Ambiguous Spaces & the Artistic Legacy of Modernity
As a part of a constant continuum, the history of art can be seen as a large tapestry where upon tugging one thread, another responds - such is the intrinsic interwoven network of artists, their influences and their impacts upon the cloth as a whole. Motifs, subject matters and styles spread across the surface like different colors, popping up here and there, moving through time as a slow gradation bursts into a bright splash of color. Similarly, although they lived two centuries apart, the connection of 16th century Baroque painter Diego Velázquez's work to that of 19th century Realist Éduoard Manet's is undeniable. Each artist found themselves caught in the shades and reflections of the shifting societies that they were a part of - Velázquez in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church's subsequent Counter Reformation, and Manet working in the shadow of the revolutions and social upheavals which had gripped France for almost a century following the infamous French Revolution. Yet both Manet and Velásquez brought innovation to their works in spite of, or even maybe as a direct result of these social changes. It was Velásquez's loose impasto brushwork which paved the way for Manet's break from the academic painting into taches of color and graphic line. Though their career paths differed greatly, towards the end of their lives both artists chose to explore the medium and meaning of painting, expanding on their own roles as artists. Known as two of the most enigmatic paintings in art history, Las Meniñas by Diego Velázquez and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère by Éduoard Manet both present the viewer with paradoxical spaces through which the artists seek to examine the subject of gaze and painterly purpose within the concept of an ever-shifting genre scene.
Like the many other Baroque artists of his time, Velázquez participated in the common themes of religious scenes and mythological subject matters which played to the Counter Reformation and the glorification of the Catholic Church. However, due to his role as a court painter, most of Velázquez's work centered on paintings of portraiture. Like many Spanish artists at the time he actively rejected the Italian neoplatonic ideals of beauty, instead choosing to focus on naturalistic portrayals of human interaction. Painted towards the end of Velázquez's life in 1656, Las Meniñas or The Family of Philip IV demonstrates the culmination of these skills and functions as a combination of a series of portraits and genre scenes, as well as a personal painting manifesto. Taking center stage in the foreground is the petite form of the Spanish Infanta, Margarita, surrounded by her retinue of maids of honor (meninas), playmates and various courtiers. Off to the left Velázquez has included himself in the composition, caught in the act of painting and to his right over the Infanta's shoulder a mirror appears to show the disembodied reflection of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana. The whole scene seems to be snapshot of courtly life, brought to a quiet standstill by the presence of the viewer. Yet the longer and closer someone looks at it, the more the space of the painting and that of the viewer gets called into question. The unwavering stares of seven of the figures within Las Meniñas look out of the painting and penetrate into the space beyond the frame, entangling those who return their gaze into the narrative of the work itself. While the reflection of the King and Queen in the mirror implies that the viewer shares the space and vantage point of the royal couple, Velázquez's use of multiple and shifting perspective call the veracity of the mirror's surface into question. Does it reflect what is front of the Infanta and her retinue? If so where are their reflections? Could the mirror then be reflecting the portrait Velázquez is in the process of painting upon the canvas pressed up against the picture plane? There is no clear definitive answer as the angles in the room dissolve into a sfumato like haze as they recede in space. Only Velázquez's figures remain, full bodied and full of life. Inspired by the naturalism of Carravaggio's work, Velázquez echoes his Italian contemporary's use of dramatic lighting and illuminates the forms of his figures via a strong directional light which emerges from a window on the right of the composition. However, like Rubens, Velázquez fills his shadows with reflected light in order to create a softer sense of tenebrism in his forms. It is in the handling of his paint that Velázquez really makes his mark. Pulling from the inspiration of Rubens, Titan, and the Venetian Renaissance, Velázquez created his own unique technique of applying paint in loose expressive strokes. Scattered with heavy impasto accents, Velázquez's forms dissolve into fluid brushwork when read up close. However, viewed from afar Las Meniñas takes on a startling degree of optical realism as the various strokes and gestures coalesce as a whole.
Over two hundred years later, French Realist Éduoard Manet would complete his last painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère in 1882. Like Velázquez, this work would serve as a culmination of his skill and become one of the iconic works for which Manet is known. Also like Las Meniñas, the longer the viewer looks at A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, the more the sense of space which Manet presents to the viewer seems deceptive. Though often grouped with the Impressionists, Manet was at heart a Realist who sought to move away from the Grand Manner and gravitas depictions of the Academy painters, and focus on depictions of everyday life and the subjects that filled it. Depicting a popular Parisian nightspot, the Folies-Bergère, Manet presents the viewer with a genre scene that his contemporaries would be intimately familiar with. By focusing his subject matter on a simple barmaid, he would have defied Academy conventions. The barmaid stands central to the composition, framed by the bar in front of her and a mirror at her back. Like in Las Meniñas the mirror has the dual purpose of both enlarging and confusing the space, though on a larger scale. It is through the mirror that the interior of the Folies-Bergère is given form, allowing the viewer to see beyond the scope of the painted plane. Yet the forms which fill the foreground of the mirror become disquieting as, like Velázquez, Manet takes the chance to play with the perspective -placing his reflections in a way that are disjointed from the “reality” of what we see before us. The barmaid who seems aloof as she meets the viewer's gaze head on, is not reflected as such but is instead portrayed leaning forward engaged in conversation with a man. Similarly, the arrangement of the bottles on the counter shift and re-position themselves within the reflection of space. Thus the reflection of the mirror takes on a psychological component, causing the viewer to question what is it they are seeing. Which is the real girl? Is it the one who meets their gaze or the one who leans in to talk to the man? Is the reflection simply an allusion to a barmaid's daydream or does the mirror portray what is happening in real time while the distant face of the woman in the foreground reflects her real feelings? Manet takes the century old motif of the mirror and twists it so that it no longer can be counted on to tell the truth, stripping away the pretense of reality that many artists had in their works. It is this examination of gaze, class and space calling the viewer to question the reality of what they are seeing that hallmarks Manet as one of the founding fathers of modernity.
Though he was the last great French painter to receive Academic training, Manet soon eschewed the works of his teachers. Influenced by the advent of photography and a changing industrial world, Manet broke away from the smooth, regimented photo-realistic conventions of the Grand Manner, and developed a style in which he allowed his paint to look like paint. Looking to old European masters, especially to Velázquez whom he dubbed “le peintre des peintres” or the painter of painters, Manet reveled in painting alla prima. Simplifying his forms with impasto swatches of color, Manet allowed his brushwork to build his subjects upon his canvas, never letting the viewer forget what it was they were seeing. Unlike Velázquez's more subdued palettes, Manet packed his work with vibrant colors and saturated sections of pastels, reflecting the energy of his painting's settings. Often criticized for this subject matter and technique, Manet nonetheless opened the door to future artists to break away from the realm of literary imaginings and traditional skills, encouraging them to look and record the world around them – a rallying call which struck a chord with the up and coming Impressionists.
When compared against each other Las Meniñas and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère both push the boundaries of what a painting can be and what the artist is. By taking space and twisting the perspectives of their depictions, both Manet and Velázquez's masterpieces strive to make ambiguous spaces which have the viewer questioning what it is they are seeing. Their use of mirrors to manipulate and confuse space, subverts the traditional motifs of truth and clarity into something inherently paradoxical. Working to instill a sense of inquisition into their viewers, Manet and Velázquez also sought to make them aware of the artist's power to direct the gaze within their artwork. Las Meniñas and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère were created in the wake of the social and political upheavals that their creators had witnessed and both were reflective of shifting cultures which surrounded them. In Las Meniñas the motif of the stiff royal portrait is relaxed into a more naturalistic and informal setting. Though it was never intended to be displayed in public (destined instead to decorate the walls of the king's private apartments), this shifting visual language was an indicator of the changes that were coming both in the social and artistic arenas. Similarly, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère signified the shifting sensibilities and artistic power from the aristocracy to the bourgeois. When viewed together against the long evolution of the genre scene, these two paintings also point to a changing art market from Velázquez who enjoyed the patronage of King Phillip IV to Manet who sought his fortune on the open markets of the Parisian Salons only to be met with bitter disappointment. Similarly, they illustrate the fluctuating role and acceptable focus of art from the portrait of a royal retinue in one of the most powerful courts in Europe to a complex depiction of a simple bar maid as she works. Each artist brought to their work an emphasis on looking and seeing within art, and in turn taught the next generation of artists to do the same.
Images from Wikimedia Commons
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Crystal has a MA in the History of Art from Courtauld Institute of Art as well as a BFA in Art History from the Academy of Art University.