Being an art history geek has its quirks. How do I unwind after a long day at work? I scan through my old art history textbooks. I know it’s kind of weird, but it gives me a sense of calm to flip through the well-loved pages and read the words of the scholars and thinkers who inspire me, and in turn, the artists who inspire them. Working with Gallery Direct adds a whole new dimension to my little meditation – with a quick click of a button, I can find high resolution images of my favorite paintings and prints.
Last night, I was all zenned out while looking through one of my favorite books, Carol Armstrong’s Manet Manette. Not only is this a groundbreaking text, but it is also one of the first books that made want to go into art history. Armstrong spends her final chapter contemplating a single painting, Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). This so happens to be one of my favorite paintings of all time, so I was thrilled to discover that it is also on Gallery Direct.
Often heralded as Manet’s last great painting, it certainly makes an impression. Not only is it beautifully executed – from the considered palette to the purposeful brushstrokes – it is a veritable field day for art lovers. Reading about this painting for the first time blew my mind. It simultaneously subverts traditional notions of perspective and viewership and yet is still utterly readable and relatable for any viewer. At first glance, it is simply a bar scene – the bottles on the counter frame the beautiful bartender as she waits to take an order. But upon further examination, you realize that the customer the bartender is waiting on is you, the viewer. She stares right at you, waiting. Digging even deeper, you realize that the background of the painting is in fact a reflection in a mirror, and to the right of the bartender, a face is reflected.
Like I said, this painting can (and has) been discussed every which way for hours on end. One of my favorite things about it, though, is how it brings together so many of Manet’s interests as an artist. While the Impressionists, his contemporaries, were interested in painting en plein air, or outdoors, and capturing the light and colors of nature, Manet’s paintings are concerned with the emergence of modern Parisian life. Urban scenes and quotidian subjects abound in his oeuvre, along with a meditation on how art relates to consumerism.
Fin-de-siècle Paris was a place of spectacle, and consumption of that spectacle was on the minds of its painters and writers. In Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet examines the idea of consumption from multiple angles – the subject itself, a bar, is a place for the consumption of alcohol and food. Moving beyond literal consumption, Manet examines how nineteenth-century Parisians consumed culture at the Folies-Bergère, a popular nightclub, how does the male customer depicted in the mirror “consume” the beautiful bartender, and how do we, as the audience, consume this piece of art?
Manet is one of the most complex and confounding artists that I’ve come across, which is why, I think, he is my favorite artist. His paintings are beautiful and striking, and on top of that, they make me think.
When it came down to it, my meditation last night turned into retail therapy – on a whim, I ordered a print of the painting, framed and on paper, through Gallery Direct. I am so excited to have a bit of art history right there on my wall for me to contemplate every day.