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Manet's painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergre, was an integral factor in the rise of a new era in art; through the emergence of a contemporary Parisian city, Modern art began to flourish during the late 1800's. Being a painting of extreme complexity and ambiguity, many art critics have commented on the formal aspects of the painting, as well as the social reactions to this specific, and novel form of art. The purpose and meaning of the mirror behind the lady and the disparity of reality versus reflections, pose immense controversy and are discussed in Robert Herbert's essay, Impressionism: Art, Leisure, & Parisian Society, Bradford R. Collins, Twelve Views Of Manet's Bar, Jack Flam's "Looking into the Abyss: The poetics of Manet's A Bar At the Folies-Bergre", and T.J. Clark's, The Painting of Modern Life. Moreover, these authors's united their interpretations of this painting with the idea of a new Parisian lifestyle and conduct. Presented in this painting is the scene of a young, engaging barmaid at the Folies-Bergre music hall.
She is standing behind a marble counter, which is covered with wine bottles, fruits, and flowers. Behind her are the essential element of the painting; the mirror that reflects the setting in which she is serving, as well as a peculiar man with a moustache. The barmaid, is confined to the narrow space behind the bar, however in the reflection, Manet introduces the new recreational activities of the elite, and sophisticated Parisians. Despite her lack of expression, Herbert clearly states that Manet has given the barmaid facing the audience a feeling of dignity and self-worth, contrary to the Parisian customs. It was thought that women were hired to increase the sales of drinks, and were made as vehicles for sexual favors, and other kinds of business. Herbert also says that barmaids at the time were known for "loose morals." He says that the lady has an ambiguous demeanor, yet her frontal image is "correct, even distant from us." She conceals her character in a firm way, and does not solicit any other information. Collins states that Manet's primary objective was to "capture in paint that life's particular character and interests." However, in the mirror, an entirely different disposition is seen, in which she is giving herslef over to the man, and releasing all tension of which she shows in the frontal image.
Herbert states that this "provokes the issue of male-female commerce." He claims that it is incredible that a man can influence a woman in the field of romance and desire. The mirror serves as a means for showing the other perspective to this situation. Herbert comments on the distinct tension between the real and the reflection within her "yielding nature" showing her discomfort and desire to please. Herbert feels that the climax of this painting occurs when the viewer realizes his own role in the painting, and identifies where the illicit man should be placed. Herbert also questions the notion of who really is the viewer of the painting, and what purpose do we, as spectators serve. He concludes that the pinnacle of this painting is the game that Manet is playing with the viewer.
Because of the intense look in the man's face, we are inclined to assume the woman's role as a stereotypical barmaid. This is countered though by her stoic perception toward the viewer. Ultimately, though, Herbert feels that the painting was directed toward a male audience, and the reflection in the mirror allows for this to occur, yet disguising the frontal image. In Flam's essay, he emphasizes that the purpose of the mirror is to see the opposing views of the woman. He states that perception, and reality of her image is dependent upon where the viewer gazes at her. The entanglement of all the objects around her add to this distortion; hence we are introduced to the man in the reflection in a different fashion.
Flan emphasizes that she portrays two entirely different personas, suggesting innuendos of respective regard. Therefore, the viewer is encouraged to interpret this in various manners. He states that Manet intended for the mirror to be a source of connection between the imaginative and real world, however excluding all kinds of inhibitions that went along with realism. He states that the lady, herself, is clearly the only real person in the picture. Flam also sustains the idea of Herbert that which, once the abstruseness of the lady is discovered, whether her purpose be desire, objectivity, lust, or prostitution, she is no longer scrutinized, but rather these material perceptions are looked at as being distorted. Clark also focuses on this aspect, in which the events of the painting, once understood, influence the viewer to see life in a different light. He also emphasizes that the Parisian society had a skewed outlook on life, because their morals were slanted by the stereotypes of society. Hence, Flan concludes that the painting is somewhat analogous to Parisian social status.
What may have seemed like an unoriginal form of art, was actually the emergence of an entirely different take on the reality of people. Clark's interpretation is slightly different from the other two, in that his main question regarding the mirror is which scene is the viewer being invited to participate in. Should one focus on the fixed and flat actual image, or the events occurring in the mirror. He initially states that Manet concentrates on portraying the Parisian society accurately, and therefore, he feels that the reflection of the setting is adequate. However, he proceeds to comment that the painting is extremely flat, and lacks a sense of warmth and enticement. Her figure is exact; unchanging, and severed from everything around her. He believes that by painting a mirror, all substance loses its significance; however, in order to regain this meaning, the mirror has to be pushed further back and distorted, in order to reflect this realm of meaning.
He strongly emphasizes though, that the images in the mirror must not interfere with the front visual image. It is imperative that the two surfaces do not act on each other, but rather display co-existence. Furthermore, Clark felt that Manet chose to depict a paradox of emotions within this painting, including many of his own. Indeed, Manet presented the world with a puzzling piece of art, however, he also prepared society for a new way of interpreting art and life. What both Herbert and Flam agree on is that because of the extreme stoicism of the lady, the viewer is inclined to take on the role of the man in the mirror, and view the scene from a different perspective. As Herbert states, because we are in the position where he would occupy the bar, "he becomes our second self." Flam states that Manet allows us "a similar double vision throughout the medium of the magical vision." He deems this feature as a type of monologue between people. Although Clark does acknowledge that "we must be where he is", he feels that we are the center, and that surely the man's interaction with the barmaid should not be the basis for our interpretation.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergre was an extremely important painting of the late 19th century because of its powerful impact on Parisian society. Manet introduced the world to the idea of realism, and challenged art viewers to go beyond the visible forms, and imagine life from a different perspective, thus, using a mirror to facilitate this event. Bibliography:.
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