Manet’s Errors

Manet, Au Cafe (detail)

Edouard Manet would have been amused by his critics, then and now. In the 1950’s Clement Greenberg placed Manet at the center of his theory that modern painting had no meaning beyond emphasizing its own essential character. Thus the “flatness” of Manet’s pictures was thought of as either Manet’s preferred style or as an emphasis on the medium itself. Little did the experts realize that all those flat areas of Manet’s paintings were paintings within paintings. The look, though, was so often imitated by lesser artists that flatness actually became a characteristic of modernist style!1 Another common criticism is that he had little talent for landscape. He never let on, of course, that many of his ‘landscapes’ do not depict landscapes but landscape paintings. Spectators too, a much discussed feature of his work, are more likely to be figures looking at art than, as usually noted, looking at Haussmann’s new Paris. Nor did he ever mention that the factual errors that Charles Baudelaire and others took delight in pointing out during his lifetime were not errors at all, though they led to the widespread belief that meaning did not matter to him.

I’ve always been troubled by these criticisms. I could never believe that Manet’s paintings have no meaning, that he was poor at landcape or even that he made errors in his masterpieces. Great artists never do that. Thus every time I read that Manet has made an error, that the figure is ‘flat’, that such-and-such an object was poorly painted, that the scene makes no sense, I am directed to a specific point-of-entry into the picture’s hidden theme which the application of prior knowledge helps unlock. You too can do the same. Learn the methods on this site, especially in Manet's works, and then apply them to other paintings, no matter which great artist, and you’ll be amazed at what you see. Have fun! Manet would be cheering you on.

1. T.J. Clark was the first writer, as far as I know, to recognize that Manet’s ‘flatness’ must have some meaning, a view endorsed a decade later by Michael Fried. Neither, though, was able to provide a simple explanation. See Clark, The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (Princeton University Press) 1984, pp. 12-13; Fried, Courbet’s Realism (University of Chicago Press) 1992, pp. 16-17. 

Posted 17 Jan 2011: ManetTheoryVisual Perception

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