Edouard Manet, "The Spanish Singer," 1860. Oil on canvas, 58" x 45."
I've been thinking quite a bit about Clement Greenberg lately; the James Bond villain of the art world. He was wrong about quite a lot of things, including some of the fundamental aspects of his program. But he had the rare gift of clarity, made all the more precious by its conspicuous absence in current art writing. Greenberg wrote an obit for T.S. Eliot, and, referring to the poet's critical writing, pointed out that Eliot had the ability to shed more light on a given subject when he was wrong than most people could when they were right. The same could be said about Greenberg.* He bristled against the mystical tendencies of art-writers in the post-wars years, particularly Harold Rosenberg, and he never lapsed into the type of mystification that replaced the poetic: that of the bifurcated epistomological syllogism.
In Modernist Painting, one of the three essays that make up a kind of manifesto,** Greenberg holds up Manet as the first Modernist painter. He points out that Manet places his emphasis on compositional completeness, specifically engagement with the edges, at the expense of spatial correctness. The "incorrect" perspective that Greenberg describes can be seen with clarity in "Mademoiselle V... in the Costume of an Espada" (1862), in which the central figure and the two groupings in the upper right are obviously taken from different sources. The result of the cut-and-paste arrangement along with Manet's loose brushwork is a kind of extreme spatial flattening. For Greenberg, this flatness started out as a sharp observation and became an obsession.
Putting aside the unreasonable demands for flatness that Greenberg placed on the painters of his own era, the fact that he recognized a historical tendency that emphasized pictorial space as opposed to modes of representation was something brilliant and new. But the companion of his flatness was an absolute denial that subject played a significant role in the pictures he placed inside his teleology. Like all polemical writers and essays, the strong tendency to throw out the baby with the bath water makes the prose compelling, but the problems quickly mount. And the problems of this type of analysis are front-and-center in the case of the enigmatic Manet, who said and wrote little about his work, but was known to be canny and wry.
In the "Spanish Singer" of 1860, the first of Manet's pictures to be accepted in the Salon, the flattened, atmospheric space and frank brushwork which prompted Greenberg to name Manet Modernist #1 are on full display. The strong horizontal of the bench forms a grid matrix with the verticals of the figure's torso, the figure's legs below the knee, and the legs of the seat. the two diagonal supports under the bench line up nearly perfectly with the bottom corners of the canvas, and are then echoed in the upper right leg of the figure, the neck of the guitar, the tied portion of the scarf hanging from the back of the guitarist's head, and the shadow cast by the figure's left leg. The dark jacket melts into the dark ground, bringing the latter right up to the picture plane and pressing the upper portion of the figure down into it.
The picture is formally brilliant. But was Manet really indifferent to subject? The first picture that Manet tried to get into the salon was "The Absinthe Drinker" (1859). It was rejected, and critics consistently pointed out that the style was reminiscent of Velazquez, but the subject wasn't remotely Spanish. According to Proust, Manet commented that "I painted a Parisian character whom I had studied in Paris, and I executed it with the simplicity I discovered in Velazquez. No one understands it. If I painted a Spanish type, it would be more comprehensible." Chafing at the critical community's literal-mindedness, he put a model in superficially Spanish attire, handed him a guitar gave them what they wanted.
Greenberg would most likely use this as evidence that Manet was interested in the formal above all else - the fact that one subject was as good as another, and that Manet could achieve him pictorial ends with almost anything as the armature. That the guitar is held backwards could be presented as further proof that the painter's concerns were pictorial - it's possible that Manet could be depicting a rare, left-handed player, but it is more likely that he wanted a diagonal in the center-left of the picture. Greenberg would probably go on to point out that a natural path toward abstraction was paved in just this way; painters who were primarily interested in the visual grew tired of addressing silly concerns about subject. He wouldn't be entirely wrong about all this.
But like in the mysterious "Luncheon in the Grass" (1863), "Olympia" (1863), and "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" (1882), it becomes clear in The Spanish Singer that Manet is playing with subject in a subtle, somewhat comic way. The first clue is the Singer's costuming, which was cobbled together without any effort to represent a specific Spanish region or era. Spanish and "Arabian" themes were wildly popular in 19th century French art, and Manet put together a costume which would look sufficiently Spanish to the average Parisian. The onions add to the comic effect.
But the most interesting aspect of the representation has to do with the facial expression of the sitter. It's a very similar face to the one you can see on models in figure drawing class during especially long poses; the face of someone who has to sit or stand perfectly still for a long period of time and withdraws into one's own head. It's a daydreamer's face, and Manet makes no attempt to hide it in his depiction, even though the smoldering cigarette on the ground would indicate that the singer has just tossed down his smoke and burst into song. The painter could have made the face look more animated either through artifice or by painting the face while the model was still fresh in his pose, but chose to emphasize the artificiality of the situation. A subtle poke at those that demanded predictably Spanish subjects, perhaps.
Back to Greenberg, who, in Modernist Painting, said: "The essence of modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself - not in order to subvert it, but to entrench it more firmly in it's area of competence." Greenberg of course saw the immanent critique of painting initiated by Manet as a purely formal endeavor; the first part of the critique was the elimination of representation, the second was the drastic reduction of fictive space. The characteristic methods to which he refers are the ways of painting, not the what.
By emphasizing the artificial nature of the studio set-up in his picture, Manet was surely critiquing the expectations of his audience specifically and of representation in painting generally. But was he consciously or unconsciously trying to move painting to a place where representation was no longer necessary? It hardly seems likely - the confoundingly mixed signals that he sends in the "Spanish Singer" and all of the afore-mentioned pictures seem to be perpetrated with the joy of a practical joker. The blank, psychically withdrawn face of the Spanish singer doesn't seem like an act of exasperation on Manet's part, but a celebration of his subversive wit.
And this subversion is where Greenberg's interpretation of Manet's role in the Modernist project falters - in the above quote he insists that the inside-out critique of modernism was not initiated in order to subvert but to solidify. But characterizing Manet as a painter who wasn't subversive represents a conscious effort to ignore the documentary evidence of his paintings. Greenberg's argument works well a little further down the road when applied to Monet and later to Cezanne, but much has to be ignored for it to accurately describe Manet's project.
I still think Greenberg is the best critic of the 20th century, and one of the best aesthetes. In my view he was, in part, wrong about his interpretation of Manet's work, but even while wrong, he sheds far more light on the paintings than most do when they're right.
*The comparison drawn between Greenberg's assessment of Eliot's criticism and Greenberg's own criticism is not an original observation on my part. I feel quite sure I read it in a foreward to a CG collection, but after looking through several, I can't seem to find it. If anyone can point me to the correct citation it would be greatly appreciated.
**the other two essays are "Avant Garde and Kitsch," and "Towards a Newer Laocoon."