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The Thoroughly Modern Manet
The life's blood of any historian is dates, history is written around the "first this" or the "last that," and dates are critical to the chronology upon which historians hang their hats. In a broader sense, historians like periods as well - they provide the structure within which historians live and work. When you combine the dates and periods you have "starting" dates and "ending" dates. I spoke recently of the somewhat arbitrary nature of these dates in placing the beginning of the Post Modern period in art around 1970. If this date is difficult to pin down, it's nothing compared to the difficulty encountered in deciding when the period known as Modern Art began. Art historians will argue 'til they turn cobalt blue in the face in favouring the work of CÚzanne as the first "Modern artist", or Picasso, or Monet, or Manet, or Courbet, or some such other Frenchman whose chief attribute seems to be a name ending in the long "a" sound.

I'm not about to enter this fray, besides I don't look good in blue. I would, however, like to stake a claim as to the first modern (small "m") artist to ever wield a brush. His work may or may not have been the first Modern Art (big "M", big "A"), but his attitude, style, and subject matter easily puts him at the head of the line in the first category if not the second. I'm talking about the thoroughly modern Manet. In 1859, at the age of 27, he submitted to the Paris Salon The Absinthe Drinker. It was a bold, full length, identifiable depiction (a portrait, really) of a Paris drunk by the name of Collardet who hung around the Louvre, only too willing to serve as Manet's model in return for a few glasses of the greenish concoction sitting on the low wall behind him. By today's standards, the painting is a mild comment on the evils of alcoholism, the man's garb, an amusing look at the fashion sense of Parisian lowlifes (ratty brown blanket draped stylishly over the shoulders, accented by an elegant top hat). His pose borders on the comical as he delicately places one toe forward in the manner of a Degas ballerina.

The Salon jury summarily rejected the painting. The colours were a garish yellow and dull green. The face, though somewhat blurred, would seem fairly conventional to us today. To the 1859 Salon jury it simply denoted incompetence. Determined to get into the show, the next year Manet submitted a rather lacklustre painting entitled The Spanish Singer. All things Spanish being quite chic at the time, he made it. He got his foot in the door. Thinking he'd found the formula for success, the next year (1861), he submitted to the jury an even better painting of a Spanish dancer. But this time, the jury was onto him. It was rejected. So was his crowd scene (some would say mob scene), Music in the Tuileries, in 1862, and his scandalous Luncheon on the Grass, the following year. Each painting had its own reasons for being barred from the exhibition, but in essence, they all boiled down to the fact that they were too "modern" for the tastes of the pompous, Parisian, pip-squeaks of painting who policed the presentations.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
28 February 1999

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