Saturday, February 24, 2007

Stuck at the Bar

To the Independent's letters page for some feisty debate over Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882): mirror, mirror on the wall?

The Indy, as is its wont (and as the Guardian hilariously copied - cabbages, anyone?), has been producing posters of works of art. Its latest series gave us the Manet to the left and appropriately for a painting which caused explosions on its first display, it has been furiously sparking off letters.

As Tom Lubbock, the Indy's resident artist and the author of the notes on the rear of the poster, writes, and as I have always understood it, the picture plays with perspective and emotions: the picture is not of two barmaids but of one reflected by an unusual mirror, where things change in the reflection (pose, bottles). As Lubbock writes:

"It's as if we're seeing the split in her personality - between the woman amenably playing her role and the heroine of anomie who stands before us."

However, hot off the typewriter, a letter reached the paper from Dan Belton, a member of the Stuckists, complaining about the complex explanation:

"Surely, as I have always thought, this is a painting of a central bar in a room being worked at on both sides by two barmaids. I've never heard the "mirror theory" myself but it would seem as plain as a pikestaff that it's nonsense."

Some background to this pictorial-literalist approach: the Stuckists were named after Tracey Emin told her boyfriend Billy Childish, a founding member, that he was "stuck, stuck, stuck" in his disregard for modern art. They desire a simpler approach to art: artists must paint, and paintings must reject modern art's nihilism and irony. Hence, the Bar must be two bars. There's no room for complication.

While I have a lot of sympathy for Stuckism - the YBAs can indeed get lost up their own ironies - I find a Stuckist interpretation of the Bar to be simple-minded and (as the next letter proves) plain incorrect:

"As an art history lecturer who has studied Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergere extensively, I endorse Tom Lubbock's interpretation of it as a mirror. There is an extant oil study by the artist that shows a straightforward reflection of the foreground image. Therefore, the question is not so much "is it a mirror?", but "why in the final painting did Manet choose to present us with a logically impossible reflection?"."

In this instance Stuckism seems a fundamentalist faith, denouncing anything beyond the most banal explanation (two barmaids? two bars!). We cannot apply anything more complex to this painting than our eyes. This sort of plainness implies that this work - any painting - any work of art - is shallow, undeserving of thought.

The logical conclusion of this line is to see the surface and no more. Guernica cannot possibly be an allegory of war - it's just cartoonish and a bit scary. The skull in Holbein's The Ambassadors? It's just a badly-drawn object, not a memento mori.

Stuckism should stick to painting nice paintings and not grind down anything un-superficial into dust just because paint should only be paint.

And ironically, this sort of radical interpretation, going against standard thought, is in itself an embodiment of the post-modernism the Stuckists reject.


Stuckism said...

Well, that's only one opinion by one Stuckist. I've always understood it as a kooky reflection and analysis of the duplication of other objects indicates that is likely to be the case. However, Dan's statement brings to mind the thought that it may be both/and rather than either/or, i.e. Manet was simultaneously depicting a second barmaid and a reflection of the first barmaid. The immediate impression is of a second barmaid, and it is only detailed analysis that creates a concept that negates that, while not nevertheless managing to negate the evidence of our senses.

Perhaps we do need to look again at works we have taken for granted with the given explanation, such as Guernica, and ask if this is indeed the most appropriate communication of the event, or to what extent artistic invention is the real subject of the work, Picasso after all being notoriously obsessed with Picasso. Just a thought.

Stuckism said...

Oh, previous post by Charles Thomson.