In her last column of 2023, Suffolk-based artist, educator and presenter Grace Adam heads from beach to bar and appreciates the visual trickery of Manet’s A Bar at the Folies Bergère
Over the festive season you may have visited a bar or pub or two, though possibly none as glamorous as this one. 140 years ago, Manet painted A Bar at the Folies Bergère and exhibited it at the Paris Salon. Now it can be found in the Courtauld in London amongst an amazing collection of works – all free to visit. Manet would go on to scandalise with Dejeuner sur L’Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863).
The Folies Bergère had opened a decade earlier and was frequented by a fashionable boho crowd as well as European royalty, keen to see and be seen. Painters, such as Manet, drank and debated and sketched there.
This crowded noisy bar is a bit of a puzzle. Committed to realism, Manet brings us an authentic bar and a real woman, Suzon working behind it. It’s a real space, well almost.
Leaning on the marble counter, Suzon looks out of the painting, with a vast mirror behind her. She forms a still column under a glittering chandelier, with the globes of modern electric lights and a green-slippered trapeze artist, just her feet and legs dangle into view.
The way that Manet constructs the figure of the woman and places her, anchoring the centre of the image is complex and nuanced. The painter was a huge fan of Velazquez and borrowed his trick of a mirror making any viewer part of the crowd. Suzon wears what is probably a uniform with its lace, tight corset and a corsage. Her grey skirt against the counter forms three triangles; on her arm a gold bangle and round her neck a locket. It seems she was not Manet’s first choice of model, and the painter set up all the props in his studio to create the work.
The real mystery in the painting is the encounter between a tall male customer in a top hat and the waitress, seen as a reflection to our right. Leaning forward slightly, she looks through us, not at us. She’s there, but her mind is far away. Thousands of words have been written about this moment, and whether the position of Suzon and her reflection are even possible. Maybe. Maybe not.
The counter heaves with things to buy. The red triangle logo of Bass Pale Ale is easily visible (bottom left), along with pink, gold, and green bottles of wine, Champagne and peppermint liqueur. In the decade after the Franco-Prussian War, British brands like Bass replaced more familiar German beer brands on French bars. Or Members of the English Jockey Club used to congregate at the Folie-Bergère, and Bass beer was brought in especially for them. Choose which story appeals to you. Is Suzon a commodity too, to be bought and sold? Manet often placed oranges or clementines beside female figures to suggest that they were sex workers.
Here, Manet’s realism is about a new Paris, modern relationships, contemporary spaces, a changing social structure. The painting started life as a much more conventional sketch of a woman leaning on a bar with a readable reflection. He knew exactly what he was doing, creating his odd spatial inconsistencies. His choices of absence and presence only serves to keep us looking, wondering and marvelling at a fascinating painting and a slice of fin de siècle Parisian life.
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