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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.

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.


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