Sunday 8 February 2015

The Bar at the Folies-Bergere

One of my favourite paintings - and we were able to see it again during our visit to the Courtauld two weeks ago.

Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882

This was Manet's last major painting and a masterpiece, encapsulating his art and the painting of modern life.

Manet, like no other artist, painted the Paris that followed Hausmanisation, a brutal transformation of the city where the working class were displaced from the centre of the city and forced to live in the benlieux. 350,000 people were forced to move out of their homes and the city took on a new form full of boulevards, open spaces, parks, promenades, exhibition spaces and the cafes chantants - the city became a spectacle. The separation of public and private life followed. Free time - leisure - became a commodity like any other to be consumed not just by the bourgeoisie, but by everyone. The new available leisure activities meant that everyone could go out and take part in all of these activities, with the result that the distinctions between the classes became blurred, ambiguous.

The new city became the perfect place for the painter who trusted to appearances, to impressions. The truth of perception lay in staying on the surface of things and allowing ambiguity.

Manet gave form to this new city of appearances, of ambiguity and lack of intelligible form and nowhere else is this more apparent than in the Bar. This is a painting of surfaces and it is flat and it is about the masking of class relations.

Like all great paintings, this painting has a note of mystery. And like many of Manet's paintings, there is ambiguity and doubt.

Behind the young woman is a mirror and there is a very careful mismatching of the front and back views of the barmaid. What is in the mirror cannot be a reflection of what we see in front of it. Things are displaced - the barmaid's reflection is too far off to the right. Why is the mirror treated in this peculiar way? She faces us but the mirror shows her leaning towards a customer. Are we standing in his shoes?

There have been various explanations about this. T.J. Clark who devoted a whole, long chapter in his book The Painting of Modern Life to this painting, sees it as the reflection of the new social order during the advent of capitalism. A social order that is paradoxical, shifting, where things are not as they seem to be. This new age where leisure has become a commodity necessitates blurring of the social classes and a masking of their true relations. Displacing the reflection of the barmaid symbolises the displacement of social relations so that we are shown is not a repetition of what is there which is what a mirror is supposed to do. The gap between the woman and her reflection has a peculiar tension thus reflecting the gap between the social relations of the time and the way they were represented.

The woman's face is the face of fashion, which is the definition par excellence of modernity, as articulated by Baudelaire. Fashion is a good and necessary disguise, disguising identity and social class. Her expression is a mystery. What does it mean? Her face is totally unreadable. Philip Pullman notes that 'she is far more mysterious than that smirking Florentine we know as the Mona Lisa'.

And what about the acrobat's legs that dangle in the air in the top left corner? Another mystery.

To quote Philip Pullman again, this painting is 'about the mystery of that ordinary woman's unfathomable expression, it's about champagne and oranges and tobacco smoke and chandeliers and fashionable dress; but it's also about seeing, and about recording the way the light glistens on those
surfaces, and the way things in a mirror are different from things in front of our eyes; it's about the sensation of sight and the mysteries of representation; it's about painting itself'.


T.J. Clark: The Painting of Modern Life (Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers).


  1. Ah yes, the acrobat. I think that there must have been a fad for them. I love the painting by Degas which is in the National Gallery: Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando

    and the beautiful preliminary pastel at the Tate:

    1. Yes, I guess the circus and consequently, the acrobat are part of all the new leisure activities which were suddenly available to all, and which the Impressionists loved to paint. But, the dangling legs are still a bit of a mystery to me: their location seems incongruous. I love the two Degas paintings that you gave links for, Olga - such sense of movement.

    2. I'm a little late at the party but there's an interesting relation between Manet's health and the leg.

      As you already know, Manet had syphilis and died just two years after painting this bar scene. His leg had to be amputated just two weeks before his untimely death.

    3. I did not know that. Interesting. Thank you.

  2. Great painting by a great painter. This work, and many other of Manet's paintings were a big influence on an art school young-me back in the Sixties - 80 years old, they seemed very fresh then, and, as a matter of fact, still do today. Timeless quality.

    1. Great paintings celebrating light and life. And as you say, David, still fresh today. Mind you, they were not appreciated when they were first produced - far ahead of their time. But, everyone loves the Impressionists today and rightly so. This painting is a favourite of mine, and I am getting to appreciate Manet more and more - so many layers to his paintings. How lucky you were to study art....