The Modern Woman: Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

The Modern Woman: Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère


The Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a painting that raises the question, ‘why would Manet have painted it?’ The general argument is that it’s a painting where he’s trying to work out what is special about modern times in 1882. Paris is this place of radical change. He’s trying to work out what place, in all of the modern city, will really capture the essence of modernity. And so, he paints a barmaid. And a barmaid is quite an unusual thing because up until now the people who waited on tables were men: waiters not waitresses so this is just about to come in, in the 1880s. But her face does not indicate that she’s smiling sweetly towards a customer – she looks incredibly bored or absent. I mean if you sit on a tube, loads of people about, but you’re isolated, you’re not connecting with the social world at that point. We have to do this, we have to close ourselves down in public, because we are so together with other people. And Manet is exquisitely good at getting at that kind of non-expression, which is precisely what you’d observe. But there’s a disjunction, because he’s homing in on entertainment, on leisure. There’s going to be the chatter, there’s lots of champagne flowing and it’s the world of commodities, it’s the world of things that are going to be consumed in this glittering space. And in the centre of this painting, we have this strange, desolated disconnected figure. So, although this painting was painted in 1882, it is just at the beginning of a world that many of us will now recognise – in our own sense of the fact that we go out and we’re meant to have so much fun but it never is what it promises to be. These new palaces of pleasure, they promise something that actually dissolves in your hand. There’s some very interesting features in this painting. She’s wearing the most up to date dress, cinched in waist, very tight new corset. But her hands are un-gloved. Now, at that time, bourgeois ladies would always have worn gloves. When I looked very closely at these hands, I wondered if there was something significant that Manet was telling us because they are a working women’s hands. So, there’s this glamorous appearance, but she is different, she is someone at work, offering herself and this introduces a kind of sexual ambiguity. She appears just to be standing there looking at us, but in fact when we look, there’s a mirror behind her and there is the reflection of a man in a top hat who is buying a drink and the suggestion is he may be buying more than the drink. But then we try to match it to the reflection behind the barmaid and that doesn’t add up. Now, you can either say, ‘poor old Manet, couldn’t do perspective, got it all wrong!’. Or, he clearly produced this effect to unsettle us. Something has happened to modern experience, where there isn’t a match. It’s contributing to the atmosphere he’s trying to create of ambiguity and doubt. I always have this imagination, that people came into the studio and said you know, ‘Édouard, that’s amazing! That’s it!’. And he’d say, ‘What ‘it’?’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t know but you’ve sort of held something together…’ We kind of isolate the great artists and the great paintings but Manet takes his place in a community of artists for whom this question of modern life, modern experience is going to be explored through the café. So, you will find his colleague Degas focuses on the performers, but he also has an eye for people who are at the edges of society. More than anybody else Manet is looking to the Impressionist group, this first egalitarian art group in history. Mary Cassatt, who was part of the Impressionist group, spent the 1870s looking at theatre. You’ll find a whole series of paintings, but the most famous one is exhibited in 1878 just exactly when Manet’s beginning his series, which has a woman looking through her opera glasses at the theatre, whilst in the background a man using his opera glasses is looking at her. Manet is acknowledging his conversation with her by placing just behind the barmaid a reference to Mary Cassatt. So, they are very much in conversation, with trying to find this essence of modernity with his immediate contemporaries or even in fact his younger contemporaries. The artists like George Seurat, who follows, says ‘I’m going to show you another step’, which is, the people having fun have turned into robots. It’s so not fun, they’re almost like mechanical dolls performing these rituals. So, Manet is sort-of a punctuation point. But we have a problem with Manet, in terms of the significance of this painting in his life, because he dies aged 56 from syphilis. He dies almost immediately after the painting is completed. So, it is for us the last painting of Manet. We as art historians are going to take it as a kind of distillation of a series of attempts to say ‘Where will I find the essence of modernity, what form in art must I give it? How many rules must I break to be able to convey something that’s absolutely going to capture the sense we have of living in modern times?’

One thought on “The Modern Woman: Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

  1. My deepest congratulations to the Art Historian Griselda Pollock on her lecture on one of my favourite paintings by Édouard Manet which I had the immense fortune of seeing at The Courtauld Gallery. 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergère"' is undoubtedly one of the jewels in their unique collection.
    It is as enigmatic and ambiguous as it is thought-provoking, and Dr Pollock couldn't have described the picture and the era in which it was painted in a more interesting, gripping way. Thank you HENI Talks !!!

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