Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Railway


Edouard Manet's The Railway (alternative titles: Gare Saint-Lazare or Le Chemin de Fer). 1872-1873. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (I visit her on a regular basis :)

I STILL don't even know where to begin with this piece. Since the last time I mentioned her, I've logged more than 150 hours of research and writing time on its behalf, and wagered half of a class' grade on a 26-page paper about her (Update: B-. Totally Satisfied). Oddly, when I first I started to talk about this painting here on my blog in November, I referred to it as a him. During the course of our time together this work must have imbibed a bit of myself-- my passion and interest-- because it changed gender in my mind. Whatever. This bad boy is now a bad girl, at least to me.

And still, after three blissful weeks of theory-less, art-less Christmas holidays, I am overwhelmed by complicated art theory ideas whenever I start to think about The Railway.

OK, this is how we'll do it. If you'll recall, last time I asked you to make up a story about what is happening in this picture (If you didn't do it last time, take 15 seconds and do it now). I got a pretty creative smattering of responses back in November, ranging from a mother and child watching a father leave to a bubble-bath-less nanny about to quit. I call this painting a bad girl because, in actuality, she represents none of these stories. There is no story behind this work, per the artist himself!! In art history fancy-speak, this painting arrived into the art historical canon without an identifiable narrative. This was a deliberate, infuriating habit of the artist, Edouard Manet (who is a different person than the Impressionist artist Claude Monet, fyi).

Here are some of Manet's other most famous works. There are a few thematic and stylistic patterns to pick up between them: can you see any similarities?

A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 1882.
Olympia. 1863.
Luncheon on the Grass. 1863.

Here are a few I can pick out:
  • All have women models with odd, half-bored looks on their faces.
  • There are no identifiable narratives going on-- in fact, in most of them you kind of have no idea what's supposed to be happening.
  • None of them are very strictly painted to look like reality; the artist has used a "sketchy" brushstroke instead of a careful, tedious, realistic one .
  • Yes indeed, there's some nudity present. Have your laugh now, so we can get back to business.
  • None of them are legendary scenes. No Greek gods here, nor biblical heroes. These are all scenes of late 19th-century Paris, Manet's own time and place.
These patterns apply to The Railway, too, can you see that? All these patterns, these artistic contrivances of Manet's, are why he is called the father of modernism: a very, VERY BIG title. Modernism, in this case, is a somewhat muddled term. For the sake of clarity, we'll just say that all art you would call modern displays, in some way, a focus on the act of making art. A modern artwork peels back the curtain on itself a little bit. It is focused on the modern time, it's own place in history.

In effect (and I'm grossly generalizing here), Manet was the first to say to himself, "Well, obviously I'm using a model, so I think I'll just paint her looking bored, because she is. I mean, I'm making her sit there for hours for heaven's sakes!" Manet also said, "Well, all the pretty art has been done. Let's loosen up the brush strokes like the 16th century Spanish painters did, add in a few nudes like the Frenchies, and just to throw everyone for a REAL loop, let's make the people in my paintings real-life Parisians, just going about their daily business." Manet took away the storyline in his paintings-- the easiest source of grandeur-- and the audience in his day and age HATED him for it. However, they eventually realized how cool it was that he was at least doing something different. "Lady and baby??" they cried, "Come one. That's not new. They're EVERYWHERE!... but they sure are pretty in this painting."

There are literally millions of articles written about Manet: his accomplishments, his scandals, and his story. It was a little daunting to try and add something to this pile of knowledge (and admittedly, I don't think I did a great job of it... got a lot to learn while in graduate school!). Funny story: when I first met with my university librarian to get started researching this painting, she laughed at me and said, "Manet, huh? It's all done. There's nothing left to write!" &!%$#..... like I'd let that stop me. Haha.

For Auntie J and those with an insatiable desire to know more, here are some of the things I said in my paper about The Railway, boiled down as much as I could get them. In bullet point form, my fav. :) For those with dwindling attention spans, just know that The Railway is a little slice of life, no more, no less, but its beautiful lines, all of its luscious contrasting spaces that go tripping across the canvas, make it no less fine of an artwork:

  • It is interesting to note that neither Clark nor Fried discuss The Railway in terms of its potential symbolist meaning, something Harry Rand does in depth in Manet’s Contemplation at the Gare Saint-Lazare. Meyer Schapiro has previously addressed Manet’s symbolic content in a broad sense, stating that Manet’s subjects were not chosen on the basis of pure aesthetic appeal, but rather, because they related symbolically to the outlook of Manet himself (Schapiro 1954). Rand pushes this idea much further within the context of The Railway. His argument is that Manet was depicting his five senses.
  • Rand traces this painting’s psychological effect back to Velazquez’ Los Borrochos (1628). The Velazquez image displays a compendium of the various psychological reactions to alcohol in its various figures. Rand’s link to The Railway is the grapes (aka wine) in the corner of the canvas.
  • I feel that Rand’s interpretation stretches credible iconography. The Railway’s intriguing subject matter better fits Fried’s idea about instantaneousness. The way that the older female looks up at the viewer casually, finger marking the page in her book, signifies the tiny moment of time in which a viewer might behold this same scene in reality. The bars in the background and the obtrusive steam cut off further imagination about any potential significance for this depicted moment.
  • The model’s cool and detached look signifies her presence as a model. All access to the meaning of this painting will pass through her, and she is rather cavalier in this duty.
  • The Railway shows that Manet is still capable of quoting, although it was executed later than the 1860s. Instead of Old Masters, he now quotes his contemporaries: Puvis de Chavannes and Berthe Morisot’s 1872 post-war paintings (images below, Morisot on top, Puvis on bottom).
  • Clark’s extant writing on this work starts with the note that Manet employs the controversial face of model/prostitute Victorine Meurent once again, although he renders her as benign (and as dressed) as she will ever be. Clark focuses on the modern life depicted in this image. The billowing clouds of immaterial steam and the identifiable piers on the right side of the canvas place this scene at the Gare St. Lazare railroad station, a place of transition and change that often appears in the Impressionist canvases of the same time period. He thus connects this work to the fleeting, absorptive milieu of modern Paris. I would further Clark’s Marxist reading by asking why the little girl gazes into the steam. No doubt Manet turned her little back to the viewer as a way to provoke him or her into contemplating her relation, and their own, to the Parisian spectacle of art and technology.
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3 comments:

MOM said...

Hey, thank you for our finished lesson on The Railway. The simple explanations made me smile. The complex bullet points made me have to think...good if I'm in the mood, or blank, if I'm not! It was a good day. :)

Didn't we see Bar at the Folies-Bergere at the California Getty Museum? (Is that the name?) Anyway, it was fun to see a lot of similarties cross over in Manet's works. I can feel good now, knowing I've learned something new today. Thanks for sharing!

Judy Anne said...

Finally!!! you have answered my questions. However, as with all good answers come more questions. Why does he use the same "lady of the evening?" Was he drunk and that is why the grapes...wine? Did his way of 'looking at the world' change the world of art? I miss you already and can't wait to see you again.

ynny said...

Yes, ma, we saw Bar at Folies Bergere in the Gett. Auntie J, he uses the same model because he liked her, she could sit still well, strike poses he wanted, and she was famous. Most people would recognize her in his canvases, which would stir up a lot of controversy. I don't know how much he drank, and in my opinion, the grapes are included as a tiny still-life vignette, to show off his painting prowess. To me, the are the most beautiful part of the canvas. Yes, he changed the world. People began focusing on the act of art and the modern life shortly after him. I miss you too.