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Erotic secret of the world’s most famous barmaid: It’s the priceless Manet everyone knows

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From the moment it was first exhibited in 1882 at the Salon de Paris – once the greatest art event in the world – Edouard Manet’s last major work, A Bar At The Folies-Bergere, has caused a stir.

Not just because of the size of the landscape – at just over 3ft high and more than 4ft wide, it was larger than was fashionable at the time – but also because of all the many questions it raises.

Why does the immaculately-dressed barmaid look so cripplingly bored? Who is that shadowy man in the mirror?

How on earth did such a great artist get the perspective so wrong? And why has a French Impressionist included two bottles of British pale ale on this Parisian bar top?

‘Books and books have been written about this painting and what Manet was trying to communicate,’ says Ernst Vegelin, director of the Courtauld Gallery in London, where the masterpiece is a prize exhibit. 

Édouard Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, first exhibited in 1882, is the star attraction at the redeveloped Courtauld Gallery in London

Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, first exhibited in 1882, is the star attraction at the redeveloped Courtauld Gallery in London

Dr Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen (left) and Maerit Rausing Director of the Courtauld Gallery, Professor Deborah Swallow (right) pose in front of artist Edouard Manet's last major painting

Dr Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen (left) and Maerit Rausing Director of the Courtauld Gallery, Professor Deborah Swallow (right) pose in front of artist Edouard Manet’s last major painting

‘It never ceases to enthral and weave its spell.’

Or attract thousands of visitors from around the world to gaze at it and ponder its mysteries, as no doubt will happen once again as the gallery finally reopens today after a three-year, £50 million top-to-bottom redevelopment, including a lead donation from the Blavatnik family.

Thanks to the pandemic and the very inconvenient discovery of a medieval cesspit in the basement, the work took longer than planned. 

But initial reviews suggest it was clearly worth the wait: the Courtauld has been transformed by the award-winning firm of architects, Witherford Watson Mann, from a poky, oft-forgotten gallery into one of the capital’s most spectacular artistic havens.

Alongside the Cezannes, Van Goghs, Gauguins, Renoirs and Monets, there are dazzling new commissions and donations — including a new collection of Kandinsky’s drawings.

But Manet’s work, completed even as he was dying from syphilis, is still the main attraction in the gallery’s dramatic Great Room. 

The Courtauld Gallery in London is re-opening to the public on Friday following a modernisation project

The Courtauld Gallery in London is re-opening to the public on Friday following a modernisation project

A gallery employee poses alongside the artwork A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

A gallery employee poses alongside the artwork A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

‘It is the great icon amongst the many icons of the collection,’ says Vegelin. 

‘We wanted to preserve the moment of surprise, so it’s not the first thing that you see, but it emerges on the left in a moment of, I hope, astonishment and delight.’

It will no doubt spark afresh all the questions surrounding the painting’s rich complexity. Here, we attempt to decode some of its secrets…

The folies was a risque business

Built as an opera house in the newly-modernised 9th Arrondissement of Paris and opened in 1869, the Folies-Bergere signified everything modern and risqué about Parisian society in the late 19th century. 

A venue for anything and everything — from operettas, gymnastics, trapeze acts and naked revues — and enjoyed by the great and good, and everyone in between. 

Manet adored it and spent many happy, drunken hours there with fellow artists, musicians, and writers.

Aware that he was dying, the painting was his final farewell, not just to the Folies, but to a decadent world he loved.

Why does she look so bored?

Suzon – the model who posed for Manet – was a real barmaid whom he doubtless met while propped at this very same bar.

But the tired-looking woman he actually painted, with that blank and unknowable expression who stares back at us with more than a hint of confrontation – was more a figment of his imagination than reality.

Is she bored of her job, of the long hours, of the noise and bustle of rich Parisian cabaret-goers who probably pay little heed to her?

As well as Manet's last major work, artworks on show at the gallery include pieces by Van Gogh and Renoir

As well as Manet’s last major work, artworks on show at the gallery include pieces by Van Gogh and Renoir

Or perhaps she was simply exhausted at the end of another long night of serving customers, one after another?

Some art critics interpret her demeanour differently: this is a woman who is emotionally detached, numbed even — thanks to some of her more demanding patrons to whom she might be required to offer more than just liquid refreshment.

Clues the barmaid was a prostitute

It would have been highly unusual to make a barmaid, let alone a prostitute, the central focus of such an important painting in the late 19th century.

But art scholar and author, Kelly Grovier, points to myriad clues that Manet did just that.

One is the crystal bowl of sweet mandarins. Sex workers often signalled themselves by working as ‘orange sellers’ at theatres in Elizabethan England.

Her position at the bar, in between the bottles of Champagne and peppermint liqueur, and even that red triangle corsage at her breast that so neatly complements the logo of the Bass pale ale (more of which in a moment), suggest to some that the barmaid, too, is commodified and for sale.

The first use of product placement

Ah, yes, those Bass pale ale bottles — their logos on display — may represent one of the earliest examples of ‘product placement’, long before James Bond’s Aston Martins and Land Rovers, and the endless shots of Carrie Bradshaw’s Apple laptop in Sex And The City.

Did Manet include this particular brand — brewed in Burton upon Trent and Britain’s first ever trademarked product — to show just how international and modern his favourite bar was? (He also included two orbs of light reflected in the mirror to indicate early examples of electric lighting.)

Crucially, the beers were British not German, because the French were still feeling rather too tender a decade after the Franco-Prussian war to be embracing German beer with similar gusto.

The Courtauld Bag, from Mosul, Iraq, approximately 1300, on display at the Courtauld Gallery

The Courtauld Bag, from Mosul, Iraq, approximately 1300, on display at the Courtauld Gallery

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent Van Gogh. The Courtauld Gallery is reopening following a three-year renovation project

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent Van Gogh. The Courtauld Gallery is reopening following a three-year renovation project

Why are there so many triangles?

While most of us wouldn’t even notice, much has been made of the plethora of triangles in the painting. 

And when you get your eye in, they are everywhere.

Not just those beer logos and the barmaid’s corsage, but in the hem of her coat, the shape carved out by her hands on the marble bar, in the vase of flowers, the upturned triangles of the chandeliers reflected in the mirror, the triangular belly of the green bottle of absinthe in front of her — and even the space created by a lady in yellow gloves who is reflected in the mirror.

All, some experts insist, deliberate and linking back to the Bass logo — all about commodification and modernity.

What’s with the wonky viewpoint?

On first look, too much seems wrong. In fact, the closer you peer, the more ‘spatial dislocations’ appear, as the Courtauld director Ernst Vegelin explains.

The tired-looking barmaid — leaning on the marble counter and isolated in the dead centre — is too big and dominant.

Her reflection in the giant gold-edged mirror behind, chatting to an allusive top-hatted gentleman (which may be Manet’s self-portrait) is not angled correctly.

The Courtauld Collection, which is known for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces with over 600 paintings, is home to over 34,000 works from the Medieval period through to the 20th Century

The Courtauld Collection, which is known for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces with over 600 paintings, is home to over 34,000 works from the Medieval period through to the 20th Century

The Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist, an alterpiece by Sandro Botticelli believed to have been painted around 1492

The Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist, an alterpiece by Sandro Botticelli believed to have been painted around 1492

And some of the bottles to her left appear in the wrong place in their reflection.

But this was no mistake by Manet. He knew exactly what he was doing, as evidenced by X-rays, which reveal the painting went through substantial alterations, during which he unfolded his barmaid’s arms, moved her more centrally and deliberately skewed the perspective.

So the question remains why? Quite possibly to represent the chaotic ‘modern’ world of the late 19th century, where everything could not always be reconciled, or make sense.

The artist’s brush with sex disease

In 1882, Manet was barely 50 but suffering from partial paralysis of the legs caused by complications of syphilis and he tired easily.

While initial sketches were done at the Folies, he later built a replica of the bar in his studio and it was there that barmaid Suzon posed for him and he painted her – very slowly. Which of course might also be another explanation for her rather bored expression.

The Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist. The Courtauld has been transformed by the award-winning firm of architects, Witherford Watson Mann, from a poky, oft-forgotten gallery into one of the capital’s most spectacular artistic havens

The Trinity with Saints Mary Magdalen and John the Baptist. The Courtauld has been transformed by the award-winning firm of architects, Witherford Watson Mann, from a poky, oft-forgotten gallery into one of the capital’s most spectacular artistic havens

How much money for this manet?

For years, the painting hung above the piano of composer Emmanuel Chabrier, a close friend of Manet’s who collected 14 of his artworks and, in return, dedicated a sonata to Manet’s wife, Suzanne.

After changing hands several times, Samuel Courtauld, the English industrialist, art collector and founder of the Courtauld Institute, bought it in 1926 for £22,600 (equivalent to more than £1.4million today), the most he ever paid for a painting.

So what is it worth today?

‘You can’t [value it]!’, Vegelin tells me. ‘It is absolutely priceless. Pictures like this just aren’t available.’

Not to buy, no. But of course, from today, anyone can again go and see Manet’s masterpiece — and decide for themselves what secret messages it holds.

  • The Courtauld Gallery reopens today. You can book tickets at courtauld.ac.uk/gallery



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Written by Bourbiza Mohamed

A technology enthusiast and a passionate writer in the field of information technology, cyber security, and blockchain

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