Degas’ painting of Manet and his wife still fascinates, even with the raw linen – maybe because of the raw linen. It’s said that Manet did not like the portrayal of his wife and cut the bit right off. Others have suggested that Manet was trying to help using a severe edit to the composition – but I doubt that. (Neither of these guys were that “Modern”) Degas, as you might imagine, was mortified and took back the hacked up painting in a huff. All manner of bad behavior and hurt feelings ensued. Still, their “friendship” endured. But what exactly was wrong enough in this painting for Manet to take such a drastic action?
If you went through the Met show you can understand that Edgar could be a tough lens. His portraits are thick and real and they never flatter. They’re obstinate. But why couldn’t the upset Manet just make the case to Degas? Something like – “Hey Man! Are you fucking kidding me with this? I can’t hang this. The Missus will make my life a living hell!” (You know – “Keep my wife’s name outcha fuckin’ mouth!”) So instead of wide angle diplomacy (Manet was hardly diplomatic with his fellow artists), Édouard lashed out with a surgical slap across the face. He then got to work and painted his own version of Suzanne in the same pose. Did Suzanne have a quiet word with her husband after seeing what Degas had done? Artists! …Right?
Of course it was great to see Olympia once again. It’s been a while since my last visit, and she hasn’t aged a day. I didn’t bring flowers, but thankfully, someone “always already” has. Laure is presenting the bouquet to the totally uninterested and slightly off-put Olympia. I know Victorine wants to seem at ease, and hopefully, that’s the case. Although, it looks to me like she may have been in a hurry to hop on that presentation float. She’s just crossed the room, thrown her robe over the linens and climbed onto the divan. For goodness sake she’s still wearing her mules (how very Lily von Schtupp of her). Her left foot remains loosely shod, the right has been unencumbered. But when we actually look at the thing, the content in this painting is presenting us with a very strange situation following a long line of outre nude precedent (starting with Titian’s lounging Venuses, winding through Goya and Velazquez and then rounding out with Delacroix and Courbet.) Unlike her predecessors though, this Olympia is bored and disdainful of whatever it is that’s going on in that room. Her ennui is palpable. Was this staged historical set indicative of how Manet experienced his time or was he making a larger critique about the social and sexual mores of this era? In either case he was a participant, victim and casualty of Paris’ Nana culture. [“Ce fut une jouissance mêlée de remords, une de ces jouissances de catholique que la peur de l’enfer aiguillonne dans le péché.” Victor Hugo Nana]
The outcome for the former bon vivant Manet was disease. He suffered with his rotting foot for years. It caused him a great deal of pain and worry. Eventually he had to walk with a cane and could not stand for long periods of time. In desperation Édouard underwent all the quackish and painful cures that passed for medicine. (Read Allison Leigh’s heavily researched account of Manet’s illness. It’s TERRIFIC!) Nothing worked.
As Manet’s health got worse he had to improvise with his work. He went to smaller sizes and more handy subjects – Flowers and Portraits. What’s telling about these late works is that Manet sought out the beauty in the things he painted. (It’s a lesson that Matisse later used in the difficult periods of his life.) Though Manet was physically unable to do the grand History Paintings any longer, he still dug into his subjects for something deeper – the ephemeral. He needed to preserve the lovely moments – À la recherche du temps perdu. These final works are momento moris. He used flowers instead of skulls. Look, when you’re experiencing chronic and increasing pain every day of your life you come to understand that things won’t end well. You cherish these memories, these images, because life, the beauty of life, grows more precious when you have less of it.
The show’s done now and people will forget – because that’s the nature of things. The money’s been made – the instagram has been filled – the youtube has been aired – next! But some things stick with us. Some things must be remembered. So we’ll finish with the louche and bored looking Éduoard sprawled out on that divan, his right foot curled upon the cushions, his left one stretched out and hidden in a swath of Suzanne’s linen. Jackson Arn absolutely nails it. “Everyone who knows this painting has his own hunch about what happened to it, so here’s mine: Degas gazed deep into the Manets’ marriage, found something sad and empty, and didn’t bother to sugarcoat it, the smug bastard. Manet saw the result and accepted the slight—Degas had accepted plenty of his—but refused to let it extend to his wife.”
10 days after Manet’s left foot was amputated he passed away. At Édouard’s funeral a grieving Degas said, “He was greater than we thought.” And Edgar would know.