Manet's Stranger Things

Édouard Manet, Mr. Eugène Pertuiset, the Lion Hunter, 1881
"Manet and Modern Beauty," now at the Getty, surveys the last seven years of Édouard Manet's career. This phase of Manet's production received relatively little attention until its recent reappraisal, by feminist art historians especially. Late (middle-aged) Manet was focused less on challenging the art establishment than on exploring traditionally feminine themes such as fashion, celebrity culture, and flower pieces. The Getty's Jeanne takes the spotlight, and the last room of still-lifes is flat-out spectacular. But there's another subtext here: Manet the eccentric.

Well of course Manet was weird all along. The central figure in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe inexpicably lacks clothes or shadows, twin scandals that that launched Manet's notoriety. For the rest of his career, Manet continued to make a few "bad paintings," in the Marcia Tucker sense. That is to say, he made very skillful paintings intentionally violating the rules of painting.

The prime example of this period is Manet's portrait of engineer, big game hunter, and frustrated Tierra del Fuego colonizer Eugène Pertuiset (1881). A rare loan from Sao Paolo, it was created the same year as the ultra-chic Jeanne and could hardly be more different. It's a big painting of a ridiculous-looking gent with a gun, standing his ground against the cat family. The overall vibe is part Henri Rousseau, part Monty Python.

When Manet showed Eugéne Pertuiset at the 1881 Salon, it won a medal, the only he would ever receive. As the Getty label says, the win was "a head-pounding irony for critics who absolutely hated the work." They recognized it as a middle finger to traditional Salon values, and "felt that the strong violet tones of the woodland setting represented the worst in Impressionist excess."

Here Manet's conception of "bad" modern painting approaches that of Tucker and her 1970s artists (which included West Coast painters Joan Brown and Charles Garabedian). Pertuiset had shot his lion in Algeria, so Manet's woodland background was pure studio fiction. Not that it mattered to Pertuiset, who become one of Manet's most important patrons, in the few years the artist had left.
Édouard Manet, The Café-Concert, about 1878-79
"Manet and Modern Beauty" lacks the one late painting that has gotten its share of critical love: A Bar at the Folies Bergère, owned by the Courtauld Institute, London. It was first shown at the 1882 Salon with Jeanne, and it was lent to the Getty in 2007. But the current exhibition has a strong sampling of Manet's late scenes of cafe society. The Café-Concert from Baltimore presents at least seven figures, all looking the other way. It's an effective distillation of urban anomie. Like A Bar, it includes a mirror (upper left), showing cabaret performer Elsa La Polonaise. Manet put Elsa's famous nose through caricature, Impressionist, and mirror-image filters.
Édouard Manet, Four Mandarin Oranges, about 1882
Manet's late still lifes are split between the renowned flower pieces (where the the refraction through glass and water is often as engaging as the blossoms) and the fruit-and-veggie subjects that tease the question of how minimal a still life can be. He painted four oranges; a single stalk of asparagus.
Édouard Manet, Asparagus, 1880
Below: Manet ventures into thrift-shop territory with Bob. The sitter, a Belgian griffon, is believed to have been the pet of opera singer Jean-Baptiste Faure.
Édouard Manet, Bob, about 1876


Anonymous said…
Did Joan Brown name her dog Bob after Manet's "bad painting"?