Verbal BattlesIn writing some time ago about the friendly camaraderie of the Cafe Guerbois I may have created the impression that the tiny Paris Bistro was something of a dingy, clubhouse for the Edouard Manet fan club. Though Manet was probably the main drawing card around which the clientele of the arty little establishment encircled, the place was by no means all sweetness and light insofar as the resulting verbal discourse was concerned. Manet was a highly opinionated, stiff-necked, impetuous, sharp-tongued, demagogue who seldom permitted contradiction or even discussion of his views. He was of rather diminutive stature, pink-skinned, possessing a quick, intelligent eye, a mobile mouth, and a gentle, expressive face. He sat with his elbows on the table, tossing off jeers and cutting remarks regarding his critics in a Montmartre accent totally out of character with his impeccable dress and white gloves. He loved being the centre of attention.
Amongst the regulars at the cafe were writers as well as artists. And while most of the artists might not have the intestinal fortitude to do verbal battle with so formidable a linguistic force as Edouard Manet, the same was NOT the case when it came to the literary intelligentsia of the Paris art scene. Among the writers and critics who frequented the Guerbois were Astruc, Duret, Bracquemond, Emile Zola, Edmond Maitre, and Constantin Guys. However one of the most colourful and outrageously vocal of the wordsmiths was Edmond Duranty. An outspoken critic of the Academy and the art establishment in general, he'd once come very close to advocating in print that the Louvre (then the symbolic centre of "official" French art) be burned to the ground!
Of course Manet and Degas had, from time to time, argued so vehemently they they'd both return portrait gifts they'd done of one another (in Degas' case, he'd even gone so far as to mutilate the canvas first) however this was nothing compared to the often vicious discourse between Manet and Duranty. In fact, their "discussions" once led to a duel, with Zola acting as a second for Manet and Paul Alexis, a friend of Cézanne’s, acting as Duranty's second. Actually the whole thing was something of a farce. Though both men were totally ignorant of the art of fencing, they threw themselves into the act with such savage brutality their "duel" ended up as more of a brawl. By the time their astonished seconds pried them apart, their swords looked like corkscrews. And, while Duranty was slightly wounded in the debacle, by the end of the night, he and Manet were once more best of friends.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 May 1998