A new world of forms


Before Manet painters had expressed themselves in a kind of time-honored rhetoric, symbolized by the model in his heroic pose with his chest thrust out. Not only Coypel and Couture but all painters had expressed themselves in that strain. In former times painting had been anything but autonomous; it had been in fact an integral part of a majestic whole set up to dazzle the masses by the powers-that-be.
There came a day, however, when this vast didactic structure --erected and renewed time and again in the form of castles, churches, palaces and works of art calculated to awe the masses and bend them beneath the yoke of authority--lost its power to sway. It fell to pieces, its message was shown up as mere grandiloquence, and the once obedient masses turned away in search of something else.
Manet turned away from the very first, and though not altogether sure of what he was about, he began recasting things into a new order, a new world of forms. This is noticeable in a painting in which his means, great though they were, were not yet great enough to ensure complete mastery. Yet it would be impossible to disrupt conventional harmonies to better effect than in ththis Old Musician, one of his first largescale compositions. Notable above all for many fine details, it nevertheless successfully opposes a realistic, true-to-life ungainliness to Couture's hollow, architectural theatricality. Every part of the picture is wonderfully complete in itself; for example the sober simplicity--worthy of Watteau Gilles --of the small boy in the straw hat, or the casually lounging figure of the old vagabond on the right, with his battered top hat. The models sit and stand more or less haphazardly, much as actors on stage taken unawares as they wait for the curtain to go up. And this, I think, is the effect Manet deliberately aimed at: not a carefully arranged pose, but a natural disorder arrived at by chance.
Reaction against the stale and conventional, which lies at the source of this disorder, is a recurrent phenomenon in the history of art (and in history in general). But we are prone to overlook the fact for the simple reason that, until recently, art history had been exclusively the history of the fine arts, of beautiful works of art, rarely if ever dealing with that fundamental divergence of outlook which opposes present-day art to that of the past.
Yet Baudelaire--no art historian, but a poet--was able to give a satisfactory account of this profound change, this reaction, of which his friend Manet's canvases were to be, in a few years' time, the most advanced expression.
"As you emerge from the exhibition," he suggested in his Salon de 1867, "compare the present age with past ages, or after visiting a newly decorated church, go rest your eyes in some museum of antiques, and analyse the differences.
"In the one: turbulence, a hubbub of styles and colors, a cacophony of tones, overwhelming vulgarity, prosaic gestures and attitudes, sham nobility, every known variety of stereotype, and all this plain to see, not only in pictures placed side by side, but in one and the same picture; in short, a complete absence of unity, which only produces eyestrain and a frightful headache.
"In the other, that sense of respect which comes over us, which touches us to the quick, is the effect not of the yellow varnish and the ravages of time, but of an underlying unity. For a great Venetian painting clashes less with a Giulio Romano than some of our paintings--and not the worst of the lot-do with each other when placed side by side."
Baudelaire saw that in his time the old forms had been sundered. In his eyes the former "schools" of painting were proof of a monumental order of things, and the guarantee of unity and lasting tradition. "There were still schools under
Louis XV," he wrote, "and still one in the days of the Empire --one school, in other words the impossibility of any disagreement or doubt . . . Doubt, or the absence of faith and naïveté, is a vice peculiar to this century. Today no one obeys. And naïveté, which is the ascendancy of temperament over breeding, is a divine privilege withheld from nearly all of us."
No doubt Baudelaire only vaguely grasped the connection between the decline underway in his time--obvious to him --and the majestic forms which had imposed themselves on society with such success in the past. Still he put his finger on the secret of that success: the presence behind those forms of an all-powerful element of compulsion and authority exercised on the masses from above, to which they bowed in collective submission. "Few men," he went on, "have the right to rule, for few men are moved by a great passion." And further on: "The present state of painting is the result of an anarchic freedom which glorifies the individual, however puny he may be."
This is a picture of a world familiar to us all. Nevertheless, it may be well to look more closely into its meaning. First of all, the meaning Baudelaire elicited in the world of his day:
"Anyone today who has to be classed among the imitators, even among the more clever ones, is and will always be no more than a second-rate painter. In the past he might have made an excellent artisan. Today he's a dead loss both for himself and for us.
"For this reason it might have been better, for the sake of their welfare and even their personal happiness, had the half-hearted been exposed to the hickory-stick of an exacting faith; for the strong are few, and today it would take Delacroix or Ingres to keep afloat in the chaos of a sterile, all-consuming freedom."


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