Category Archives: Painting

Manet; The Charm of a Gaze

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Eduard Manet, “The Luncheon on the Grass” (1863)

There is something annoying in some of Eduard Manet’s paintings that disturbs the tranquility of our pleasure. A quality that, I believe, reflects the self-reflectivity aspect of his pictures as the audience is referred to oneself through the paintings. In his paintings, hardly ever, individuals look at each other. There is a mysterious attempt among his personages to avoid eye contact and so, in a way, his characters live in their own solitude. Presumably, such an attitude should provide the perception of painting with the tempting pleasure of voyeurism as it does when you invisibly see the nudity in classic works. In Manet’s, however, there is always one character, usually female, who shamelessly stares at us. This gaze which makes us fully aware of our situation, forces us to think about the scene and its hidden confronting story. In “The luncheon on the grass” (1863), the nude woman who is freely sitting between two inattentive fully dressed men, has such a piercing gaze that made the Salon authorities at the time so uncomfortable and resentful that rejection became inevitable! Later on, Manet successfully presented the painting in “Salon des Refusés” that had been provided due to the large amount of refused paintings in 1863. As it can be guessed, he attracted a huge criticism but fortunately enough, he was more determined to his approach to have a u-turn. And so the gaze appeared repeatedly in his paintings for example in “Olympia” (1863), “The Surprised Nymph” (1859 – 1861), “The Garden” (1870), “The Railway” (1872) and even in “The Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil” (1874). But right when we get used to being uneasy, in his very last painting, he surprisingly depicts a distant, yet haunting, gaze. What has been secretly concealed in the bartender’s look at the Folies-Bergeres nightclub that gave it such an intriguing quality? What’s the story?

The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres, by Edouard Manet

Eduard Manet, “The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” (1882)

For a modern Parisian Folies-Bergeres is just a music hall with some stage performances. But back in the late nineteen and early twentieth century, this glamorous building at 32 rue Richer in the 9th Arrondissement was the spirit of nightlife in Paris. This classic French cabaret was a perfect venue to get together and enjoy seeing seductive dancers and amusing jugglers, singers and clowns. Twenty years before Moulin Rouge gave birth to can-can dance and got a name, Folies-Bergeres allowed high class Parisians to be free from rules of society and be entertained with Music Hall performances which was new at the time. A touch of nudity, mixed with acts, and attendant girls with revealing dresses were the hallmark of the place since the very early days. But later on, the place turned out to be much more striking when the well known singer and dancer, Josephine Baker, wearing next to nothing, came forward with the Danse sauvage. And so erotic dancing found its way to cabaret. It’s not hard to imagine why a wealthy painter like Manet would spend lots of his time wondering about in Folies-Bergeres and also why his last painting allocated to depicting the place.

In “The Bar at the Folies-Bergeres” (1882), a girl is standing behind the counter with long, straight bangs which although give her a seductive look, is more likely to be a working class hair style at the time. There is also an unusual flower bouquet fixed to her bodice and to make it even more interesting, there is a bowl of oranges on the counter which Manet used to paint when referring to a prostitute! In the mirror on the wall, behind the girl, you can see that the people in the cabaret are drinking and talking while paying the least attention to the juggler on the far end of the upper left, that of whom only her legs can be seen. But the enigmatic part of the painting remains the picture of a staring gentleman in the mirror who in a way seems to be in front of the girl which in this case it’s hard to understand the real spatial location of him in the bar because no part of him can be seen out of the mirror. Many critics believed that Manet cheated a bit by changing the real perspective of the objects including the angle of the mirror in order to create a mysterious sight. However in 2001, Dr. Malcolm Park, an Australian art historian, showed how it’s basically possible to set everything exactly in the same way without cheating. His effort, I believe, revealed the deceiving aspect of gazes and Manet’s old interest in capturing the loneliness in the presence of the others; the man in fact does not look at the girl and nor does the girl look at him.

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Ambiguity, and the Engagement of spatial illusion within the surface of Manet’s Paintings (Sydney: University of NSW, 2001)

Now I try to imagine Manet cunningly about to paint his last work; he’d just turned 50 when late complications of syphilis added to his old misery of joints’ pain and rheumatism. He no longer could walk easily and his leg seemed to be indifferent toward his will. The pain was excruciating! Money was not a problem but doctors were unable to provide any ease. Part of his body was almost paralyzed. His doctor believed that his leg should be amputated. Years before, When Manet’s father passed away, he got married to Suzanne, his childhood piano teacher who also was his father’s mistress! And now the only ones around were his wife and his (or his father’s) son, Leon.

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Manet sadly was aware of what was expected of him in life, and so as a farewell work he picked the place that could summarize the happiness and wealth; i.e. Folies-Bergeres. In the painting though, the glory and ecstasy of Folies-Bergeres has been reflected in a mirror behind the bartender; an allegory of what he left behind, what that’s passed. If that’s so, the girl’s eyes can not be hers, they should be Manet’s. Everything starts to make sense to me; the only eyes in all his paintings that made contact with ours, were his eyes; that was him who looked at us through the eyes of that naked girl in “The luncheon on the grass” to say look at me, this is the body of yours, this is you without any piece of cloth to hide yourself behind, the clothes that makes you different than others, the clothes that makes you a lord or a slave, this is you in your ultimate equality. That was him who stared at us in the “The Railway” to invite us to see the perplexity of change in the modern world with all the smoke in the background. And this is him in the bar that no longer invites us, challenges us or accuses us. He is bewildered and desolate but at the same time he never praised life as masterfully as he does in his last look.

The doctor was right; the left foot needed to be amputated, it was gangrenous. But even that, did not help Manet and eleven days after, he died. There are many things that one can remember about his paintings but there is one thing that can not be forgotten; the distant gaze of a girl behind a counter in Folies-Bergeres in 1882.


A Bitter Afternoon with Bacon

Francis Bacon selfport

     I stop walking and looking around. I’m afraid of others, of myself. Then I recall Edward Prendick, the protagonist in the The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896 – H. G. Wells), when he eventually had been rescued from the human-like beasts of the island. People

call him mad as he recounts an unbelievable story. They harass him and he loses his instinct to distinguish between human and nonhuman, wondering if he really is rescued or not! As like him, I’m thinking who really we are! And where we are aiming for in this life. I remind myself that Art is not for distraction, it’s for reflecting our issues and showing us the way. So I should start searching within my own mind right from where I’m standing; in the middle of New South Wales Art Gallery amongst Francis Bacon’s paintings. Where should I start from?

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In a rumpled corner of a room, on a loose towel left on a chair, a frozen naked woman is drying her feet. There is nothing glamorous or attractive in her pose. In other pictures, with a similar approach towards immobilising time, a woman cleans her small bath tub or drys her nape. Reluctant to be called Impressionist, Edgar Degas (1834-1917) who created these everlasting paintings, can not be called otherwise; he was able to capture the impression of a moment, picture Time in a timeless manner and surprise the audience who used to see the human body in its godlike perfection. A new concept found its way in our conscious mind: movement and the way it turns our familiar world to something unfamiliar.

jumping-93     Around the same time, years after his acquittal on the grounds of “justifiable homicide” of his wife’s lover, the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), inventively used multiple cameras to capture the motion. The cameras in a line across the mobile subject took photos in fractions of seconds, one after the another, and then Muybridge represented them beside each other. This way he successfully provided serial photos of a horse at gallop which was revolutionary in recording every single position of a moving subject but also revealed deformed configuration of the body in movement. The embodiment of time and its impact on the spatial aspect of versatile animal or human in his photos was mesmerising. And so, his compelling achievement caught many artists’ eyes which among them Francis Bacon (1909-1992) can not be missed.

     Francis had a hectic childhood. He was one of the five children of a British captain who unfortunately had a passion for racehorse training and as a result poor Francis had to struggle with breathing all the time due to what later on turned to be severe allergic asthma toward horses. It’s not hard to imagine that his alienated body which was not transparent as we naturally feel, very soon made him think about the true essence of the body. Years after he saw paintings of the Great Picasso and decided to be a painter, the serial photos of Muybridge and also the new breakthrough of X-rays films came quite handy for him. They were presenting an estranging aspect of life; the same aspect that was reflected in Picasso’s images. Francis proposed that a head and neck were only space-occupying Things just like a vase on the table or a chair in the room. It was like saying that we are nothing more than a bizarre combination of organs that stupidly has been assumed perfect or just a moving mass with the most eccentric of figures. In the warm hand of one’s lover there is nothing except a bunch of bones and muscles, nerves and blood vessels. And the sparkling eyes of a beloved darling are merely a set of lenses and wires of nerves. Soaked in the warmness of the gallery that was packed with huge frames of Francis Bacon’s imaginative paintings, visitors often find that they can’t look into a mirror in the same way as before anymore.

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944

Francis Bacon Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion 1944

     But it’s not all about the body. In fact, this deformity forms another yet strange element in Bacon’s paintings. They are abandoning the corporal consistency in favor of depicting the essence of the humankind and through that Bacon affirms not only the man’s disturbed appearance but also his tortured soul. In his pictures, people are screaming, sometimes through their monstrous mouths, and there is nothing to promise hope as the nightmare looks eternal. But why?

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Portrait of Pope Innocent X

Francis Bacon was openly gay. He was a huge admirer of men’s bodies and loved to paint his male partners. He was extremely selfish, arrogant and talented. But life didn’t take it so easy on him; homosexuality was not welcomed at the time, and many including one of his major lovers, Peter Lacy who was an veteran army pilot, went to Tangier, Morocco, where the matter was quite accepted. Francis himself had been traveling back and forth to there too. To make it more tolerable, he was a loyal member of underground clubs, heavily drinking, recklessly gambling and of course passionately painting. Peter Lacy lost the game to death due to alcoholism and George Dyer another famous partner of Francis who was drinking like a fish, eventually committed suicide in a climax of depression. The small studio of Francis was always packed with piles of paint, rubbish, old photos, dirty cloths, broken mirrors, scattered books and lots of pieces of papers. Engulfed by the devious animal side of human nature, he would often sit in front a huge canvas and then suddenly would started painting without a draft while he was trying to be as open as possible to his instinct with no intention to excite anyone but himself. Having a continuous battle inside, seeing the emptiness of judgmental crowd and witnessing the craziness of people in two world wars, he questioned if there was any relief and liberation in life.

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Beautiful Gretchen in Faust (2011)

     In the dark time of Middle Age, “Faust” in Alexander Sokurov’s version (2011- Russia) was a scientist with a major concern; it does’t make sense to talk about the liberation of soul if we can’t find one inside the frame of our body. So he started to search for soul objectively through “unearthing corpses and rummaging in their guts just to localize the home of the soul”. Of course there was nothing to find but right at the pinnacle of disappointment, he fell in love with the only beautiful girl in town. He proposes that if there is any hope it might be hidden in “Beauty” and running the risk, he made a deal with Satan on having the girl just for one day at the cost of his life. Shortly after, he regretted that, because he could not hurt the girl in order to prove his assumption but by then it was too late. Years before that, Kris in Solaris (1972 – Andrej Tarkovsky) for the first time in the space st

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d himself alone while the ocean-made replica of his ex-wife, Hari, who innately couldn’t be separated from him, was not around. Searching all over, he finally noticed that the soul-less Hari had been silently sitting in the library bemused in front of a painting of Pieter Bruegel. For me the search is over. Now I know the secret of Bacon’s survival; Art and Beauty are not merely a way toward salvation and piety, they are “The Salvation” themselves.

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Undetachable Hari in Solaris (1972)