Artists Edouard Manet and Vik Muniz have proven themselves to be innovative time and time again, and their talent and skills shine in their ability to break from the convention in a modern fashion. This is shown in Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (1882) and in Vik Muniz’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, After Edouard Manet (2012). In these works, both artists were playful with their skill, creating illusions and experimenting with different points of views in order to convey a modern message. Whether it be the 1800’s or present day, humans have lived through periods of sweeping evolution. Both men conveyed their disillusionment with these rapid changes by creating masterpieces that reflect their struggle to understand their respective modern worlds.
Edouard Manet (1832 – 1883) was a leader in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. During the time Manet was alive, the French Salon was very popular with the elite. As the MET website puts it, “Here, young artists could find themselves promoted to prominence through patronage connections and collectively seek protection of artistic interests.” The French Salon jury were the ones who would approve paintings to be featured in the salons. Although Manet was loyal to the French Salon throughout his life, they were often very critical of his paintings for their scandalous subject matter, including nude women. Because of this, as well as his style and tendency to push the boundaries, Manet became known as a modern artist in the art world.
Manet’s push towards a new style of painting and his unconventional subject matter showed that he was ahead of his time. One reason Manet created A Bar at the Folies-Bergere (Fig. 1) was to convey his struggle to come to terms with urbanization in Paris. During the 1860’s, Baron Haussmann constructed a plan to renovate the city, including knocking down medieval structures and replacing them with boulevards, parks and avenues that made the city easier to navigate. Haussmann believed urbanization would benefit the city economically and boost industrialization. This transition into a modern Paris took place over many years and was difficult for Manet to absorb. This struggle is reflected in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, which was one of the most popular nightclubs at the time, and a perfect picture of the new Paris.
Manet’s transition into the Impressionistic style intrigued a younger audience, and made the bourgeoisie of the French Salon nervous and uncomfortable. Manet pioneered a technique called alla prima, which became very popular with Impressionists because it allowed the artist to paint quickly. With this technique, artists paint with the color they envision for the finished product rather than gradually building up the colors. Manet also used another stylistic component in his paintings in which he painted with a loose hand that allowed his paintings to have a “flat” effect. To this point, “Rather than working with color scales, Manet preferred strongly contrasting tones that appear to be one-dimensional. Thus, although the flat tone of his paintings appear simple, they were difficult to produce, especially considering Manet’s aversion to layering paint.” This can be seen in A Bar at the Folies-Bergere and also in many of Manet’s other paintings, such as Olympia or Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (Fig. 3, 4).
Art historians have long been fascinated with A Bar at the Folies-Bergere because of the skewed perspective, the expression on the barmaids face, and Manet’s unique style. The woman in Manet’s painting has a melancholy expression and looks out at the bar vacantly. To the right, there is a man talking to a barmaid, but whether that barmaid is the subject of the painting has been debated. If the subject is the barmaid talking to the man, it is clear from the expression she wears facing the viewer that she is not actually interested in the conversation. It is a glimpse of how she is really feeling but not expressing. Even if the subject is not the barmaid talking to the man, she is clearly detached from what is going on around her, which the viewer can see in the mirror. Essentially, she is detached from the modern life. In other words, “Manet captures the coolness, cruelty and glamour of modern life. This is one of the keystones of modern art.” Thus, this painting reveals Manet’s struggle to cope with the modern world.
Manet famously not only painted the French upper class, but also the common French people. He is known for painting scenes of everyday life. The artist stated, “Everything is mere appearance, the pleasures of a passing hour, a midsummer night’s dream. One painting, the reflection of a reflection – but the reflection, too, of eternity, can record some of the glitter of this mirage.” One of the boldest and most prolific artists of his time, Manet had painted almost 420 paintings by the end of his life in 1883.
Like Manet did, Vik Muniz also lives in a modern world: our modern world. Muniz was born in Sao Paolo, Brazil in 1961. He is primarily known for his mixed-media and photographic work. He is famous for constructing images out of miscellaneous materials and taking photographs of the finished product. A portion of his works are recreated versions of well-known masterpieces, including his version of Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. Muniz’s recreation, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, After Edouard Manet, is from his collection “Pictures of Magazines 2” where he recreated well-known images out of scraps of magazines (Fig. 2). Similar to the French Impressionists, who were ahead of their time in that “they incorporated new scientific research into the physics of colour to achieve a more exact representation of colour and tone,” Muniz has also embarked on several art projects that combine science and art. For example, in his revolutionary collection, “Colonies,” Muniz made intricate pieces of art out of cancer cells and skin cells.
Muniz grew up in Brazil when the country was under a military dictatorship (1964 – 1985) and censorship was strictly enforced. This repression affected Muniz very deeply. In an interview with The New York Times, he said, “I’m a product of a military dictatorship. Under a dictatorship, you cannot trust information or dispense it freely because of censorship. So Brazilians become very flexible in the use of metaphors. They learn to communicate with double meanings.” Not only does Muniz re-envision famous works of the past, his pieces also include famous subjects, such as Marilyn Monroe, Frankenstein, Beethoven, and Charles Baudelaire – an art critic who, incidentally, was a fan of Edouard Manet’s.
Muniz states, “My copies ask the viewer to look harder at the original.” Looking at Manet’s and Muniz’s works side by side, Muniz’s makes you wonder: “What did I miss in the original?” and “I wonder why he chose this specific color scheme? What inspired him about the original?” and “What can I take away from these masterpieces as a set?”
Looking to the past in order to better understand the present or what the future may hold is a tale as old as time. He notes in A Vik Muniz Primer that young artists often start out by recreating some of the most renowned works of art in order to learn style and skill, but these would never be shown in a gallery, no matter how they much they influenced the pieces that the artist would create after the fact. Muniz continued this thought process in A Vik Muniz Primer,
“To copy is to extend the symbolic value of an image by suffusing it with new technology, thus updating its rhetorical approach. Copying has been an extensive part of my work as an artist, not only because of the constant feeling of debt I owe to artists before me, but also because of my firm belief in the nonrevolutionary pattern of creativity. Revolutions tend to discard past values indiscriminately, relying exceedingly on the idea of tabula rasa, building ideology from the ground up, disregarding the need for foundation. Revolutions can challenge us to perceive our environment in a new way, but they can’t completely hide the path that has taken us there in the first place.”
Originality can bloom in many different ways. It doesn’t always have to be starting from scratch. Many people can unknowingly develop the same idea, although perhaps with their own twist. Reinventing a beautiful work of art another human has created and making it your own is like a love letter to the original piece. Muniz’s thoughts on the matter perfectly describe this. In short, Muniz reconstructs iconic masterpieces into masterpieces of his own.
Both Manet and Muniz used their art to communicate their unique perspective on the world. Manet created a metaphor through his painting to show his disillusionment with the urbanization of Paris. Muniz’s recreation in and of itself redefines the concept of originality while also commenting on the overflow of information our current world has at the touch of our fingertips. Muniz created an illusion to reconstruct the painting by using pieces torn from magazines, ranging from high art to tabloids.
“This practice reflects modern life with its incessant influx of information, some of it seemingly worthy and some of it seemingly worthless. Western culture’s continuous iteration of updating, overwriting and replacement leaves an endless stream of garbage in its wake. The content of the stream becomes raw material in an act of renewal.” Just as Manet created his piece in an effort to cope with a new modern way of living, Muniz created his work essentially with the same purpose.
Manet and Muniz were not afraid to push the boundaries and use unique and styles and techniques for their works of art. And when it comes down to it, they created these pieces with a similar struggle: coping with the ever-changing modern world. A visual representation of trying to understand why and when it changed, and can they keep up? Do they like what it has become? In doing so, they are asking the viewer the same questions. In this struggle, they took the materials and ideas this new world offered and used them to create their art, almost as if they ultimately accepted their individual modern worlds. So, as you study these modern masterpieces, I ask you: When and why did the world change? Do you like what it has become? Can you keep up?
Figure 1. Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1882, oil on canvas, 96cm x 130 cm
Figure 2. Vik Muniz, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, After Edouard Manet, from Pictures of Magazines 2 series, 2012, digital C-print 101.6cm x 140.4cm
Figure 3. Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 130.5cm c 190cm
Figure 4. Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872, oil on canvas, 55cm x 38cm
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