Daniel and the Lion's Den was another story he chose to paint, but without the dramatic action and overexaggerated intensity. Rubens' painting of Daniel in the Lion's Den showed quite a different scene, didn't it? Here the artist has presented Daniel as a calm and humble servant of his Lord and Savior; the lions, as tranquil cats. The setting is a barren, dungeon-like chamber, enclosed and withdrawn from the light of day except for the center illumination hitting the floor and the crossed arms of the captive Israelite youth. Daniel does not appear afraid, and the lions don't look fearsome—because in the story, God caused the lions' mouths to remain shut for the duration of the night when Daniel was thrown into the otherwise deadly pit by King Darius for worshiping the Israelite God instead of the Babylonian king. In this artwork Daniel bows his head in faithful submission to his Lord (contrasting with Rubens' Daniel, who looks up to Heaven with pleading eyes and clasped, prayerful hands). This painting is one of quiet and resolute faith in God and His ability to deliver those out of darkness who put their trust in Him. Bible stories, as you can see, are painted by Tanner in a humble light—perhaps for the first time in art history since the Medieval Period. This is to show religious faith as a personal, humbling experience between the individual and God alone, not a landmark, earth-shattering phenomenon to be painted on the Sistine Chapel.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
A late Realist who appeared on the art scene near the Turn of the Century was the African American Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose works took from Modernist and Impressionist art theory to reinvent biblical traditions for the Modern Era. These works stray far from the Baroque pomp and circumstance of Renaissance-esque masterworks that glorified religious saints and martyrs with immense, tapestry-like paintings of epic scenes. His famous painting here retells a well-known narrative tradition of biblical history: the Annunciation (which is when the Archangel visited Mary to tell her she was going to give birth to the Messiah).
Painted in 1898, this work takes an entirely changed perspective on the biblical story. We can cite scores of Northern European Renaissance works that showcase the Annunciation as a prolific event, something all-glorious and eye-popping, but here it's a simple, humble girl in a dingy room being met by an ambiguously drawn light (representative of Gabriel, the angel). Where are the majestically spreading clouds, the host of singing angels, and the illustrious Holy Virgin of those altarpiece paintings which we so fondly remember? Tanner does away with all of the prestige of Christianity and dares to call faith an act of humility. Here the late Victorian philosophy of Imperialistic, White-Man's-Burden Christendom is shattered under the pretense that biblical narratives and parables should be artistically represented in a light that emphasizes the humility to be attained in the Christian life. Raised by a staunchly religious father who was himself a Methodist minister, Tanner chose to primarily paint biblical scenes during the greater part of his career, and it is due to these that he is most well-known and highly regarded today as an important figure in the creation of Modern art.
Wednesday, February 19, 2014
One more infamous work by the artist Édouard Manet which was also featured in the 1863 Salon des refusés is his painting titled Olympia.
This is a painting of a prostitute, and although we have read about and seen images of nude women posing for male artists, this is the first outspokenly explicit painting to make such blatant references to prostitution. In a way, this is very similar to Titian's Venus of Urbino except that no masking cover-up (such as Titian's reference to Ancient Roman mythology) exists here to whitewash or disguise the fact that we're looking at a prostitute. She is naked, lying on a bed of white sheets and an elaborately stitched blanket, in a room of a whore house. Her jewelry and the flower in her hair furthermore demonstrate the particular line of work she is in, just so that there is no doubt, and her present lack of clothing goes to show that she is in fact currently on call. Once again, we are meant to feel sympathy for this young woman, as hers is most certainly not a desirable state for the ordinary Victorian woman to find herself in. Her skin is pale, milky white, and her nude exposure gives her an air of vulnerability. The black necklace she wears contrasts with the smooth pallor of her skin and almost further objectifies her as somebody captive to her system of life, someone who must be forced to tote herself around in jewelry for the sake of her trade, like a dog wearing a leash. She's laid out for everyone to look at her—how exploitative and unfair! And yet, she is, upon closer inspection, not so fragile and not so helpless. Actually, Manet ingeniously turns the viewer into the victim of this scandal and in turn empowers the woman, as we are about to see.
A maid has entered this private chamber in the artwork to give the girl a bouquet of flowers (probably a gift or a payment from her last customer); she's indifferent to them. She is looking somewhere else: at us. Here Manet has broken the fourth wall yet again; the curtain at the upper left hand corner of the frame has been drawn back; and we are once more looking at an intentional display created by the artist, like with The Bar at the Folies-Bergère (which was actually painted many years after this one). The implication is that we, the viewer, are her next client. For the upper-class art critics and connoisseurs of Victorian society, this was not just scandalous; this was embarrassing.
For the painting, Manet purposely picked a well-known female model, whom all the other artists would be sure to recognize, in order to put his male viewers on the spot when attending the salon with their friends and family. They would know this woman, and the stereotype of secret sexuality within the artist-model relationship would immediately conjure up reactions of awkwardness and discomfort. They had all seen her and may or may not have had romantic affairs with her while employing her services as a model. When Manet paints her as a prostitute, naked and stripped of all of her individualism to the point of becoming a commodity, he is commenting on the other artists' objectifying act of using this model for their own art. Here is a vindictively provocative display of her as she was allegedly being treated by her patron artists: as a whore. The way in which art used people as subjects was something Manet wanted to alter and, if he could, totally reverse. Here, as I said, the viewer is indicated to be the woman's next client. By putting the painting's viewers in such an awkward place, it was almost like the woman was exploiting them now as much as they had done to her. And look at her cold, indifferent eyes staring back at us. The roles have switched; art is now bored at looking at us. She gazes out at her viewers as nothing but another customer in her day; and as much as artists and viewers alike wrongfully (according to Manet) exploit her and take advantage of her through images and objectification on the visual level and sex on the physical level, she is as able to peer back at us with a power of her own through a defiantly indifferent, unresponsive stare at the visual level and a brutal indictment on the subliminal level.
Also—I don't know if you can see it in this poorly pixilated jpeg image—there's a black cat on the far right of the painting who's looking out at us, too. The cat as a feminine feline can perhaps be associated with the scene, since this is a painting of a woman; but its presence bears further significance than a mere environmental arrangement or addition to the room, like a piece of the furniture. It begs to be noticed, what with its eyes glaring straight out at us and its tail standing on end. The cat at the foot of the bed replaces the loyal dog, which was a symbol of faithfulness and fidelity (or Fido, in Latin). The replacement is noted; and I'm not going to go as far as to say the cat is a symbol for Modernism, but it does lend the painting an even more unsettling tone and an overall sense that Manet's artwork is associating itself with a different tradition (I don't say a new one; because this particular symbolism goes back to some of the earliest history we've looked at).
Ever since ancient times, black cats have retained a status of symbolic importance throughout Western culture. If you recall to mind our discussion of Ancient Egypt (which feels like a long time ago), you remember that the Egyptians worshipped black cats as representatives of the maternal goddess Bast. Devotion to this goddess led people to routinely mummify and bury cats along with the deceased, placing them with the sarcophagus in the elaborately constructed tombs of the region with the belief that the spirit of the cat would help guide and protect the human soul's journey through the afterlife. The ancient city of Bubastis in the Lower Kingdom was the capital for this particular cult and was described by Herodotus in his Histories as well as mentioned by the biblical prophet Ezekiel nearly 150 years earlier in his Old Testament book of prophecy. In Ezekiel 30:17, "Aven" is the Ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis, about 50 km south of Bubastis, and in this verse the prophet accurately foretold, nearly 250 years before the actual event, of the destruction of the pagan cult "by the sword" (fulfilled when Alexander the Great conquered this city as part of his Egyptian campaign in 332B.C.). But cats continued to find significance in cultural symbolism all over the world.
In Europe they became a symbol of witchcraft, superstition, and death and were even hunted down as spiritual enemies. It is stipulated that the extermination of black cats for these superstitious reasons during the Middle Ages played a primary role in the enlargement of the rat population all across Western Europe that led to the spread of bubonic plague at the onset of the Black Death. Black cats represented darkness and mystery during the Renaissance, and they were often depicted in relation to witches, as magical helpers in their dark arts. The famous opening scene of Shakespeare's Macbeth featured such a black cat, Graymalkin, the "spirit familiar" of the three witches. And the symbolism continues on to this day, to our celebratory traditions of Halloween, when black cats become scary omens and bringers of bad luck.
Whether an allusion to Bast, Graymalkin, or merely the general ill-favored symbol of the animal throughout time, the black cat in Manet's painting conveys an aura of mysterious significance that perhaps means to intentionally elude our understanding. That, I believe, is the point of its presence in this otherwise single-minded work. It perhaps has nothing to do with the woman (since I don't think Manet is trying to show that she is a witch or sorceress), but it lends a strange fantasy quality to the work similar to the nude woman in the artist's painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (exhibited the same year). As we recall from that painting, we are entering the fantastical, irrational, and otherworldly realm of the artist's mind when we look at art. It is a step from familiar materialism into the whimsical fancy of the artist's mental construction of a subject, and therefore it opens up the door to an altogether unlimited dimension. The otherwise random presence of a black cat in this already-wild painting further goes to show that the world of the canvas is wholly not something with which we are familiar, though we may think we are. This is a world of weird fiction and subconscious illimitability. Prostitution, brazen female nudity, scandal, and dark references to witchcraft and superstition—this painting simply unleashes art as a potential medium for the embodiment of the Absurd and the incarnation of unbridled imagination (in all its glory, terror, and mystery).
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
As a flâneur (Baudelaire's term for a person of the crowd and the ideal Modern artist), Manet spent much of his time in the social circle of the French night life. This is a part of society that is usually vibrant with energy and activity, as any partaker in contemporary night-life crowds can say (some things never change); but the true Modern artist always keenly observes all aspects of the scene, looking for that Post-Victorian truth to get him through the challenging and confusing world of industrialized Modernism. And when Édouard Manet visited the Parisian nightclub, Folies-Bergère, one evening very near the artist's relatively brief life, one sees here, in his painting of The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a recreation of what he saw and found noteworthy.
This woman, by the way, is no fiction. Historians have miraculously been able to track down her name and identity, but Manet painted her here as just another bartender. The scene is very up-front. A female server behind a counter stands in waiting and stares at us, the viewer, as though we were her next customer. In front of her, on the countertop is a variety of bottled wines and other libations commonplace enough for a barroom setting; and we also see a bowl of oranges and a vase of flowers (again, almost connotative of a still life within the painting, invoking that idea of the artist's studio once more). Behind the woman, we see reflected through a mirror the nightclub of the Folies-Bergère, teeming with life. Through this window we get the atmospheric feel of the environment, but Manet has interrupted the gaiety of Paris's night life to focus on this lone woman to the side of all the action and conversation, a mere server who is otherwise nameless to us (that is, until now). In this is implied that Manet has stepped away from the crowd for a moment to approach this person.
But the woman is a part of the crowd; that must be keenly grasped. The artist has singled her out, but the fact that her face appears before a mirror reflecting all the other faces of the Parisian crowd blends her in with all of those other people and connects her to the common organism of French society. (Make sense?) But the artist, as I said, has singled her out from the multitude and, what's more, centered her in the very middle of the painting. There is something to be said of this shift in focus that stands alone as a working of Modernist thought. A flâneur must be in and among the crowd, after all, to pick out the singular truths of people, politics, and Modern life—singular truths made through observations. This painting is an observation made by Édouard Manet, and it is painted here as a work of art to convey a truth to the viewer. So, what are we really looking at?
We are facing the woman directly, and the woman is looking back at us. The bar table stands between us; she's got her hands resting on it. In the mirror behind her, we see the counter reflected, the visitors of the nightclub above (as we've established), and even the woman's back; but we also see a tall, burly, mustached man in the far-right reflection of the mirror, someone who is facing the woman and whom the woman appears to be facing as well. That's us. Manet has painted the viewer into the painting. That's pretty insane, if you think about it. I mean, we have seen this done before stylistically in the court painting of Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez and (who could forget) the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait by Jan van Eyck, but here the interaction between viewer and painted figure seems more starkly immediate and candid, does it not? No matter at what distance you are standing, the mirror image on the right establishes you two as interlocked in direct proximity and, what's more, unblinking eye contact. We talk about looking at this work of art, but I don't know what is more strange: that we can look at the representational image of a woman who is now (like the woman in The Railway) long gone yet, through the painting, still emblematically as vibrant and colorful as ever; or that she's looking back at us, too. The moment we stare at this painting, we enter into it, like the man in the far-right reflection of the mirror walking up to the counter. Manet pictures art as something inherently interactive on a visual level which is also interactive on a psychological level. Ideas, observations, and opinions are being tossed out to us when we look at paintings, and these radiate off the canvas like particles of light through the air, showing us the colors of the artist's mind, so to speak. The painting, then, is a living entity in the sense that ideas and beliefs can travel through a crowd like a virus. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote just four years after this painting's creation a famous line of his; that "when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
Now to the woman herself. She is centered, as I said, in the painting, standing quite tall, and she seems to dominate the scene with a powerful presence. She fills a clear and very pronounced vertical line that stretches the height of the canvas, causing our eyes to scan up and down to get a full view of her. It's almost as if she is as much on display as the bowl of oranges and the small vase of flowers on the counter—she has a small cluster of flowers pinned to the front of her dress in a strategic location. Manet intentionally painted this serveuse so forthright and kind of in-your-face as a subliminal statement about what he had noticed as a flâneur in his observations of the Parisian night life. I think I had mentioned that prostitution was at an all-time high in Victorian England; it had also grown to become a public controversy in 19th century France. An article in The Economist on francophone female prostitution from July 2012, asserted that "by 1840 there were some 200 brothels in Paris" alone. The Modernist artist, the flâneur according to Baudelaire's standard, would place himself among this crowd and use his observations therein to inspire his art and give him a sense of the true nature of the Modern world. Manet paints it as a tragic case. The woman has her sleeves up, ready to serve but also ready to be served herself should her next guest pay her for a sexual favor. Her body stands up from the counter just as though she were merely another object, like the wine bottles, awaiting use, and her stark centeredness within the frame of the painting puts her on display to the viewer as, essentially, eye candy. The painting's focal epicenter, we see, is her breasts. But, looking at her face, we see the artist has painted a sad, dull, tired expression. Her eyes most distinctly betray her emotion and physical exhaustion. If you ask me, they are some of the most profound eyes ever to be painted in the history of Western art (like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa). And he has (Manet) again painted her with hasty brushstrokes and blurred lines to indicate her always busy lifestyle and the tireless, thankless, joyless work which forever keeps her on the go. We are meant to feel sorry for her. Let's face it, she's miserable!—but that kind of misery that nevertheless still carries on with the tasks at hand, though in a kind of fog. (Have you ever felt that way? I hope not; but if you have, you know what I'm talking about.) Her eyes are glazed over with a dreamy absence of mind. She has been brought, through the endless, melancholy toil of her tragic life, to a place where she appears emotionally numb and unfeeling, explaining the reason why she stares so desolately and blankly at us from the painting. She only now goes through the motions, mechanically, having evidently lost some part of herself. This profound face Manet masterfully paints as the face of the Victorian-wasted man (and woman) whose very soul has been robbed of him by the laborious oppression of the Modern industrial lifestyle. If this real-life bartender, whom the artist came across one night while simply hanging out among the crowd, appears in Manet's painting to have lost her emotional spirit, then it is a poignant observation on the Modern scene as a whole; that mankind's own soul, his (and her) very humanity, has been lost in this overshadowing commercial-industrial metropolis, and that people are themselves at risk of turning into mere machines. And this is a theme that has been carried on into today's Postmodern society as well.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Manet took liberties in art that would revolutionize the public notion of what art could do. His rebellious approach to his craft perhaps reminds us of Goya, who used his own imagination to create scenes of fantasy and subconscious symbolism; but Goya, a tragically ruined man, made his art what it was largely on account of the expression of his own pent-up emotion and psychological angst. Manet did it for art, for the building of a philosophical ideal about the expression of the Modern world through art. His paintings, then, are more subjective, more focused on the conceptual accomplishments which a work of art can produce. In a way, this is art for the mind, if that makes sense. Modern painting, starting with Édouard Manet, takes this shift from the practical and utilitarian to the cerebral, the creative, and the ideological.
His painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe is just such an example. This work, famously rejected by salon officials in 1863, was sent into an invented salon of its own, the Salon des refusés, a private exhibition for rejects and censored paintings sanctioned by Napoleon III to allow the French people a chance to see both sides to the contemporary art world: both the accepted and the unacceptable. Manet's grandiose work was among the most famous, or infamous, to be exhibited at the rejects' exhibition of 1863, not to mention one of the single largest artworks to be showcased that year.
This painting is certainly a puzzle. We see a casual luncheon taking place in a secluded park area. The pastoral setting is unusual for Manet, who (you will remember) wanted to paint scenes of everyday urban life among the people. This work, however, is one of fantasy, imagination, and mystery. Alongside two relaxed men (who are apparently in conversation) is a woman, stark naked, looking directly back at the viewer. The men don't seem to notice; the woman's nudity appears perfectly natural, though nothing sexual is taking place in the scene. How could they act so nonchalant in the presence of such immodesty—unless, perhaps, this painting is not what it seems? Clearly, something very strange is going on here. In the backdrop of the landscape, another woman (clothed) is bathing or at least doing something in a shallow pond; but she is disproportionately drawn to her distance from the picnic scene on the grass in the foreground. She's too big, and the landscape, therefore, appears too flat, incongruous, and unrealistic. For one thing, the natural setting of the scene is not painted very detailed at all. Quick, shoddy brushwork and canvas stains suffice to generate a somewhat cartoon-like depiction of two-dimensional trees as one would be able to pick out among other fake, constructed set props for a stage play. After all, we are not in nature here, because we are actually in Manet's studio. The artist painted this; it is his creation, come from his own mind, and we as viewers enter into it as an imaginative journey into the created world of the artist.
Everything about this painting is mysterious, and it's because this is a work of fantasy. We remember Giorgione's The Concert, which delved into the world of the pagan mythic tradition, showing two musicians accompanied by heavenly muses, or spirits, nude and partaking in the scene in imaginative freedom of expression but probably invisible to the two young men. Likewise, the nude woman in this painting here appears to be invisible to the two men, able to sit and exist in the painting but also crossing the threshold of the artwork and the real world outside it almost supernaturally through her outward stare. She is not, strictly speaking, real. But nor is the entire painting. That is why the scene can so randomly take place in a forest that appears flatter than it should with a background that appears closer than it should. The truth of this painting is that we are looking at Manet's studio, or rather the imaginative mind of the artist working within the studio. The biggest hint to this is the sprawled out still life on the bottom left-hand corner of the work, an intentionally inserted genre mixture to no doubt further deconstruct the conventions of painting and of art. Food, a tipped basket, a loaf of bread, and apparently the nude woman's clothes are laid out in this kind of still-life fashion, which is also the most obvious genre of art to be associated with indoor, studio painting. The natural setting is a fiction, the figures, purely imagined. This dream-like painting invokes a wholly unrealistic atmosphere to the viewer because, Manet says, art only exists within the realm of the fantasy, the created, and the invented. This painting came from Manet's head, and he created it; the possibilities are therefore endless. By looking into the work, we are leaving reality and entering into a kind of dreamy fantasy that is the direct invention of the artist, and therefore not liable to be accurate or show things that are necessarily real or true. To put it quite simply, this is the beginning of: you can paint whatever you want.
The fact that the woman is staring out of the painting at us brings to mind a concept that would become increasingly popular later in metacritical Modernist literature known as "breaking the fourth wall." It's a theater term, referring to the setup of the stage. If we imagine a theatrical stage as having three walls (on either sides and behind) and opening in the front to the audience, it might be said that the threshold between stage and audience is a kind of invisible fourth wall, like a window through which the audience gets to see the action of the play. The reason we make the distinction is that there does appear, in works of fiction, to be a "wall" separating the audience from the characters in the play or show; after all, they are performing a work of fiction, and we are existing in the present, in reality. As we operate as onlookers and observers to this separate phenomenon occurring before us, the actors in the fiction seem to not notice us at all because they are existing metaphorically in a different dimension: the fictional and non-real. But when an actor turns to address the audience directly, taking the metaphorical step outside of the fantasy to come back to reality, to our level, it's as if he or she is tearing down that invisible window between worlds. That is why it's called breaking the fourth wall. Most frequently this can be seen in movies; and it's usually a humorous device. Whenever a character breaks from the fiction of the story he or she is in and directly addresses the audience at their level, that character is breaking the fourth wall. I found a funny example of it from this old Superman comic, where the fictional hero breaks away from the story which he's wrapped up in to give his readers a direct message:
It's humorous there, and it often is today as a technique of Postmodern theater style, but the important thing which breaking the fourth wall accomplishes is that it destroys the illusion of fiction and brings the audiences back into the immediate, real world. Manet's nude figure in this painting is certainly within some kind of weird, imaginative, fantasy dream-world, but she breaks the fourth wall and causes viewers to feel self-conscious about their state in the real world. We become aware, in other words, that we are looking at a painting; and Manet wants this to be the case. Remember, his quest is one for truth, and he wants to generate a candid tone of sincerity with the viewer. His paintings are stylized to look flat and disproportionate, and often the characters within his scenes mentally wander away from their own environment by looking off into the distance—looking at us. This dispels the illusion, the suspension of disbelief, and in a way it brings the painting closer to us, by removing itself from itself (if that makes sense).
Frankly, it's hard for me to write about this work of art because I don't completely understand it myself. The artist is clearly playing with ideas of fantasy and imaginative construction that contrast with the ordinary, the everyday, and what we would signify as real or true (such as the two men). I've heard it lectured on, however, as a satirical indictment on Victorianism—i.e., the naked woman seated unashamed with the other men, a statement of women's rights; and the pastoral landscape setting, a kind of Post-Romantic reference to the Greco-Roman mythical tradition of nature as the setting for the fantastical—and honestly this painting is so crazy that I suppose you could make a number of good arguments coming at it from all sides. I don't know. This painting is Manet's grand enigma. However, for now let us glean from it the revolutionary ideal that artists can create from their own free invention whatever they want to paint, since art is not real to begin with—and that they can paint these subjects in different ways, using different techniques other than photorealism. Manet's paintings appear flat and two-dimensional, as I mentioned earlier, because he knows he is painting on a flat canvas. Even in this work, the artist doesn't hide it and allows himself to expand into the fictional, the fantastical, and even the downright baffling. Doesn't it seem really random to you? And yet that is the point. At any rate, your guess is as good as mine. This is one I just don't fully get.