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Manet, the Sponge
One of the better compliments that can be made about a young person, or a person of any age I suppose, is that they soak up the world around them like a sponge. Provided the environment is wholesome, this is usually seen as a good thing. It means they're a "quick study" which implies intelligence as well as a willingness to learn and try new things. For an artist, it's a special blessing because it indicates an open, inquisitive mind able to experiment with his or her art in such a way that they can synthesise various inputs into something altogether new rather than merely regurgitating a single influence they may have seen. Just as a sponge can pick up many separate substances, once it is compressed, all those different elements come out as a single liquid, something that may or may not resemble the original input. Picasso was like that. So was Michelangelo. Leonardo was almost too absorbent. And perhaps the best example would be Edouard Manet.

At eighteen, Manet began absorbing his Ecol des Beaux-arts background, studying under the lacklustre Couture. After six years, he continued by absorbing the realism of Millet and Courbet. In fact, Manet was more "real" than Courbet ever was (Courbet was actually more of a naturalist than a realist in his style). He travelled to Germany and the low countries where he picked up on Franz Hals. Then Manet (and others) discovered Japanese prints, which infected his style. When he travelled to Spain and studied Velázquez, his work almost tastes Spanish. When the impressionists began to experiment with colour as light, (or vice-versa) he picked that up too. His Impressionist paintings, such as his 1869, Moonlight over Boulogne Harbour and Departure from Boulogne Harbour of the same week, demonstrate a thorough understanding of their invention.

In 1861, Manet joined the Parisian art establishment when he had not one, but two, paintings accepted by the Salon. Two years later, when he squeezed the sponge, out came Luncheon on the Grass, which was summarily rejected (along with over 4,000 other paintings) by an unusually severe jury. When he exhibited it with the Salon des Refuse' the resultant outrage from the Paris art world was tantamount to a charge of treason. While Cabanel's erotic nude, Birth of Venus, was praised, won the top award, and was purchased by the emperor, Manet's naked woman picnicking with two stylish dressed gentlemen was deemed immoral. It did, however, make him an instant hero with the rebellious Impressionists and the Cafe Guerbois crowd. Though seldom an Impressionist himself, and never stooping so low as to display with them, Manet ate up the adoration and was an immensely powerful influence upon them. Then, come 1865, the Salon jury, by some strange reasoning, reversed itself and displayed Manet's Olympia. This time there was an element of official sanction in the display of another of Manet's naked whores (which was overtly erotic). And this time the cries of outrage were even louder. A guard even had to be posted to protect it. Twenty-five years later, in what might be termed an in-you-face act of I-told-you-so, the Impressionists raised 20,000 francs to purchase the painting and give it to the French government. Today it hangs in the Louvre. It's sometimes amazing what happens when you squeeze a sponge.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
6 December 1999


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