Nightmare Scenarios I
Just walk right up to the dude and shoot. No formalities, no announcements, nothing. Just get the fucking job done. This violent imagery is devastating. The same goes for the painting as a thing in itself. Apparently, it was discovered in a bad state after Manet died. Pieces of it had been cut away because of some storage issues – maybe canvas rot or paint damage. Léon Leenhoff (the paternity of this unfortunate young man was never disclosed and rumors run rampant) cut up the remaining bits and sold those separately. Degas, Manet’s good friend, later managed to track down and buy up those pieces in order to keep them together.
“DEGAS was partial, in his paintings, to the “cutoff.” His dancers on stage or in the wings and his jockeys on horseback at the races often find themselves – as in a snapshot – intercepted by the frame. In fact, this canny artist used the cutoff as a device to suggest spontaneity and movement. All the same, the painting of a husband and wife shown here, lent from Japan to the recent major exhibition of Degas’ work in Paris, Ottawa, and New York, was somewhat surprising. It has a startling cutoff that was not part of Degas’ intention at all. Even he would never have gone so far as to slice off the front half of one of the figures in a double portrait. That severe act was performed by the elegant, languid man sprawling on the sofa.
According to Degas, as reported in a conversation with Ambroise Vollard at the turn of the century, this man – the painter Edouard Manet – “thought that something about Mme. Manet wasn’t right” in the picture and painted over it.
When, visiting Manet’s house, Degas saw what his friend had done, he was so shocked that (as he told Vollard LINK HERE FOR THE STORY): “I left without saying goodbye, taking my picture with me. When I got home, I took down a little still life he had given me.” “Monsieur,” I wrote, “I am returning your Plums.” [Christopher Andreae on Degas and Manet]
It seems that Manet had a history of cut up paintings. (See the Incident at a Bullfight and Les Gitanos) But why Edouard would severely edit a gift from his friend Edgar is not easy to ascertain. There are many artists who would find this kind of revisionist behavior reprehensible (see a more contemporary exchange here.) Granted Degas and Manet made up in time, but it’s interesting that Edgar would choose to be the one to chase after this particular cut up painting. It couldn’t have been an easy or inexpensive task for Degas, and this quest speaks of his love and respect for his friend. How many of us would save a friend’s work in just this way if we had the time and the means? This kind of behavior doesn’t seem to fit what we know of Degas. Over the last 30 years or so we’ve come to see him as a selfish right-wing douche bag (and rightly so,) but just maybe, life – against our expectations – is wonderfully complicated…
After Edgar passed away the National Gallery in London acquired these fragments in a posthumous auction of his collections. The fragments were displayed separately until 1992 (the story is here) when the National decided to puzzle piece this thing back together on linen making the painting into an almost perfect Postmodern Provisional Painting. Never mind – the composition of the image is so strong that it almost makes it past the annoying contemporary backdrop, but the collage never does get past the clash of centuries – conservation headaches, presentation ideologies, masterpiece restorations and institutional conceits all play a role in the confusion of Manet’s imagery, Degas’ reconstitution, and ultimately, our mis-reading of this work.
Rail: In addition to the fact that it’s been cut into pieces, therefore creating this false aura of fragmentation that has been so much a part of our built-in heritage since cubism.
Elderfield: I agree. I’ve had people say to me, ‘Well this is a wonderful picture because it is so modern.’ But the truth is, it’s modern by accident. A related example: in the Mondrian show in ’94, remember how beautiful those Pier and Ocean works on paper were? I walked around the show with a well-known artist, who pointed out how the white marks so prominently stood out against the muted background of the paper, and I said, “Well, actually, that’s because the paper has darkened over the years; the white wouldn’t have been visible originally.” And he said, “Oh, nonsense. This is part of the beauty.” And I said, “Yes, it is part of the beauty, but it’s accidental. [Phong Bui and John Elderfield on Manet’s Maximilian]
Welcome to the real world of artists!