17 August 2021

Manet's flowers, an intimacy unseen in the rest of his oeuvre.

I was never a big fan of Manet as a painter. Sacré Bleu! Oh Sacrilege!! 

Of course, I saw his large things as a child and was impressed, but when I became a painter he slipped away from my circle of heroes. As a child I had seen things at the Met in New York, and yes, I was amazed by the virtuosity of his handiwork. He was a real painter in the French Academic tradition even if broke that tradition with his modern content.

I read the wonderful History of Impressionism by John Rewald, in my third year in France when I moved to the Châteaunoir in the Springtime. I had lived in Aix for two years before that. It was just about then when I finally fell in love with Provence. It usually takes most people about 24 hours, but me, it took 2 years. Believe it or not, I was uncomfortable under so much big blue sky. I was much much happier in the dismal white light of the drizzly North, but that too is another story, for another day. 

But, I did fall in love with the rugged landscape that first Spring through a visceral, olfactory flood of flowers and bark, pine needles and dank soil, as if Rosemary, Thyme, and Sage all rode the Mistral like a bronco up and down the hills and into the forest behind the Châteaunoir. I had never experienced Nature so powerfully, and it was inextricably linked up, arm in arm, with the paintings I was reading about that year. These were paintings made by men (and a few women) who went out to commit their lives to Nature in every season, under every bit of weather.

I took to walking through the oak forest in the park of the Châteaunoir each afternoon. I was an American from the City and the suburbs, and I had never lived so closely to Nature before. It was a revelation. Each morning at an old table in the rustic kitchen I read The History of Impressionism, and in just a few weeks time, I began to find myself back in the 19th century of stage coaches and lamp lights à la Française. It wasn't the Wild West but it was wild. I had only studied the Italian Renaissance in High School so I barely knew anything about French Painting except for so many clichés. I delved into the roots of Modern Painting leading me through the Barbizon where I met Daubigny, Dupré, Millet, all of whom I liked until meeting Manet like a brick wall. He possesses such a loud voice in the history of French Painting that it is impossible to avoid him. But by that time, I was already under the spell of my teacher Léo Marchutz who had led me to other, and different heroes of French Painting during that time; Corot, Degas, Daumier and before Cézanne and Van Gogh.

I was beginning to learn about how a picture is organically formed from the very inception instead of just being pieced together, one element after the next, added on, as it were. The French say Bricolage for such things which are randomly assembled (any which way), and put together one piece at a time. There is a grand history of this kind of Painting to be sure. But at this time, Léo was already teaching me about how a picture can also be sprung to life from a vision as an organic whole. Consequently, this changed forever the way I would look at Painting, art even, as a whole.

I only bring this all up at this point to reveal why I have posted these flower arrangements by Manet. Because though I don't always feel it in his large and grander paintings (done for the Salon, the notoriety, and the prizes) these small things are so much greater in my eyes than so many of the larger pictures, Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, for instance. Although I have so much respect for these large works by Manet, it is for these small and unpretentious pictures that I harbour a real passion.

They are simple and without so much of the  artifice I found in his most celebrated works. They possess for me that straight-forward simplicity of 'Zen suchness' which those wise guys in the East often talk about while in the presence of simple and elegant greatness.

I understand that they were done at the end of his life and he was not always well. They are all smallish (certainly not bigger than maybe 40 X 30 cm) They were executed without a lot of correction, and fiddling about, more or less) It was under the guidance of his two younger disciples (a description that may be too strong) Monet and Renoir, who both pushed Manet to work directly in front of Nature, to ignore his predilection for a clean and finished look.  

I have always loved these things since I first saw them in Paris, at what is now the Quai D'Orsay museum. They used to be in the comfortable and cluttered Jeu de Palme. But wherever, they feel just right, expressing just enough, but nothing more. These are creatures which hide their own creator, and they seem to whisper that they live on their own oxygen in the absence of the artist. 

They are beautifully painted! I use the word 'beautifully' in defiance of the shadow of Post-Modernist orthodoxy, under which we are all now subjected to live and paint. HA HA. But it'a shame that beauty, as an idea, has been so cut up and maligned these past decades. Enfin. As they say these days, it is what is, (until it isn't anymore)


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