martes, 29 de diciembre de 2009

Emphasizing Women as a Theme in Painting

“La Japonaise” by Claude Monet, and the “Street Singer” and the “Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Edouard Manet, represent the modern woman as a subject of fascination in painting in very different manners. Through the theatricality of the costume and the background, the attribution of intriguing features and attitude to the model, or her objectification, commodification, and sexualization, in each painting the artists have emphasized the physical and non-physical characteristics of the women they wish to draw attention to –and the messages that may be associated with those characteristics–.

Figure 1: La Japonaise (Camille Monet in Japanese Costume) (1876), Claude Monet. Oil on canvas.

La Japonaise” by Claude Monet depicts the artist’s wife, Camille, wearing a man’s robe and surrounded by fans with images of Japanese landscapes, animals, and a Japanese woman; these elements show the fascination that existed about Japanese culture at the time in France, and their integration in the portrait’s background draws attention to Camille’s physical features. Monet represents the female figure in this painting in a very theatrical way; he surrounds his exaggeratedly Occidental-looking wife –wearing a blonde wig for that purpose– with Japanese elements as she poses in an anything but Japanese pose –in a depiction of a typical Japanese woman her gaze would never meet with that of the viewer–.

On the right side of Monet’s wife, there is the only fan with a human figure on it, depicting a Japanese alternative to the notion of Western beauty represented by Camille. This antithesis is represented by the image of a Japanese woman stylized in typical 19th-century fashion: pale skin, Oriental styled jet-black hair, and almond-shaped eyes. The placement of the Japanese woman next to Camille leads us to compare the two of them; as we compare the female figures, it is unavoidable to recognize the difference between the canons of beauty in Western and Eastern culture.

The brushwork is typically Impressionist: a combination of speed, spontaneity, and detail, that gives a sketchy quality to the image, and also smoothness and movement to the scene; the strokes guide the eye around the painting, from the samurai who seems to be about to jump out of it –effect caused by the thickness of the paint employed on his robe and the details on his arm’s muscles–, to the dynamic composition of the fans in the background, and finally to Camille’s coquettish face, her blonde wig, and the French flag represented by the fan she is holding. The vivid colors of all the Japanese elements –particularly the oversized man’s robe– surround Camille, clearly frame her as the center of attention, and bring life to the painting.

Figure 2: Street Singer (1862), Edouard Manet. Oil on canvas.

The “Street Singer” by Edouard Manet depicts a woman holding a guitar and a bundle of cherries as she leaves what seems to be a restaurant or a café; the fact that she is not accompanied by another woman or a man indicates her lower social status as a member of the working class. However, the woman in the painting is not the one Manet actually saw in such situation –as she refused to pose for the painter–; the model is Victorine Meuret, Manet’s favorite at the time.

The colors in the “Street Singer” contribute to the feelings of distance and darkness that this painting inspires; however, the atmosphere created by the palette does not lessen the power of the woman as the theme of the painting. Victorine’s dress is the only element in the painting whose volume stands out due to the contrast of its neutral colors with the black outlines created mainly by the hat she is wearing, the lower part of the swinging doors in the background, and the shadows on her dress; as explained by Carol Armstrong: “These blacks are tonally related to the light gray of Victorine’s costume, the dark gray of the waiter’s suit, and the range of light and dark gray of the upper part of the background.”[1], this causes the dress, and therefore Victorine’s silhouette, to protrude from the background. The contrast of these black outlines with the white glimpse of the petticoat Victorine is wearing underneath –exposure that at the time had a rather sensual connotation–, with her fair complexion, and with the deep red of the bundle of cherries she holds, also attracts the eye of the observer.

The expression of Victorine in the painting is distant, and she does not engage in visual contact with the public. The indifference in her gaze inspires curiosity in the observer about this woman who looks into the distance as she dives into thoughts that could be either deep or shallow enough to separate her from the common viewer; this is the curiosity that the artist probably felt when the woman refused to pose for him, and that he has represented on the canvas for the public to feel it as well. The woman’s interior world is hidden from the scrutiny of the public sphere and the flâneurs of the nineteenth century by the mask –an indecipherable iron gaze– that all of us wear to keep the window to our inner selves closed as we walk the crowded streets of impersonal cities nowadays.

Figure 3: Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), Edouard Manet. Oil on canvas.

The “Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Edouard Manet depicts Suzon, a barmaid at the Folies-Bergère music hall, standing between a marble countertop and a mirror. The countertop displays a still life of multiple bottles of champagne –with the gold foiled necks–, beer –with the red triangular logo–, a single green bottle of cognac, a glass vase of roses, and a compotier of mandarins; while the unopened bottles signify consumable commodities that belong to the public world of trade, the roses and the fruit are elements that belong to the typical repertoire of the domestic still life. The mirror shows the reflection of the viewer as a male customer at the Folies-Bergère –as viewers we are partially positioned as such customer, however, the incongruence between where we are standing and our alleged reflection makes this unclear–, the audience sitting in the balconies behind him, the back of Suzon, and part of the countertop and the still life; however, the sketchy quality of the reflection –given by the use of a less careful stroke–, the spatial inconsistency given by the position of the countertop on the reflection, and the incoherence between Suzon’s pose and that of her reflection, do not allow the mirror to depict the scene as accurately as it is supposed to do.

There is great emphasis placed on Suzon’s fashionable attire, as it depicts the class ambiguity that mass-production of clothes was causing in public spaces; on this matter, Griselda Pollock articulates: “The fashionably blasé barmaid at the Folies evades a fixed identity as either bourgeois or proletarian but nonetheless participates in the play around class that constituted the myth and appeal of the popular.”[2]. The public space of trade required saleswomen’s dress code to be pleasing to a bourgeois clientele, which caused these women to be part of an aspiring new class: the petite bourgeoisie. Suzon’s attire is comparable to a certain extent with Victorine’s in the “Street Singer”; though Suzon’s dress possesses a fashionableness that could cause ambiguity when judging her status on the street, the situation in which she is depicted –working at a bar– represents her belonging to the working class, similarly, Victorine’s situation –leaving a café without an escort– also represents this.

It is important to mention that the view of the barmaid comes from the male spectator, the male gaze, as argued by Carol Armstrong: “Middle woman between the gendered zones of commodity culture, herself at once fashionable subject and fashion object, at once a subjective phantasm and an object among objects who uncannily returns our gaze in its frozen, lifeless form.”[3]. Our view of Suzon is mediated by the still life on the countertop, which in combination with her fashionableness gives her the quality of a commodity that lies on the countertop just as the bottles, the mandarins, and the roses do –a woman that can be bought by the male customer–.

The most relevant element in the emphasizing of Suzon in this painting is her “lifeless”, “frozen” gaze that does not allow the viewer to read her thoughts; staring into the void with distant eyes, the barmaid at the counter is less a spectator than a figure on show herself –which supports her role as a commodity–. Nevertheless, it is notable that though the gaze of the woman is blank rather than transgressive –as opposed to that of the courtesan in Manet’s “Olympia”–, she also looks out into the crowd, which is an outstanding feature in the representation of a woman in a time when there were no flâneuses.

The attractiveness of the women in “La Japonaise”, the “Street Singer”, and the “Bar at the Folies-Bergère” is emphasized in different manners, which leads the viewer to experience different types of fascination. In “La Japonaise”, the physical beauty of the Western woman –Camille– is accentuated by the contrast with that of the stereotypical Japanese one, and by the exotic elements that draw attention to her. In the “Street Singer”, the beauty of the model is not physical; Victorine’s face is partially covered by her hands and the grapes, and her hair is not very visible either since she is wearing a hat, however, this intentional understatement of some of the stereotypical more appealing features in a woman leads the viewer to fly right over the fence of her appearance and all the way into the deepness of her thoughts. Finally, in the “Bar at the Folies-Bergère” the attractiveness of Suzon can be found not only in her delicate facial features, her corseted hourglass figure, and her intriguing gaze, but also in how the elements around her create her objectification, commoditization, and sexualization by the male gaze.

In spite of the differences between the models and the compositions of these three paintings, all of them depict women whose attributes and surroundings have been manipulated by the artists so that they and the different ways in which they represent attractiveness and cause fascination, become prominent on the canvas; in these paintings Camille, Victorine, and Suzon did not just have their portraits done, they were turned into painting, into women as a subject of fascination in painting.

[1] Armstrong Carol, Manet Manette (New Haven, CT; London, U.K.: Yale University Press, 2002), 145.

[2] Pollock Griselda, “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity”, The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1992), 256.

[3] Armstrong, Manet Manette, 294.

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