Art: Manet

    Of course, the artist we are dealing with here is Manet, and that in itself guarantees a resonant experience. I’ve never known exactly where to place Manet in the journey of art, and neither has anyone else. Manet is elusiveness in pigment form. Not because he is so out there and different and wild, but precisely because he isn’t. His work, seen casually, at blockbuster speed, can perhaps look conservative. But any kind of decent consideration quickly reveals many cunning anti-conservative measures.

    To pick an immediate example from the two paintings before us, have a look at the way the light falls on all the white things in The Luncheon, painted in 1868, when Manet was in his thirties. It falls on the plant pot, the sword hilt, the coffee cup and the boy’s collar. Yet it would take several individual windows, arranged at different heights in a wall positioned roughly where we spectators are standing for all these things to be illuminated at once.

    The chief complication with The Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a famous one. As everyone always notices, the back view reflected in the mirror of the barmaid serving a client in a top hat (who must, by visual implication, be you) is too far to the right to be optically possible. It’s skewwhiff. An adjacent reproduction of the first sketch Manet made makes clear that it is deliberately skewwhiff. Originally, Manet had placed the reflection in the correct relationship to the barmaid, but he chose to move her over to the picture’s centre and lose this correct relationship.

    So, Professor Einstein, should we see this tinkering with physical laws in order to conjure up new pictorial realities as a progressive act or a retrogressive one? What carries more weight here, the homage being paid to the old subject matter of art (the pile of armour on the chair in The Luncheon was traditionally included in state portraits of young men to symbolise their courage as they stepped up to adulthood) or the tricky and deliberate undermining of this old subject matter (the black cat with its back to you on the chair next to the armour is nonchalantly licking its arse)?

    The usual role assigned to Manet is as the father of impressionism — because of his genius for annoying respectable Parisians and those flashing fencer’s brush strokes of his. But when the impressionists asked him to show with them, he refused. Manet chose instead to unveil both these paintings at the official salon, Paris’s equivalent of the Royal Academy summer show. One in 1869, the other in 1882. That explains their size. They are both biggies, a six-footer and a five-footer, both determined to clear space for themselves with their own barging. It also explains that attention- seeking thing they both have. In both of them, a central figure stands right in front and confronts you.

    The show is called Manet Face to Face, which explains the exciting way in which these two pictures are hung, on opposite walls, with you caught in the crossfire. Face to face also indicates the relationship that Manet seeks to set up between them and you. The barmaid and the boy may not actually be that close to the front of their paintings — one is behind a marble table, the other has casually extended his legs — but both feel as if they are blocking your path. It’s like meeting someone coming towards you in the street, and when you go to the left, they go right, and when you go to the right, they go left. It isn’t done aggressively. But it has aggressive implications.

    By emphasising this buttonholing air, the current display seems to me to answer immediately the riddle of the misplaced reflection in the Bar Folies-Bergère. I’ve enjoyed this painting scores of times. It is one of the Courtauld’s greatest possessions. But it wasn’t until I saw it hanging opposite The Luncheon, imported temporarily from Munich, that I understood its famous disruptions. Manet has obviously separated the barmaid from her own reflection in order to give her a much clearer outline. She’s been moved — not once, but twice, an x-ray reveals — in order to position her in the middle of the picture, and thereby to engineer the maximum sense of confrontation with you. Damn the optical facts of the situation: the man/woman frisson counts for more.

    The action is set in a busy opera bar, upon which huge numbers of boisterous Parisians have converged for the music, the drink, the buzz and the sexual opportunities. We’re up on a balcony. Two floors of smoky nocturnal frolicking are reflected in the glass behind the barmaid. With all these mirrors everywhere, this brilliantly evoked wall-to-wall gaiety feels illusory and short-lived. Shift your weight and it’s gone. See the barmaid’s sad, betrayed face. It’s the fixed point about which all the shimmering falsehoods must orbit.

    The bloke in the reflection is meant to be you. These days, we gallery visitors do not wear top hats and morning suits, as they did in Manet’s time. So the chap at the bar no longer passes instantly for one of us. But hanging in the salon, this extraordinary picture must originally have barked a direct and unavoidable accusation. You are the bloke. The barmaid is your prey. And that despair in her face is your fault. You cad.

    Manet chose the salon rather than the obscure independent showings of the impressionists because the salon was where the enemy was ensconced. He was taking his fight deep into the enemy camp. His courage was utterly exceptional. Fourteen years earlier, when he painted The Luncheon, the battleground was located on his own doorstep. In his own dining room, even. The boy in the picture is his wife’s son, Leon, a favourite Manet model, who may have been his own boy from an illicit premarital relationship. She had been his piano teacher. There have also been rumours, which I am inclined to believe, that Leon was actually the son of Manet’s father, an ultra- respectable high-court judge from whom Manet inherited an assortment of typical bourgeois appetites, including, perhaps, a taste for female servants.

    Whatever the actual Manet family history involved, this is clearly a painting about those kinds of sexual triangulations. We’re in a dining room. The bearded boeuf on the right, blowing out a slow stream of predatory cigar smoke, is a quietly brutish presence. Between his beard and his hat there’s just enough space for his eyes. He’s been eating. And because there are oysters on the table, and oysters have been crude symbols of female genitalia since at least Roman times, there’s a smell of sex in the room.

    Which brings us to the maid. It may just have been a trick of this display, but when I first saw the picture, I was struck by a family resemblance between her and the boy. Was I imagining it? Have a look. Isn’t this a mother and her son? Even if they aren’t, and the picture has no ambition to deal in any way with the fraught dynamics of Manet’s actual circumstances, there is a palpable air here of a Flaubertian domestic arrangement.

    The boy is a weak and uncomfortable presence, too young for his clothes, perhaps, and certainly too young to adopt the casual air of the flâneur he’s attempting. I don’t think he’s meant to be the cigar-puffer’s son by the serving wench. Manet isn’t that literal. But it’s not an impossible reading. The helmet and sword? Well, once they would have proclaimed the boy’s heroic future and symbolised his impending manhood. But these days the cat sits next to them and licks its arse. That’s 1860s Paris for you.