Only seeing was believing

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EDOUARD Manet (1832-83) was one of the best painters France has ever known. In his hands, paint became so alive and was so sensitively controlled that anyone with the slightest experience handling it must stand in awe before what he could do with a small daub of silvery gray placed between a black and a salmon pink. Or the manner in which he could fashion exquisite harmonies out of something as simple as a few soft grays, some subtle hints of umber, a slab of solid black, and a smudge of lime green.

But that was only one - although probably the most significant - aspect of his genius. He was also a superb draftsman, a brilliant designer, a serious thinker on art, and a man who wanted his paintings to be not only as perfect as possible but as representative as they could be of the best ideas of his time.

Also, since his recent retrospective at the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, much has been made of his seemingly modern notions about the artist's social responsibilities. His attempts to bring everyday activities and political events into his art have been cited as proof of his social concern, and of how clearly he anticipated the sociopolitical roles such artists as Picasso, Kollwitz, and Orozco played in the 20th century.

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I'm not at all convinced. The fact that he depicted such contemporary events as the execution of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico and the shootings of Communards in Paris during the late spring of 1871 does not prove that he viewed his art within an actively political context. To the contrary, his life's work indicates beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a painter first, last, and foremost. That , although willing, even eager at times, to use whatever subject would add interest, spice, or social significance to his work, his primary concern was always with what paint and color could do.

It's not that he wasn't a deeply concerned human being, nor am I suggesting that ideas and the depictions of events weren't important to his art. I'm only stating that painting was the overriding passion of his life, and that he would never have dreamed of allowing anything to interfere with its most effective realization.

To understand Manet, and to grasp the power and significance of his art, one must first perceive how profoundly and utterly real visual phenomena were to him. Reality spoke most deeply and truly to him through his eyes. Nothing else was as genuine, valid, or close to perfection as what he saw. Everything else was at least part illusion. Only what his eyes encountered and registered was entirely true.

But that wasn't all. To receive the greatest possible benefit from this truth , he had to maximize the very act of perception, had to utilize everything in his power to make what he saw as clear, whole, alive, and universal as possible. For that he needed the act of painting itself, needed to find and to use the precise tones, colors, lines, masses, and textures that would make permanent what he had glimpsed for only a fleeting moment of time.

We often forget that artists achieve extraordinary levels of performance because they are driven to give form and expression to intuitions and intimations of truths they otherwise cannot grasp or comprehend. Cezanne, for instance, devoted his entire adult life to actualizing his holistic vision of reality through paint. And Mondrian spent the last decades of his life trying to perfect the simplest, most comprehensive icon for his perception of truth. Just so with Manet, only in his case it wasn't formal perfection or spiritual truth that drove him on but the need to translate the perceptual act itself into paint.

Manet was also very much a man of his time, however, and a profoundly cultured individual to boot. It wasn't enough that he paint fruit and flowers (although he did that superbly), he also had to direct his work toward the important issues and realities - both social and cultural - of his age.

That is why his paintings include such a wide variety of subjects, and why they often are both beautiful and thematically fascinating. His heart always remained true to color and paint, however, and to how he could most effectively translate fleeting glimpses of reality into permanent images representing truth as he understood it.

That is why some of his most ravishing works have subjects that are merely excuses for magnificent painting. Why such canvases as ''The Fifer'' and ''The Spanish Singer'' need no verbal explanation, and why some of his greatest painting can be found in secondary objects such as the bouquet of flowers in ''Olympia,'' the parrot in ''Woman with Parrot,'' and the half-peeled lemon in ''The Luncheon in the Studio.''

It is in these objects, these passages of painting, that Manet most truly resides, and where his genius and greatness are most clearly revealed.

But how can one convey this to certain art historians and writers on art who have no real sensitivity toward, or any real interest in, paint and what it can do? And who study and try to understand a work of art almost exclusively through its stated ''subject'' rather than through its ability to convey experience and perception?

Perhaps they should learn to paint a bit themselves and try to do what Manet, Cezanne, Redon, and Rothko could do so beautifully. It probably wouldn't make them any the wiser, but it might make them a bit more sensitive to the realities of paint, and a bit more aware that in the hands of a real master, the act of painting can be as complex and dynamic as the act of perception itself.

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