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Edouard Manet’s elegance in breaking art and society’s pattern, is unprecedented, as it arises from a vital necessity, more than from revolutionary will, evident in the Impressionist current.
The petite bourgeois Manet was an unwitting reactionary: just a convinced painter, who had struggled for years against his father’s
will, to affirm his passion as a painter and keen observer of the world
in which he was immersed. Manet wanted just to paint, guided by his admiration for classical art, by his love for painting technique and for all the artists he had studied: Giorgione, Tiziano, Velazquez, Goya …
That young man, however, was not afraid to affirm his own ideas and those of his contemporaries, with tenacity and conviction, without bowing to the approval that his first painting, “The Spanish Guitarist” (1860), had aroused in the traditionalist environment.
Manet needed to express himself, even at the risk of being unpopular; he wanted to make bourgeois intellectuals reflect on how the time was ripe for change, on how the academic environment should look outside its classrooms, because an important transformation was taking place in the world, or at least its primordial foundations were being laid. Manet, In fact, is surrounded by young writers and painters who are demanding for a revolution, and although he has never exhibited to the side of the Impressionists, he has created two of the most scandalous paintings in modern art: he has naturally displaced everyone, imposing bourgeois nudity and demanding loudly their right to exist.
Manet has certainly given his contribution to the today’s society, invaded by nudity, by half-naked women, by the female body without mystical aura, but with the sensual aura that distinguishes our days. The concept of Sensuality, perhaps comes from Manet: the acceptance of scandal, the simple feelings of desire, caused by the body. For the first time, a female body was shouting “Look at me”, and saying it while looking us in the eye, pointing us and challenging us to resist it. Probably we can reflect on the fact that in Manet’s painting, the woman speaks for herself, something very unusual in the years he was living in; perhaps, for the first time in history, issues such as gender inequality, find attention in the world of art.
In a cynical vision, we could argue that Manet was one of the first artists to openly objectify the female body, without hiding behind religious or historical symbols and to clear the mystical innocence that surrounded femininity, highlighting her carnal and sinful side. In doing this, however, he affirms woman’s presence and existence: she is no longer a body in the background, a model useful for pictorial studies, a subject behind which the author find fame. The woman is, body and physicality, in front of the viewer, in the middle of the painting, in the middle of society (and bourgeois males), in control of herself and of others.
We certainly cannot exclude all these possibilities, as observed by modern theories of female emancipation, one does not exclude the other, because the woman have the right to decide how to use her body, how to show it, how to objectify it.
Did Manet take charge of this message? Surely he wanted to challenge the bourgeoisie of the 19th century. We can believe that he was putting down the mask to the evidence that right-thinking habits and customs were now out of fashion, in a context where the industrial revolution was bringing unprecedented cultural changes and photography was challenging the realist currents. Manet was warning us that art had to change meanings and contents, to become the new expressive means of society and no longer to match institutional needs.
All possible theories, if we immerse ourselves in the idea that a strong power has always been a fertilizer for social and intellectual groups
in countertrend and opposition. If we consider modern thinking as
an opportunity compared to the current academicism of those years. Manet’s painting tells about living society, not the one idealized by institutions. He tells about a society that is changing with the desire to maintain polite, elegant, calm tones, even if it has inevitably caused a great stir, as happens in the face of any great social revolution.
Manet used art to introduce us to the modern age, to the popular age in which subjects have free will, the bodies belong to those who live them, the public wants to see scandals, gossip, sensuality and no longer heavy themes of history, but breakfasts, bars and drinks, dances and scenes from their everyday life.