Geraniums and the River

Nicholas Penny

  • The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers by T.J. Clark
    Thames and Hudson, 338 pp, £18.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 500 23417 5
  • Cellini by John Pope-Hennessy
    Macmillan, 324 pp, £85.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 333 40485 8
  • Alessandro Algardi by Jennifer Montagu
    Yale in association with the J. Paul Getty Trust, 487 pp, £65.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 300 03173 4

‘Impressionism became very quickly the house style of the haute-bourgeoisie,’ T.J. Clark observes at the close of The Painting of Modern Life. Few seem to have resisted the invitations of Madame Verdurin or to have hesitated to adopt the pseudo-Rococo frame with whitened gilding. Renoir, in particular, who had begun his career decorating porcelain, ended it providing upper-class wall-ornaments. Clark perhaps has him chiefly in mind when he sternly (but cryptically) declares that there are ‘ways’ in which the ‘dissolution’ of Impressionism ‘into the decor of Palm Springs and Park Avenue is well deserved’. The paintings upon which he prefers to concentrate his attention and which seem to win his approval are by Monet, Degas, Seurat and Manet – especially those works by Manet which puzzled or offended.

Clark made his reputation a dozen years ago with a pair of books, The Image of the People and The Absolute Bourgeois, which investigated French paintings of a dozen or more years before those examined in his new book. In place of the way in which Delacroix, Daumier, Millet and Courbet represented the barricades, the proletariat or the peasantry we now watch how Manet and ‘his followers’ reacted to the more or less peaceful – if drastic – transformation of Paris and its environs. A few ‘discourses’ and ‘signifiers’ survive as relics of the affair with literary theory which intellectuals these dozen years have been obliged to undergo, but The Painting of Modern Life is for the most part written in the same manner as its predecessors. All three books present new material won by hard labour from French archives and libraries – secret police reports, forgotten vaudeville jokes, the clichés of low journalism – and subject it, together with some of the more and less familiar fine writing of the time, to a brisk but fierce examination. Similarly, newspaper cartoons and forgotten Salon pictures are juxtaposed with the works of Courbet or Manet.

At the end of The Painting of Modern Life we are left in no doubt as to how modern were boat trips on the Seine, or the popular singers in the cafés on the new boulevards – and how worrying they could be as well. Clark also makes the point that prostitution was regarded as a specially modern problem and that the new city presented itself – and was perceived as – a dazzling but disorientating spectacle. Readers of Balzac will feel that Clark overestimates the novelty here: but so did contemporary commentators.

Describing the book in this way makes it seem that Clark is a social historian more interested in the subject-matter of the Impressionists than in the manner in which they painted. That is what simple-minded right-wing American academics and critics wish to believe. The New Criterion greeted this book with a pious funeral address by Hilton Kramer on the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University where Clark works. The Fogg, according to Kramer, once enjoyed a ‘high reputation among the cognoscenti of the art world as a citadel of humanistic scholarship and aesthetic connoisseurship’ which apparently encouraged the ‘close, comparative study of individual art objects’, whereas ‘Professor Clark’, the foreign Marxist rashly admitted to the citadel, reads works of art as ‘sociological reports’, and is obsessed by the ‘mythic phenomenon’ of class-conflict.

Consider, however, the way in which, according to Clark, Monet’s paintings of the early 1870s comment on the leisure industry on the river at Argenteuil – it is not explicit, and it is a matter of style:

Monet is often at his strongest when he spells out the encroachment of pleasure on the countryside, but insists, in the way he handles it, that the scene has lost none of its unity and charm. Pleasure of this kind is natural, these pictures seem to imply: it gives access to nature, whatever the ironists say. No doubt there was something abrupt and superficial about the boaters’ encounter with the Bezons shore, but speed and superficiality were not qualities necessarily to be despised in one’s dealings with nature. Did not Monet’s own painting, in the 1870s, experiment with ways to make such qualities part of its repertoire?

I am unaware of any writing on art that came out of the citadel of connoisseurs which equals in intensity and in imaginative sympathy Clark’s account of Manet’s Exposition Universelle de 1867:

The sketch may be improbably big and overfull of matter, but it pretends all the same to be not quite a picture, not quite finished. The paint is put on in discriminate, sparse patches which show off their abbreviation – puffs of smoke eat into the dome of Les Invalides, streamers and flags blend with the foliage, the shape of a dog is left shadowed and blurred, water hisses from the gardener’s hosepipe in neat, dry strokes of colour (as if the hose were the handle of a giant paintbrush), and the hooves of the Amazon’s horse are moving just too fast for us to see them. There is even a passage at the left-hand side, between the geraniums and the river, where abbreviation frankly becomes absence of sense, and a sequence of scratchy blue-grey strokes on primed canvas fails to become an image, however hard the viewer tries to make it one.

Clark makes us feel that we are examining the picture for the first time and have never seen anything like it before.

The purpose of this dangerous Marxist professor is less to persuade us that a certain interpretation of Monet or Manet is correct than to question contemporary assumptions about these paintings and to suggest alternative ways of thinking about them, partly by looking hard at them, partly through a reconstruction of the original perplexed response to them. His prose is at times as dense, elliptic and metaphorical as the passages of Mallarmé or Laforgue which he quotes. His argument can be inconclusive as well as complex: he is partial to rhetorical questions and liable to confess that he hasn’t any ‘very clear answers’ to the questions he has raised. No wonder he is attracted by paintings which are disjointed and uneasy.

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