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30 October 2013

A Manet day


It seems rather sedate now, almost old fashioned on first glance next to our post-modern sensibilities, but Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”) caused quite a stir when it first appeared in Paris in 1863.  Rejected for the Salon, it was shown in the added gallery set aside for spurned pieces.  Derision, contempt, and confusion poured from the public and the critics of the day.  Just what was this uneven, contrived painting of dressed men and an unseemly common nude woman all about?  The usual vocabulary of a painting is convoluted.  Many thought it clearly obscene and “unfinished.”  Today it hangs in the Musée d’Orsay and is considered a masterpiece and turning point in the world of art.

The first thing to note is that the painting, while breaking free of the classical themes and mythical nudes of Manet's contemporaries, is actually a quotation of an established classic, Raimondi’s 1515 engraving Judgment of Paris.

Look to the right, and there are the water nymphs from whom Manet drew his inspiration.

The second thing to note is the nude woman who captures the attention of the viewer.  The lines of the painting all steer our eyes to her, and she in turn looks out at us.  She is not bashful.  She feels no need to cover herself.  Yet, she is not provocative either.  Her skin has blemishes and pockets of fat, unlike the painting considered the toast of the salon that year, Alexandre Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, which shows the female form in an airbrushed, sugary idealization of great skill, and little interest.


The model for the nude woman in Manet's painting was Victorine Meurent, who would go on to be a well-received painter in her own right.  She is 18 at the time of the painting, and no doubt many of the artists and the public would have recognized her, and I think that is part of the point of the painting, if this painting can be said to have a point.  Instead of taking a model and casting her in a mythological landscape, Manet takes her and puts her with her contemporaries, with two men who are fully dressed in the clothes of the day.  The men are a little bohemian, but they still might seem respectable.  They are artists, or perhaps critics.  They are the very people who are looking at this nude woman in this painting.  Perhaps the scandal of the painting was the perception of accusation.  “This is you,” Manet says.  “You see these women, you idealize them, you display their bodies, but I’m giving you the real thing, not the image.”  This is, in short, a painting about art.  The grumblings from the public that the image was one of “a prostitute” are more than just reactionary jabber.  In the painting, on the left edge past the contrived lunch faire, there is a frog looking in the opposite direction. 

“Frog” was the most popular euphemism at the time for prostitute.  That too was something the well-heeled men viewing the painting knew a great deal about.  Manet himself  was involved in many relationships outside of his marriage to a stolid Dutch woman, contracting syphilis in his forties and dying of it in 1883.

The last thing I wish to mention is the afterlife of the painting.  Though there are many other paintings with more drama, with more provocative content, this painting was used by several artists since the showing in 1863.  Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece takes the painting and its reception as the subject of the story.  Picasso, upon first seeing it, remarked that “this is going to cause some trouble later on.”  He tackled the work 6o years later, painting numerous interpretations.

An album cover used members of the group Bow Wow Wow, including the 14 year old lead singer, to reenact the painting, creating one of the most distinctive album covers ever.

Countless artists continue to turn to the work in countless ways.

Isn’t that the mark of a masterpiece?

23 October 2013

The Kingdom of Redonda Read-along (ADJUSTED)

Here it is, the final schedule for the Kingdom of Redonda read-along and movie fest in 2014.  All works are the creations of members of the Court of Redonda or favorites of Javier Marías.  If you'll be joining me, please let me know.  I've never done one of these before, and I can use all the help I can get.  Cheers.

Primary book: Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
Secondary book (extra credit): Amador by Fernando Savater
Film: The Godfather pt. 1

Primary: The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
Secondary:  Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro
Film: Patience (After Sebald)

Primary: The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
Secondary:  A Different Sea by Claudio Magris
Film: Tie Me Up, Tie me Down

Primary:  Danube by Claudio Magris
Secondary:  Inferences from a Sabre By Claudio Magris
Film: Alatriste

Primary:  My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Secondary:  Written Lives by Javier Marías
Film: Don’t Tempt Me

Primary:  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Secondary: The Questions of Life by Fernando Savater
Film: Apocalypse Now

Primary:  Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante
Secondary: The Flight of the Monarch by Michel Braudeau
Film: Volver

Primary: Fado Alexandrino by António Lobo Antunes
Secondary: On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald
Film: The Skin I Live In

Primary:  City of Marvels by Eduardo Mendoza
Secondary: Letters to a Young Novelist by Mario Vargas Llosa
Film: Tetro
Secondary film (why not?) Biutiful

Primary:  Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear by Javier Marías
Secondary: Cervantes by P. E. Russell (the model for Sir Peter Wheeler)
Film:  The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a favorite for Marías)

Primary:  YFT: Dance and Dream by Javier Marías
Secondary:  The Battle for Spain (first half) by Anthony Beevor
Film:  The Chimes at Midnight (another Marías favorite)

Primary:  YFT: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell by Javier Marías
Secondary: The Battle for Spain (last half) by Anthony Beevor
Film: The Godfather pt. II

16 October 2013

coffee house interlude

The half-empty coffee cups of contemplation,
newspapers like the shields of chivalrous knights,
the sea of words, the brays, the nonsense,
Lacan and Freud and cliché and the usual bullshit.

And there she sits, another cliche...a flower
a curse
the relentless metaphor
the Joycean stream, the Proustian digression
the pause in the pause
the catch of breath
the harbinger of death
the icicle forming drip by drip
and there she sits.

And theory fiercely claws at form
and the blood of reputations splashes
in the fresh-washed ring,
in the q & a and pun and witty jabs
of the gladiators clad in flannel and wool.

And in the vortex, in the bowels of the storm
there she sits, and sits, and sits, and...
well, you get the rest.

R. R. Shea

14 October 2013

Ladies, just ladies

It was recently ‘International Day of the Girl” for UNICEF and other organizations. Being a father to a little girl, I cannot stress enough the surprise and frustration I feel when I see how we treat girls and women in our “modern” societies, and I am sickened by how they are treated in much of the rest of the world.   

To celebrate the wonderful young ladies in this world, albeit belatedly, here are five images from the history of art I find particularly striking and powerful.  Let’s hear it for the ladies

 A Minoan Fresco

 A Roman image of a girl with a stylus and a book

 Frangonard's painting of a girl reading

Delacroix's painting "Liberty Leading the People"

A drawing of Malala...hero

10 October 2013

A New Nobel

Alice Munro has today been awarded this year's Nobel Prize in Literature. I'm pleasantly surprised.

07 October 2013

And the Nobel goes to...

The Nobel Prize for literature will be announced on 10 October.  I'm hoping for Javier Marías, but he looks to be a long shot.  Any predictions?