Reflections on “Modernism”
The Monumental Subject
The Portrayal of Beauty
reading of Manet's subject is that he turns away from the monumental and
towards the ordinary or banal. T.J. Clark and E.H.Gombrich differ in how
they identify the subject of Manet's Olympia.
Here is my sketchy effort to read these differences:
I began with this question, "In what sense or senses might it be said
that in Olympia, Manet paints what he sees?" T.J. Clark repeatedly
seems to insist that beginning with Manet, "painting put equivalence at
a distance" (21); and yet he also suggests that there is some relation
between what Manet does and "the actual form of our knowledge of thing"
(13). Perhaps the following quote from E.H Gombrich's landmark study, Art
and Illusion (1969) will help you to clarify how it is that
for Clark Manet represents a new way of seeing.
... [concerning] our respect
for the successful innovator. More is need than a rejection of tradition,
more also than an "innocent eye." Art itself becomes the innovator's instrument
for probing reality. He cannot simply battle down that mental set which
makes him see the motif in terms of known pictures; he must actively try
that interpretation, but try it critically, varying it here and there to
see whether a better match could not be achieved. He must step back from
the canvas and be his own merciless critic, intolerant of all easy effects
and short-cut methods. And his reward might easily be the public's finding
his equivalent hard to read and hard to accept because it has not yet been
trained to interpret these new combinations in terms of the visible world.
I warn you that Clark and Gombrich are not entirely on the same wave-length
when it comes to understanding the relation between the subject of the
painting and its equivalence to a subject that may be thought of as somewhere
out there in the world. The difference between these critics and their
understanding of Manet's innovation might be most clearly registered by
Clark with these words:
...in order that the painted
surface appear as it does in Olympia, the self-evidence of seeing,
seeing Woman--had to be dismantled, and a circuit of signs put in its place.
To me this means that for Clark the figure on the couch in Olympia
is uniquely herself, uniquely a matter of form and colors in relation to
one another on the surface of the canvas. Questions about the identity
of the subject are intimately related to the manner used to depict the
subject. And that is why she appears to have a personality of her own.
For me, the figure comes to be seen only as the painting begins to resolve
itself on the canvas, figure and paint share one identity that does not
seek an equivalence with some other reality; so there is no question here
of a "match" to something in the world as Gombrich suggests. Instead, there
is a sense in which painting has been used by Manet as "an instrument"
for probing reality, as an instrument of discovery...
... so ...
Manet's subject cannot be distinguished from
the act of observation, or to use Clark's words "the circuit of signs"
with which he records his obeservations. The observation of everyday life
has for Manet an integrity that stands in sharp contrast both to earlier
conceptions that linked the act of painting with either the portrayal of
a monumental subject
or with the depiction of beauty.