Art and angst in Paris: the view from Harvard
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.''
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).