Sunday, January 22, 2017

Who is That Woman? Manet & Meurent



Detail of "Olympia" by Edouard Manet, 1863, in Musée d'Orsay

Victorine Meurent is Manet’s most frequent model of his early career.  She shocked audiences as the indifferent courtesan in Olympia (above), exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1864.  A year earlier, Victorine had scandalized Parisians, playing the part of a shameless woman who disrobed during a midday picnic. That was her role in Manet's revolutionary painting, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass-- see on bottom) exhibited at the Salon des Refusées for the officially rejected paintings of that year.  She is just the matter-of-fact figure that Manet wanted, and there is nothing beautiful, sexual or erotic in either image. In both paintings, she is not an individual but the object, the sexual object.

Manet also painted Victorine as Young Lady (also called Woman with a Parrot), in 1866. She looks taller in her long pink gown. There's a magnificent unpeeled lemon on the ground. The symbols in the painting may allude to the five senses and suggest that she is a mistress.  But she is a sympathetic one, one who even seems satisfied with her status as a mistress.  However, it’s hard to see each of these paintings as representative of the same woman. One supposes that Victorine refused to model naked again, after all the attention of Olympia and Le déjeuner...  had received.
Manet, Young Lady, 1866, Metropolitan

What was Manet’s relationship to Victorine?  They could have met in the studio of Thomas Couture, Manet’s painting teacher.   Born in 1844, Meurent started modelling there at age 16 and even may have taken lessons with Couture.  According to her wikipedia biography, Victorine also played guitar and violin, and sang occasionally.  She came from a family of minor artisans, and was probably not as poor as many painters’ models at that time.  
Manet, The Street Singer, 1862, Boston Museum of Fine Arts
Manet’s first painting of her was The Street Singer.  She looks shy, hurried and slightly guarded.   Her brown dress is rumpled as she carried a guitar coming out of a building.  She quickly grabs a bite to eat from the cherries in her napkin.   Of all the paintings he did of her, this is perhaps the most revealing of Victorine, of who she was and what her life was to become.  Artistic and musical, she worked hard.

Shortly after The Street Singer, he painted her portrait, Portrait of Victorine Meurent.  She is pretty, resembling the photograph of her that Manet kept in his studio. She looks older than her 18 years in this painting, and she has an air of sophistication.   Again she doesn’t resemble women modeled in Manet’s two early masterpieces of 1863, Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.  

Manet, Portrait of Victorine Meurent, 1862, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Manet must have loved her for her versatility, the fact she could appear quite differently from painting to painting.   Her nickname was La Crevette, meaning “shrimp.”  She was quite short and had red or auburn hair.  Her eyes appear brown or hazel, while her hair can appear brown, red or of indeterminate color. In the portrait, he brought out all those qualities he saw in her as “beautiful.”   Here, she also seems to be the real woman, the woman we see in the photograph collected by Manet.  With Victorine as the subject, Manet did not objectify her at all!

Manet, Mlle Victorine in the Costume of an Espada, 1862
However, most of the time, Manet pursued Victorine’s image for special effects.  She is a prop, much like the fabrics, costumes and materials he kept in his studio.  Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of the Espada is one of many paintings Manet did in a Spanish theme.  Victorine is recognizable as the same woman as in Le déjeuner. (He painted this image a year earlier than Le dejeuner...) She is dressed like a bullfighter, and for the background Manet borrows from bullfighting prints by Goya.  Manet was experimenting with raised perspective and compositional space, years before Van Gogh and Munch did the same.  The pink cape she holds is study in painting fabric and color.  

Was Manet being ironic by turning her into a bullfighter?  Perhaps, but he also knew Victorine as a patient and willing model.   He’s experimenting dramatically with both color and space here, and perhaps he didn’t have a male model up to task.  Perhaps her small body best served his purpose.

It’s the arms and the hands and the eyes which say the most about Victorine in all the paintings.  On the other hand, when Manet painted Berthe Morisot, he also used the tilt of the head to convey the depth of his sentiment for her.

My thoughts about Manet and Meurent’s relationship is that it was a strong, professional relationship.   Was she his mistress?  No.  Like a good film director, Manet treated Victorine as the woman who could be cast in many roles.  Victorine was to Manet as Diane Keaton was to Woody Allen’s early film career. Victorine was to Manet as Penelope Cruz was to Pedro Almodóvar.   Later on, these film directors found other muses.
Manet, The Railway (also called Gare Saint-Lazare), 1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington

After a pronounced lull in painting Victorine after 1866, Manet painted her again in The Railway of 1872.  At this time Victorine was 29, but she looked remarkably younger than she appeared in Olympia and Le Dejeuner.   She is a woman who is nostalgic, a woman who looks to the past, while the girl beside her is all excited about the future. She is blasé about the train and wishes the future would not intrude so much into the present.  Again, Victorine showed herself to be an actress who could play different roles -- in her own standoffish way.

Victorine took up painting in the 1870s and she was accepted into the Salon at least 6 times.  The only surviving painting is a portrait called Palm Sunday.  It is quite good as a painting, but her style was far more traditional than Manet’s. She models the sitter with traditional, nuanced light and shade to make the face three-dimensional.  The sitter turns to the side, which doesn’t really convey the personality. She even projects the plant closer to the picture plane and edge of the painting, giving it significant attention, too  While Meurent frequently posed as prostitute, her only painting known today is of a young participant in a religious procession. Victorine was in her 40s by that time, but her choice of subject is ironic if we know of the types of paintings for which she posed.
Victorine Meurent, Palm Sunday, 1885, Musée de l'art et l'histoire, Colombes

After Manet died in 1884, Victorine went to Suzanne Leenhoff, Manet’s widow, and told her she had been promised more income from Manet as some of the paintings for which she modeled sold. Suzanne coldly refused her request.  

Who was Victorine?  She was essentially an honest woman, who made an honest living as a model.  She worked hard in art and in music. She had minor successes from time to time, but fought back well when she hit hard times. Victorine sought artistic expression, but not fame or notoriety.  Manet definitely wanted public affirmation, not the angry outcry that he was receiving while she was his muse.  She modeled for other artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, who teased her by calling her out as Olympia.
Manet, Olympia, 1863, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Victorine may have been very interested in projecting Manet’s artistic objectives, but later pursued her own artistic objectives along different lines.   (In Le déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia, Manet sought to modernize the themes of Giorgione and Titian of the Renaissance. He remakes them to be of his time, in the style we call Realism.) The audiences who saw these masterpieces probably didn't know the model's identity. They thought nudity portraying mythological themes of the Renaissance or in the guise of goddesses and muses was absolutely fine.  Even portraying the prostitute could have been ok, if it had been done tastefully as in Goya's Nude Maya.   However, Victorine played the part too well, conveying the distasteful side of the world's oldest profession--that she is treated as object, not person.  She, herself, probably did not engage in sex for money, but she acted the part so well.
Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1862-1863, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Victorine is the symbol of a time and place. Although interwoven with the men, her frank stare seems to say to the audience, "I don't give a damn what you think." Is Manet judging like the 19th century audience did?  More likely he recognizes the good and the bad. The advantage is that prostitution is a way to rise above one's class and make a living. (Like the Valtesse de la Bigne, some women rose from abject poverty to the top of the social world this way.)  The bad is the de-personalization that comes with it.  My opinion is that Manet often found her to be the best model to make a statement of the ambiguities of modern life that he wished to express.

Throughout his career, Manet sought ways to reconcile the ambiguities of his time. Tomorrow will be Manet's 185th birthday, and we're still discussing the treatment of women. So today we witness the women's march on Washington against the backdrop of Donald Trump's Inauguration. 

(There's a 19th century French expression: "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"  The more things change, the more they stay the same thing.)  Please don't get angry at me for saying it again.

Certainly other models, the actresses and actors of Manet's oeuvre, also have the detached gaze. Such impersonal expressions went along with the modern, urban life.   (Suzon, the barmaid in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, says it just as well, or even better.  But she came later.)  Meurent channeled the expression better than almost anyone over time. As Manet’s first important muse, her soul lives on for posterity.

There are novels about Victorine Meurent, none of which I've read: Paris Red, by Maureen Gibbon, Mademoiselle Victorine: A Novel, by Debra Finerman and A Woman with No Clothes, by V.R. Main.  She has stirred the imagination of writers more than Manet and his relationship to Berthe Morisot, with whom he was in love.  Manet even portrayed Berthe Morisot more often, and in more guisesI think it's because Victorine took part in two of his three most famous paintings.   

Here are three more blogs about Victorine Meurent and Manet.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Goldfinch: Truth in Art and Life

Carel Fabritius, The Goldfinch, 1654
"We have art in order to not die for the truth."  Donna Tartt quotes Nietzche in the opening of one of her chapters in The Goldfinch, an epic journey of life novel.  It's taken me all year, but finally, I've finished reading The Goldfinch (need a long plane trip to do that).  The entire drama is centered around a missing painting, or, shall we say, a stolen painting in the hands of the narrator. It's interesting that Donna Tartt chose a painting to be the symbol of her protagonist. I always enjoy reading books that center around a painting.  Usually these books imagine the fictions that influenced the creation of the paintings, books by Sarah Dunant (In the Company of the Courtesan) and Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring).

But this novel is not about how or why the painting was made.  It is about the journey of the painting and it's presumed caretaker, what it does for him through his growing years and into several years of adulthood.  It is a symbol of his life, his hopes and the man he became.

The Goldfinch -- the painting -- somehow made me think of my mother when I gave her a reproduction of the painting as a birthday gift about 12 years ago. (She loved it.) While I've used BIRDS and images of birds in Art Appreciation classes, I've never used this tiny painting by Carel Fabritius.  (Surprisingly, the book indicates it was actually the signpost for a tavern.)  The birds I show in class -- by Brancusi, Wyeth, Homer, Ma Fen, Klee -- are in flight or in action--eating, chirping.  Fabritius' Goldfinch is a bird chained on a pedestal. He's stationary--as if saying "I am."

At one point, the author gives a hint of original purpose for the painting, that it was a signpost for a tavern.  (I haven't verified this history.  That's the type of things art historians write about, but Tartt writes about the painting in a much more interesting way.)

Because I'm not a literary scholar, I can't go into the virtues of Tartt's writing. But I can say that she understands why we need art in our lives.  The quotes she uses in the book are full of wisdom about the intersection of art and humankind, art and life, truth and life.  She understands art as well as any art historian.  Here are some quotes from the book:

"If our secrets define us as opposed to the face we show the world: then painting was the secret that raised me above the surface of life and enabled me to know who I am."

The book is written from the voice of the protagonist, Theo Decker, starting when he's a 13-year old.  His life is a traumatic one, and he soon becomes an orphan.

"If every great painting is really a self-portrait what if anything is Fabritius saying about himself?"  (Here's the other blog I wrote about birds by multiple artists.)

She describes qualities the goldfinch has that are like human qualities: "It's hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another." Later on Tartt writes: "... even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone.  Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding it's place. Refusing to pull back from the world."

Before coming to this conclusion, the protagonist makes these astute observations about life:

"Can't good sometimes come from strange back doors?"

"Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous."

As Theo goes through so many trials and tribulations, we think that it'll end in tragedy and that he'll be doomed.  Of Theo's relationship to Pippa, the narrator says: "Since our flaws and weaknesses were so much the same, and one of us could bring the other one down way too quick."  It seems this truth is often the case in many relationships. Kitsey, to whom Theo is engaged, seems quite the opposite of Theo in so many ways, shallow and disengaged.  Do such opposites anchor each other and keep them from going to deeply in the wrong direction?   (The answer, well, is that his transformation comes without her in the picture)

Tartt also makes us think about beauty and truth.

"Beauty alters the grain of reality."

"It's not about outward appearances but inward significance."  The narrator explains at the end that the "only truths that matter are the ones I don't, and I can't, understand." So what does the painting mean for him?  "Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separate every living creature from every other living creature,"  This description can be applied to the goldfinch, and how Theo sees his life.

"There's no truth beyond illusion.  Because between reality on the one hand, the where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not; and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic."

On p. 569, Horst describes the Fabritius painting: "It's a joke....and that's what all the very greatest masters do. Rembrandt, Velazquez. Late Titian.....They build up the illusion, the trick--but step closer? it falls apart into brushstrokes. Abstract, unearthly.  A different and much deeper sort of beauty altogether.  The thing and yet not the thing."  "There's a doubleness.  You see the mark, you see the paint for the paint, and also the living bird."  "He takes the image apart very deliberately to show us how he painted it. Daubs and patches, very shaped and handworked, the neckline especially, a solid piece of paint, very abstract."   What lovely descriptions of the intersection of realism and abstraction.

Why is The Goldfinch so touching to so many people, both the book and the painting?  Theo and Tartt express deep appreciation for the restoration specialists, like Hobie, Theo's caretaker and business partner.  Hobie lovingly bring works back to their original state. In the book, there's an intersection between truth and illusion, but there's also the understanding that great art is at once realistic and abstract.

The Goldfinch is a trompe l'oiel painting, but it is so much more.

"Its the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet also feather and bone.  It's the place where reality becomes serious and anything serious is a joke.  The magic point where every idea and it's opposite are equally true."   As I often say, art is about the reconciliation of opposites, and Theo and Tartt achieve this in The Goldfinch.    I'm also wanting and waiting for a sequel.

Another blogger, Gerry in Great Britain, did a tremendous job of explaining Fabritius and his painting.  Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt stands in between his teacher and the master of Delft, Vermeer.    Vermeer's simplicity could not be imagined without The Goldfinch, and one wonders if he was in fact Vermeer's teacher.  Fabritius lived in Delft at the time of his death in in 1654.  He died in a gunpowder explosion when he was only 32.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Élisabeth Louise Vigee-Le Brun: Confident Prodigy Became an International Sensation

Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbons, c. 1782, Kimbell Art Museum
Vigée-Le Brun: Woman Artist of Revolutionary France is major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum until May 15.  Élisabeth Louise Vigée-Le Brun's Self-Portrait from the Kimbell Art Museum explains her quite well. She shines with the confidence and elegance of a woman who would eventually become an international superstar. It shows off her top-notch artistic skills. Touches of brilliant red for the ribbon, sash, lips and cheeks to add sensual pizzaz. Portraits are not my favorite genre of painting, but Vigée-Le Brun's portraits are always dazzling. The light radiating through her earring is just the right touch. One reason we never hear her mentioned among France's top ten or twenty painters is that she was a painter of royalty who supported the wrong side of the French Revolution.  It is only last year that France gave her a major retrospective, although her international reputation was strong back in her day.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Rebecca Kamen Continues Her Scientific Explorations Through Art

Rebecca Kamen, NeuroCantos, an installation at Greater Reston Arts Center 

Six years ago, The Elemental Garden, an exhibition at Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE) prompted me to start blogging about art. Like TED talks, the news of something so visually fascinating and mentally stimulating as Rebecca Kamen's integration of art with sciences needs to spread.  GRACE presented her work in 2009 and did a followup exhibition, Continuum, which closed February 13, 2016.

Rebecca Kamen, Lobe, Digital print of silkscreen, 15" x 22"
Like the Elemental Garden, Kamen's new works visually evoke and replicate scientific principles.  For the non-scientist and the scientist, the works and their presentation are fascinating.  Kamen worked with a British poet and a composer/musician from Portland, Oregon, each with similar intellectual interests.

Two prints included in the show create a dialogue between her design and the words of poet Steven Fowler. I like how the idea of gray matter is overlapped by darker conduits, in Lobe, above.  There's a wonderful sense of density and depth.

While her last exhibition at GRACE was mainly about the Periodic table in chemistry, this time Rebecca Kamen's exhibition included additional themes such as neural connectivity, gravitational pull, black holes and other mysteries of the universe.  Why use art to talk about science?  In a statement for Continuum, Kamen starts with a quote by Einstein: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science."

Both art and science are creative endeavors that start with questions. One time Kamen told me that she knows there is some connection between the design of the human brain and the design of the solar system, that has not yet been explained. NeuroCantos, the installation shown in the photo on top, explores this relationship. Floating, hanging cone-like structures made of mylar represent the neuronal networks in the brain, while circular shapes below symbolize the similarity of pattern between the brain and outer space, the micro and macro scales. It investigates "how the brain creates a conduit between inner and outer space through its ability to perceive similar patterns of complexity," Kamen explained in an interview for SciArt in America, December 2015. The installation brings together neuroscience and astrophysics, but it's initial spark came from a dialogue with poet Fowler. (They met as fellows at the Salzburg Global Seminar last February and participated in a 5-day seminar exploring The Art of Neuroscience.)

Rebecca Kamen, Portals, 2014, Mylar and fossils
Nearby another installation, Portals, also features suspended cones hanging over orbital patterns on the floor.  The installation interprets the tracery patterns of the orbits of black holes, and it celebrates the 100th anniversary of Einstein's discovery of general relativity. It's inspired by gravitational wave physics. To me, it's just beautiful. I can't pretend to really understand the rest. The entire exhibit is collaborative in nature, with Susan Alexjander, composer, recreating sounds originating from outer space.  The combination of sound, slow movement and suspension is mesmerizing.

Terry Lowenthal made a video projection of "Moving Poems" excerpts from Steven Fowler's poems and a quote from Santiago Ramon y Cajal, artist and neuroscientist.

There are also earlier works by Kamen, mainly steel and wire sculptures.  With names like Synapse, Wave Ride: For Albert and Doppler Effect, they obviously mimic scientific effects as she interprets them.  Doppler Effect, 2005, appears to replicate sound waves drawing contrast in how they are experienced from near or far away.
Rebecca Kamen, Doppler Effect, 2005, steel and copper wire


Kamen is Professor Emeritus at Northern Virginia Community College.  She has been an artist-in-residence at the National Institutes of Health. She did research Harvard's Center for Astrophysics and at the Cajal Institute in Madrid. Her art has been featured throughout the country; while her thoughts and concepts  have been shared around the world.

For more information, check out www.rebeccakamen.com, www.oursounduniverse.com (Susan Alexjander) and www.stevenjfowler.com


The Elemental Garden 


Elemental Garden, 2011, mylar, fiberglass rods

To the left is a version of The Elemental Garden in Continuum.  An identical version is in the educational program of the Taubman Museum of Art, Roanoke, VA.

(The following is how I described it while writing the original blog back in 2010) Sculptor Rebecca Kamen has taken the elemental table to create a wondrous work of art. The beautiful floating universe of Divining Nature: The Elemental Garden--recently shown at Greater Reston Area Arts Center (GRACE)--is based on the formulas of 83 elements in chemistry. Its amazing that an artist can transform factual information into visual poetry with a lightweight, swirling rhythm of white flowers.

According to Kamen, she had the inspiration upon returning home from Chile. After 2 years of research, study and contemplation, she built 3-dimensional flowers based upon the orbital patterns of each atom of all 83 elements in nature, using Mylar to form the petals and thin fiberglass rods to hold each flower together. The 83 flowers vary in size, with the simplest elements being smallest and the most complex appearing larger. The infinite variety of shapes is like the varieties possible in snowflakes; the uniform white mylar material connects them, but individually they are quite different.


Rebecca Kamen, The Elemental Garden, 2009, as installed in GRACE in 2009 (from artist's website)
One could walk in the garden and feel a mystical sensation in the arrangement of flowers, as intriguing as the "floral arrangement" of each single element. After awhile I discovered that the atomic flowers were installed in a pattern based upon the spiral pattern of Fibonacci's sequence. Medieval writer Leonardo Fibonacci and ancient Indian mathematicians had discovered the divine proportion present in nature. This mystical phenomenon explains the spirals we see in nature: the bottom of a pine cone, the spirals of shells and the interior of sunflowers among other things. Greeks also created this pattern in the "golden section" which defines the measured harmony of their architecture. Kamen wanted to replicate this beauty found in nature


Kamen likened her flowers to the pagodas she had seen in Burma. However, there is an even more interesting, interdisciplinary connection. Research on the Internet brought Kamen to a musician, Susan Alexjander of Portland, OR, who composes music derived from Larmor Frequencies (radio waves)emitted from the nuclei of atoms and translated into tone. Alexjander collaborated, also, and her sound sequences were included with the installation. Putting music and art together with science mirrors the universe and it is pure pleasure to experience this mystery of creation.