Of Cinema’s Tableaux Vivants: Guerín

We finally got around to watching José Luis Guerín’s Dans la Ville de Sylvia after adding the movie to the “must see” list years ago when it came out. It’s a wonderful movie, visually appealing and perfect for those of us who like to spend time people watching, Rohmer addicts who don’t mind quite a bit less of dialogue, Ozu static transitions aesthetes and art lovers in general. There are a few nods to some masterpieces of western painting – nothing new here, these tableaux vivants abound in art house cinema – but I found particularly appealing the reenactment of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère which I suspect to have been inserted not just out of artistic whim but to make a point about perspective. A point which particularly pleases me as I am a fervorous adept of the Occam’s Razor School of Art History.

Dans la Ville de Sylvia screenshot and Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère which is housed at the Courtauld Institute in London.

When Manet’s painting was exhibited at the Salon in 1882, a chorus of critics objected to the flawed perspective. What was considered (and ridiculed) at first as ineptitude became fertile ground for academic theoretical speculation – at least for those art historians who intransigently believe in artistic intentionality. There had to be a reason for the apparently impossible mirror reflection.

1882 cartoon by Stop in the Journal Amusant correcting Manet’s perspective or Une Marchande de Consolation aux Folies-Bergere (from the University of Dayton digital archive): “A mirror reflects her back; but undoubtedly due to a momentary distraction of the painter, a gentleman with which she chats and whose image we can see on the mirror is not in the painting. We believe it is our duty to correct that omission.”

T. J. Clark, writing in 1985 on his Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, gave it a political spin and interpreted the inconsistent reflection with a need to represent the instability of the social interaction between barmaid and dandy brought about by the emergence of social classes resulting from the commodification of leisure. In reaction to interpretations of the barmaid as being a prostitute who is being propositioned by the man, academic papers have been written about the gender implications of the impossible reflection. In 1995, Ruth Iskin hypothesized that the reason for the “spacial incoherence” of the image was due to it being painted from a multiplicity of points of view – the mixed gender crowd in the back being key – and marking “a shift of pictorial codes of representation from an exclusive male gaze to an accompanying female spectatorial gaze and a new paradigm of crowd spectatorship that includes some women alongside men”[1].

In 1997 Thierry de Duve[2] reacting to the ideological and allegorical interpretations of the previous decades, tried to explain the painting’s construction technically – even if not immune to the intentionality bug. Analysing the perspective geometrically, what seemed to be a straightforward mathematical investigation (summoning the “laws of optics”) turned out as a result an improbable “One image, Two moments” sort of result. Manet’s testament to posterity is supposed to be this new type of picture he had invented – his own absence from the scene being significant. It is the representation of an interval of time, a composite image resulting from the shift of the man in the top hat from the front of the barmaid to the right accompanied by the shift of the mirror which pivots obliquely on the second moment. We, the observers, never change our position from directly across the barmaid. If we don’t see the man in front of us when he is himself directly facing the barmaid, it’s because Manet is following the Albertian convention which posits that “only what lies beyond the picture plane belongs to the painting”. Otherwise the man would be blocking our (and the painter’s) view.

Finally, in 2001, Malcolm Park wrote a doctoral dissertation, Ambiguity, and the Engagement of Spatial Illusion within the Surface of Manet’s Paintings, where the conundrum was solved. There is one point from which the observer can verify that Manet’s painting is technically accurate and, furthermore, the reflection is cleverly obtained precisely because it contradicts the immediate scene that springs to mind of virtually anyone who tries to make sense of it: the barmaid and the man in the top hat are not facing each other.

Diagram of Malcolm Park’s and Thierry de Duve’s solutions as published by De Duve[3]

In one of those classic academic kerfuffles, Thierry de Duve responded, not without humour, objecting to the trapeze-shaped bar counter which would be at odds with reality and to the improbable fabrication of the illusion that the man is facing the barmaid:

“Please forget that I’m utterly biased in this affair and bear with me: the question really is not what model is going to win the competition. Of course it’s mine, but that’s irrelevant, it’s not the subject. The theory issue, which is the real subject of my talk, is what court is qualified to pick one model over the other. (…) for us to judge, we must first, or by the same token, elect the legitimate seat of judgment. To the one that I elect, I give the name: aesthetic intuition. I feel genuinely sorry for Malcolm Park that he made my case so easy by systematically choosing the counterintuitive path (…)”

Meanwhile, Guerín is saying “Look, it’s possible that the painting’s perspective isn’t brilliant but maybe there wasn’t only one continuous mirror behind the counter and it so happens that the second smaller mirror on the right was simply at an angle”. Hundred and thirty years of polemics and creative criticism done for as far as my version of aesthetic intuition is concerned.


(click on footnote number to return to post)

[1] Ruth E. Iskin, Selling, Seduction, and Soliciting the Eye: Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère, The Art Bulletin , Vol. 77, No. 1 (Mar., 1995), pp. 25-44
[2] Thierry de Duve, How Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” Is Constructed, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 136-168
[3] Thierry de Duve, Intentionality and Art Historical Methodology: A Case Study, l’Université de Lille, published on onsite.org


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