Manet’s Modernism: or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s by Michael Fried

It has been said that images of Edouard Manet marked the beginning of modern painting. The great art critic and art historian Michael Fried explores the work of Manet and several contemporaries.

The book opens with the republication of an earlier article by Fried in which he suggested that the sources of many of Manet’s important works were in the art of earlier times and cultures and has a second chapter aimed at refuting the arguments against his thesis by other critics and historians. Fried concludes that Manet was trying to create some kind of universal art. To do so he refers to earlier pictures by artists from Rembrandt to Watteau which he maintains show the connections and derivations. In most case the similarity was usually as to the posing of certain figures in both Manet’s and the earlier works. While quite interesting, I was unconvinced since there was no evidence directly from Manet of his intentions. Moreover, it seemed to me that if one looked enough through the bodies of works of the earlier artists, one would be bound to find similar poses.

In the third chapter, the author addresses many of Manet’s contemporaries, including Millet, Fantin-Latour, Legros and Whistler. In this examination, Fried pays particular attention to a concern he has previously addressed, namely the opposition between absorption and theatricality. (To oversimplify, in images characterized by absorption, the subject appears not to be aware of his subjectness, while theatricality shows an awareness of the viewer.) In exploring the issue, Fried discusses the reactions of art critics of the time to the work of the artists, particularly their appraisal of the value of the images based upon their place on the absorption/theatricality continuum. The fourth chapter deals in the same way with Manet.

The fifth chapter is a strange one that deals primarily with self-portraits and the effect of the artist viewing himself in a mirror. There is a coda appended in which Fried summarizes what has gone before, and concludes that he is unable to have any final word on what Manet’s goals were with respect to absorption and theatricality. There are several appendices in French and English with the comments of critics of the time and 168 pages of notes.

Fried is both a critic and historian, and this book illustrates the distinction. He is concerned about the history of the art without drawing conclusions as to the quality of the work of the artists, and other than describing technique, gives us little clue as to how to appreciate the works. Indeed, I sometimes felt that he didn’t particularly care for the work of Manet and his contemporaries. For those who believe that art is a way to understand the culture and times in which the art is created this book will be interesting. On the other hand those who believe that the purpose of art is to transform our vision of the world will find less help in using Manet as an agent of transformation.

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