Common Knowledge 10.1 (2004) 162-163
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Carol Armstrong, Manet Manette (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 389 pp.
How better to counter the commodification of the female body than to transform the painter into a woman, Manet into Manette? Yet everything about the naked (not nude) woman in Le déjeuner sur l'herbe works against the tradition of those pink-bodied, tender-fleshed, powder-scented Salon nudies that men on patrol through the official galleries anticipated encountering like game in a royal hunting preserve. Little wonder that, by Manet's time, the annual Salon of juried art at the Palais de l'Industrie was known as the Salon of Venus. Still, unlike Courbet in the same decade, whose sensual pictures of real women indulging in self-pleasure, or taking pleasure in each other, reduced the male viewer to a disconnected voyeur, Manet obliged Venus to own up to her own advertisements: the Venus of the Salon was a whore, embodying the whorishness of women who offer themselves to the male eye as objects of temptation and reciprocal consumption. How easy it is to formulate the mystical complexity of human sexuality as a simple economics of supply and demand, offering and consuming.
One might also quibble with Armstrong's tendency to deploy fashionable rather than accurate terminology, such as "gazing" when the act is one of "looking," as if the naked woman in Le déjeuner is in fact "gazing" out from the canvas while the spectator "gazes" at her. French words do not always work in motivated translation: regarder means "to look at," and le regard is "the look." One may gaze over the landscape, but when spotting something specific, one looks at it. When gazing over pictures on the Salon wall and spying a naked woman, one looks at her. To gaze into someone's eyes is to look not at but beyond them. In Le déjeuner, the woman looks back indifferently, freezing the predator in his tracks. That was Manet's response to the enticements of Paris's Salon Venus. Her beauty-defining beauty had seduced the eyes of Homer's Paris with visions of the most beautiful woman on earth as his for the taking. That primordial choice of Paris would remain the choice of Paris (the metonymy not just a play on words).
Armstrong, further, overreaches when implying that Victorine Meurent, the model for the woman in Le déjeuner (or is she the woman portrayed?), was low enough in the demimonde social strata to be a prostitute (at issue here is not whether she was or was not, but why so many art historians want her to be). And Armstrong gets it wrong when making out that the young woman who tends a side bar in Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère is herself a materialistic consumer, considering her extravagantly lovely and seductive attire. Armstrong implies that the girl would have bought the outfit in order to display herself as a commodity no less tempting than those bottles of spirits on the countertop that echo her corseted maiden form. But the costume is not hers: it is a uniform, furnished by [End Page 162] the Folies-Bergère, that sales-counter maids were required to wear no less strictly than uniforms were required for waiters.
Still, the completeness and integrity of Armstrong's book makes it an exemplar of investigative and interpretive scholarship that resists being picked at for infidelities of certitude. Few writers are capable of infusing history with theory, and narratives with the mechanics of their substance, while staying focused on the subject at hand. Comparable to Manet Manette are three books focused largely on Manet's art of the 1860s: T. J. Clark's The Painting of Modern Life, Michael Fried's Manet's Modernism, and the more recent Manet and the Family Romance by Nancy Locke. Analytical texts like these, which measure up to the complexity of their subject matter, are as rare as hen's teeth. And better a risk-taking intellectual adventure like Manet Manette, with its confident, keen...