. Dr. Zucker: Of course, all of this is happening, this intense relationship that takes place between her, him, and the viewer, whether or not they're collapsed or not. Then, of course, this wild, sensuous environment in which all this is taking place. Dr. Harris: Fruit and flowers and - Man: Is there any symbolism of the fruit and flowers in this at all? (crosstalk) Dr. Zucker: Cezanne will take it and certainly make symbolism out of it very quickly. Art historians haven't, I don't think, in my reading, have not really pushed that. Dr. Harris: There's all this marvelous stuff going on in the background besides the acrobat. If you look closely, there's a woman with binoculars, very well dressed in the background leaning over and peering around at people. Dr. Zucker: Think about what you just said for a moment. Dr. Harris: A woman looking. Dr. Zucker: A woman looking, but a woman looking through binoculars that really focuses attention, but of course, we're seeing all this as a reflection and of course, the reflectivity of a mirror is just perfect metaphor, in many ways, for what Manet is ... Is it what he's trying to do, or what he's trying to break away from? In other words, really, is Manet - Dr. Harris: That perspective. Dr. Zucker: That's right, is Manet concerned with the accuracy and the legitimacy of the reflectivity of the canvas or is he more just in the destruction and manipulation. Dr. Harris: Clearly more interested in the destruction and manipulation. Because of the research that's on the Getty Museum's website, it's actually pretty clear that he's really playing with perspective. Dr. Zucker: In a very conscious way. Dr. Harris: And distorting the perspective. It seems, from recent research, that in fact, the male viewer that we see reflected is actually just out of our view, over to the left. Dr. Zucker: In fact, we're viewing this over from the right and the combination of those two perspectives actually bring those two figures together (crosstalk) but only in the reflection in a way that is wonderfully staged and constructed. Dr. Harris: In a way, he's saying that the mirror is not this thing that's represented the truth, a metaphor (crosstalk) Right, that paintings are a mirror of the visual world. Here, he's taking that mirror and saying, "No, mirrors are false, mirrors are just as constructed, "in a way, as everything else, based on our point of view." Dr. Zucker: Think about that in terms of the 19th century. Think of that in terms of the new ubiquity of photography and from the perspective of a painter, that you have this ability to draw nature accurately or, perhaps, not so much. Dr. Harris: Right, and also just ideas of the pursuit of truth and what exactly constitutes the truth and is there a truth outside of subjectivity? Dr. Zucker: The truth is, perhaps, this larger thing that is Manet's understanding of this social dynamics of this era. Dr. Harris: The emotional moment here. (crosstalk) ... About this woman and ... I think that's what playing with that perspective does. It brings that emotional issue that you picked up on of jealousy and intimacy and anxiety, even, that wouldn't be there, I think, if the perspective hadn't been - Dr. Zucker: Those are all feelings and they're real feelings, but they're fleeting feelings, ones that you would almost lose as you progress through this space, just as the light is fleeting, just as the circus acts are fleeting, just in a sense, as Paris was fleeting at this moment. Dr. Harris: Exactly and Manet captures that. It's always what he's doing, is capturing these moments that happened in the passing second. What is going on? What are the feelings? (crosstalk) Dr. Harris: An openness to meaning and yet a kind of emotional intensity at the same time. Dr. Zucker: It's really an incredible painting, isn't it? Dr. Harris: It is. The last thing that we put up was this little picture of the bar at the Folies-Bergere. Dr. Zucker; It's a poster, really, an advertisement and what's so wonderful, in the bottom right corner, is a scene that's not so different from what Manet actually paints and this poster existed just a few years before the painting was made in the mid- to late 1870s. Dr. Harris: Yeah, and it gives us an idea of the kind of sexualized, I think, flirtatious of the (crosstalk) Dr. Zucker: This was a place where the commodity of sexuality could really be openly dealt with, in some way, at least for 19th century culture. Dr. Harris: Yeah. (jazz music)