Art and angst in Paris: the view from Harvard

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The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, by T. J. Clark. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 338 pp. $25. Recently, Impressionist painting has been conspicuous on arty greeting cards. Something decorative and opulent about the style has led to this, and something about the subject matter.

For 36 years this mid-19th-century French art has been the preferred sweet of the middle class, especially in America. Shimmering landscapes, dazzling nightclubs, grand avenues for fashionable strolling -- the paintings have been taken up as nostalgic, elegant instruction in the good life. This is not entirely accidental, since the images of Manet and many of his contemporaries were created largely in response to the rebuilding of Paris, which turned the medieval French capital into an imperial metropolis.

The social and psychological results of that transformation claim all T. J. Clark's attention in his challenging new account of Impressionist art, ``The Painting of Modern Life, Paris in the Art of Manet And His Followers.''

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The effort to modernize Paris, taken up by Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann in 1853, ended only with the ouster of Napoleon III in 1870. Along with the urban renewal of those 17 years came the displacement of 350,000 people, the destruction of those small businesses that made up economic life in Paris, and the elimination of its middle-class society. The Paris in which workers, artisans, shop owners, customers, servants, and masters all jostled a stable system of class identities into a culture became modern Paris, where, after Haussmann, classes from distant and unequal neighborhoods mixed uneasily in planned locales of leisure and commerce.

Professor of Fine Arts T. J. Clark of Harvard maintains that things looked different in this new city populated by lonely crowds acting out their cultural confusion, at least to Edouard Manet. That painter's scandal-rousing images of Haussmann's new disordered Paris, Clark argues, established the formal and thematic terms of ``modernism'' subsequently elaborated by the Impressionists and the turn-of-the-century avant-garde. While Clark's vocabulary and reasoning have not cast off all the worst faults of the lecture hall and the academic salon -- obscurity and technicality creep into the book too often -- his argument is cogent and ultimately convincing.

The book, bountifully supplied with 30 color plates and 118 black-and-white illustrations, has four chapters, each detailing the social changes represented in one or two of Manet's paintings through close analysis of the works themselves and through extensive references to the writing of poets, novelists, and journalists of the period. Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Rimbaud, the De Goncourt brothers, Baudelaire, and Mallarm'e all supply passages corroborating Clark's discovery of what he calls ``the myth of the modern'' in Manet. He defines the myth as follows: ``that the city has become a free field of signs and exhibits, a marketable mass of images, an area in which the old separations have broken down for good.

The modern, to repeat the myth once more, is the marginal; it is ambiguity, it is mixture of classes and classifications, it is anomie and improvisation, it is the reign of generalized illusion.'' There are some intellectual buzz-words here -- ``anomie,'' ``free field of signs,'' and ``generalized illusion'' -- which belong primarily to the academic left and may confuse more than clarify this definition. But Clark's essential point, that ``modern'' means uncomfortable experience of incongruity, makes sense, and has the authority of Baudelaire, to cite one undisputed ``modern.'' His poem ``The Swan'' takes up the new sense of desolate chaos Clark sees Manet depicting: ``Paris changes . . . old/ neighborhoods turn to allegory,/ and memories weigh more than stone'' (translation by Richard Howard).

Clark's definitions, which at first glance may seem inappropriate terms for analysis of the Impressionist painters, are in fact analogous to the standard terminology one discovers in exhibition placards and college textbooks. The concentration on ephemeral effects of lighting and composition, on the buzzing coherence struck from multiple, distinct units of color, and the insistence on the realism of such representation of vision are transposed in this study into their equivalent terms in cultural analysis, where the subject is not so much how we see, but what we see -- more important, in modern life, what we don't.

Clear and permanent class identity has vanished, Clark argues, in Manet's Paris, and consequently his paintings, in the inconsistency of their formal properties, enact the inconsistency of personal identity suffered by Parisians, especially the petite bourgeois -- shopgirls, clerks, etc.

Chapter 1 concentrates on Manet's ``Exposition Universelle de 1867,'' a view of the Champ de Mars from a nearby hill, in which typical Parisians are pictured as isolated connoisseurs of a view of an exhibition in a city -- not citizens, not creatures defined by relationships made and maintained in that city.

Chapter 2 concentrates on Manet's 1865 ``Olympia,'' the infamous parody of a Goya nude. In what amounts to a condensed history of prostitution in 19th-century France, Clark shows how this painting's formal complexities (in composition, perspective, drawing, and topic) blur the distinction between two kinds of commercial female sexuality. The woman figured is both a ``courtesane,'' for whom class identity was one more inessential, changeable mask, something like jewelry worn to effect the high life, and a ``fille publique,'' a street walker, for whom class identity was no alluring posture of elegance, but an essential fact; no image to manipulate and trade with, but a financial reality literally represented in her nakedness.

Chapter 3 discovers the same problem of class inconsistency in the suburban landscapes Manet painted, especially in ``Argenteuill, les canotiers,'' 1874, where two well-heeled middle-class Parisians are posing as pastoral lovers in a boat that bobs on a sea made blue by dye from a nearby factory. The normal relationship in landscapes -- a continuity between man's creativity and nature's -- is reversed, as nature becomes a product of the factory, as leisure in nature becomes perforce a fraudulent pose.

Chapter 4 analyzes with great subtlety and clarity Manet's ``Un Bar aux Folies Berg`ere,'' 1882, in which the inauthentic country idling is repictured in its urban setting, the nightclubs of deliberately regulated pretense at vice, the bars where everyone went to be in a costume party of licentiousness, the caf'e concerts.

In the conclusion, Clark turns to analysis of Seurat's ``Un dimanche apr`es midi a l'^ile de la Grande Jatte,'' 1884-1886, as an example of how one painter solved the problems Manet never could. The importance of Manet's work, for Clark, is its inadequacy at representing class, and consequently, its limited understanding of personality and culture.

Where Manet could only depict the anxiety of dislocation in modern Paris, Seurat, Clark maintains, managed in his ``Sunday in the Park'' painting to show classes jumbled not in a shadow play of indeterminate poses, but in a comic clarity of mutual and indifferent acceptance. The freedom to be in the park with others, a democratic rough-house claim for pleasure in equal measure and on different terms made by all classes -- this too was a possible response to modernity, and it is to Clark's rhetorical and intellectual credit that he ends his study of Manet's modernism of loss with such a counterexample.

Looking so hard into the confusion of modernism's ``free field of signs,'' Clark still has an eye for the new orders that can form there, orders Manet could not recognize, but which Clark makes us recognize in his analysis of the comic Seurat scene.

Art lovers will find much to quarrel with in Clark's thinking, especially in his politicizing of a style which until now has seemed innocently ``pretty.'' But they will be smarter for the argument, more observant of Manet's art -- and perhaps of some secret reasons for its popularity.

Theoharis C. Theoharis teaches on the literature faculty of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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