Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity.

Are there people in Paris who consist only of sumptuous dresses? Franz Kafka, Meditations.

Musée du Quai d'Orsay, September 25, 2012 through January 20, 2013.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, through May 27.
Art Institute of Chicago, June 26 through September 22, 2013.

Next to its review of this show, the New York Times ran a photo of Mayor Bloomberg, presumably taken at the opening. The Mayor's standing in front of Caillebotte's Paris Street: Rainy Day. It's a picture of Paris as only Bloomberg would dream it: upscale, sterile, and populated exclusively by rich white folks.

It doesn't take much thought to note the probing irony of Caillebotte's painting, or of any number of paintings in this show; unless you're Michael Bloomberg, that is, who's also a Museum trustee; unless you're the curators, who have wasted much thought and skill to ensure that no such irony is noted, no such thoughts provoked: cette ignorance si envahissante, as Proust would say. Unless you're the administrators at the Musée d'Orsay, who like to harass and humiliate any visitor who doesn't fit their image of what a Parisian looks like. The show's signage is a masterpiece of evasion, even out-and-out distortions; it's an improvement over the catalog. After decades of deep, probing, and challenging thought and research about Impressionism it might have been a relief, almost, to visit an exhibition that has nothing to say about the male gaze, or the female gaze, or about sexual exploitation, antisemitism and social class: the curators and the trustees who own the curator's butts seem to have decided, if you can't say something nice and pleasant and sure to bring in the gentry who lunch, just make it disappear somehow. Impressionism, we had better understand, is a movement that "affirmed the beauty of daily reality and simple, democratic motifs." (New York Times? No, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia for 1972.)

Just as Soviet pictures of happy Stakhanovites were meant to show reality as it was, so, too, this show invokes the presence of a happy consumer-shopper: as Roberta ("Courbet was a Republican") Smith explains, "This thrilling, erudite show sounds like a double dose of pandering. Impressionism and fashion?" Actually, that would be triple pandering, since Modernity's been added to the show's title along with Impressionism and Fashion. The project comes across like the legendary Reader's Digest article, designed to please every taste: "I f*cked a bear for the FBI and found G*d." Thrilling AND erudite? Now that's a publicist's oxymoron, like that old tag for Kraft Cheese: "It's sharp—yet mild!" In fact there's nothing erudite here, unless you mean that narrow positivist nit-picking whose point is to concentrate so closely on the trees that the forest is never allowed to come into focus.

And yet, there is no way the themes of race and class and gender and so much else can be prevented from bubbling up through the cracks. And it's a comfort to realize these are not just nasty thoughts dreamed up by bitter academics and feminazis. Try as they may, the organizers can't prevent a deeper understanding to rise of what Impressionism was, or Fashion.

Or Modernity. A quick check of the exhibition catalog tells us that the Modernity meant is that which was defined by the great poet and critic Charles Baudelaire, subsequently taken up by his friend Manet and by his admirer and follower Stéphane Mallarmé, the poet. Modernity, for Baudelaire, is indissolubly associated with Fashion; and Modernity in turn

means the transitory, the ephemeral, the contingent. [Le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent.]

Except that's not what Baudelaire wrote:

Modernity means the transitory, the ephemeral, the contingent, the other side of art. [La modernité, c’est le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent, la moitié de l'art.]

The devil quotes Scripture, but only in fragments; and that includes the particular devil who's said to wear Prada: Anna Wintour happens to sit on the Board of Trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is not to say the Met has a moral obligation to have a hands-off attitude to Fashion, but the reverse: the curators have a moral obligation to present Fashion in a critical sense, as something to think about and not merely as something to buy; which means they have an obligation not to repress what Fashion meant in Nineteenth-century Paris. Nowhere does Baudelaire claim that art consists in being fashionable, or in painting the fashionable; rather, he's arguing that fashion and being fashionable are important for what they hide, and his ideas were taken up in the Parisian studios, where his poetry was read aloud even before it was widely known; they were taken up, eventually, by Proust, and given closure. Impressionism, then, would consist in revealing that which hides behind Fashion, just as Proust does, in a series appropriately titled À la recherche du temps perdu. Which means "Search," not "Remembrance." There's a fine show to be organized around this idea, some day, somewhere.

Not here. Repressionism, the ideology that underpins this show, consists in avoiding at any cost the complex and disturbing interpretations that the Painters of Modern Life brought to their representations of fashion. It takes concentration, for instance, to stand in front of a painting by Manet's student, Berthe Morisot, of a woman reclining on a sofa, fully clothed, without noting the ironic parallels to Manet's Olympia. The kind of table-turning that Maupassant achieved flamboyantly in his short stories, Morisot achieves in a subdued, domestic tone. And it takes concentration, also, as well as ignorance, to look at Fantin-Latour's portrait of Manet in top hat and gloves without noting the reference to those commonplaces of Parisian life, the Dandy and the Bohemian, hiding complex and dangerous motives behind their affected elegance. The fact that Fantin-Latour may not have fully appreciated the complexity of Manet's personality and art is what makes Fantin-Latour a minor artist. The fact that Manet understood this perfectly, and painted it, for instance in his fluid portraits of a bohemian in a top hat, is what makes Manet, Manet. There are a number of paintings, quite a few, especially at the beginning and end of this show, that seem to justify its narrow curatorial aims because they mean so very little. Only stand before Carolus-Duran's slick, agreeable and shallow Lady with a Glove and compare it to Manet's visually unadorned but philosophically complex Woman with a Parrot.

It's because paintings like Carolus-Duran's mean so little that they can't be truly classified as Impressionist, nor were they classified as Impressionist, or even "modern," at the time: In his 1879 review of the Salon, the noted critic Joris-Karl Huysmans quotes approvingly the painter Eugène Fromentin:

Modern life? Where is it? All of these canvases could have been painted by Worth, if Worth had a painter's temperament.... No, the modernist painter is not merely a top-rate dressmaker...

The hack's topic is Fashion; The Impressionist's topic is how fashion is seen: Degas, for instance, whose devilish play with perspective, the viewer's point-of-view, makes him a master in the search and concealment of hidden meanings. I was talking with a student, standing in front of Degas' rabidly antisemitic caricature of a Jewish banker with drooping eyelids, bulbous nose and sallow skin, when we were interrupted by a loud hush from one of those aging middle-class males for whom the very act of "getting Culture" is a temporary relief from their own self-doubt. I imagine Degas, who once had one of his portraits compared to a "visual pogrom," would have found some sneering satisfaction in their blind endorsement of his own message, just as Degas, the vicious misogynist, would have relished the ignorance that women visitors are expected to bring to this show. The signage for this painting makes a half-hearted attempt to argue that Ernest May (the Jewish banker represented and caricatured by Degas according to the latest physionomic theories) is the subject of the painting, without daring to mention the intention behind it. The catalog entry, by Gloria Groom, is even more dishonest:

A crowd of black-top hats and seemingly indistinguishable dark sack coats reveal the uniformity and simplicity of the businessman's wardrobe... The overall effect is homogenous...

Degas would have been delighted: isn't the point, precisely, with the Jew, that he believes he can blend in among "real" Frenchmen? And isn't the point, precisely, that the Jews are so uncultured they can't even see when they're being baited, as May was here? In a country like France, where antisemitism and anti-antisemitism have for so long been instrumentalized, the very absence of a mention of Degas' intentions is, in itself, a form of manipulation. Groom is not simply overlooking inconvenient facts, she's enabling antisemitism in the same way that Vogue enables sexism.

Ignorance, ou panneau? There is a whole room devoted to the dubious claim that black dresses were exceedingly popular in the eighteen-seventies because, you see, black dye was so expensive, hence, so chic. Black dresses may have been popular, but that's in no small part because France had just gone through a major, disastrous war, followed by the Commune and its massacres. And there is a place for fashion here, as well: even before the War, Baudelaire had pointed out the "heroism" implicit in the wearing of black, the most common color of all. Morisot's portrait of a woman standing on a terrace, alone, in black, with a small child at her side, and staring out from les Invalides, the military hospital, takes on a quiet depth of feeling for which this show has neither use nor understanding. There is another story to be told, here, about black as a sign of mourning, and its subversion by fashion. The story would point out that Baudelaire's tract on the Painting of Modern Life was published in Le Figaro, the despised outlet of the bourgeoisie, and it begins with an ironic baiting of the bourgeois reader; the story would move on to Rimbaud's horrified description of the fashionable, sitting in cafés and chatting, while in the background the last shots in the crushing of the Commune rattled on. It would go on to point out that discussions and representations of the Commune were frequently banned and certainly discouraged; and that it's a role of fashion, after all, and painting, to get around the strictures of society, even such strictures that say it's nobler to wear black in mourning than to go out and shop, shop, shop—or bang, bang bang, like the colonel's widow in La Vie Parisienne. A narrative like that might turn to Ginia Bellafante's recent, brutal article on New York City's fashion police, the NYPD, who will promptly arrest a Hispanic transgendered person in Queens who wears high heels, but never a white female heading for Balthazar in her Manolos. The very same thing might have happened in nineteenth-century Paris, where dressing across gender was a crime, and dressing across class was perceived as a threat to the Order of Things. All this, and then return to Manet, in top hat and gloves, and ask, Who was Manet? What is Impressionism? What is Fashion?

Fifty years ago the mildly Marxist philosopher Jürgen Habermas published The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Whatever Habermas originally intended, it was quickly seized upon as a blueprint for what a museum should be: a mirror of harmonious civil society. Habermas seemed to argue that events like museum-going should be seen as models of Democracy in Action, with all spectators united in a common discourse. (Sure beats voting by a mile.) The fact that the Impressionist project was early on annexed to the democratic project of France's Third Republic seems to make of Impressionism a perfect fit for the type of curatorial and political fantasy promoted by the Met and the politicians; but what makes the Impressionists interesting isn't the way they fit into safe narratives but the multifarious ways they manage not to, like a well-dressed man who seems to belong at a party, and yet, who doesn't.

So what happens when the fantasy of a common discourse can only be built by pretending that divisive issues like race, gender or class do not exist? There is a misogyny, a racism, an antisemitism of omission as well as commission; and there's a point where the omission is so deliberate as to be a repression, in the psychoanalytic and political sense. Some day, who knows, someone will, indeed, go broke by underestimating the intelligence, the political savvy, the cultural awareness of all kinds of people—my money's on the Metropolitan Opera, I'm not taking bets on the upcoming mayoral election.

Back at the Museum I noticed a young woman staring intently at a small display of late-nineteenth-century corsets, an item that as early as was denounced 1896, at an international feminist conference, as an "instrument of torture." Was this young woman staring with the blind, rapt appreciation this exhibition demands? I don't. Think. So.


- Paul Werner

[3/1/2013; last revised 7/25/2013.]


"Your totally incomprehensible review [on Amazon] was nothing but the self-promotion. How low, Brother! [...] I visited your "e-journal" and almost clicked on "contribution - financial," but stopped the last second. - Michael Friedman, Amazombie.

"Michael, you remind me of that old Vaudeville routine about the man who calls the cops because his neighbor is exposing herself. The cop comes in and says, 'I can't see anything from here.' The man says, 'just stand on the table and lean out the window!' It appears that you voluntarily a) googled my article; b) found my article, c) read my article; d) got to the bottom of my article; e) decided you didn't like my article; f) saw the contribute button; g) decided to pay me for the pleasure of not liking my article; and h) at the last second decided not to click on a link (not a button) that would have merely explained that all contributions are voluntary, and on a pay-what-you wish basis. I'm sure that Amazon would much prefer if I linked directly to the e-article version of my critique, downloadable directly from Amazon at a minimum charge of .99 cents—that's the only link they allow. I think I might do that: If you're going to enjoy yourself that much, the least you can do is pay me up front." - Paul Werner, author.

Michael Friedman responds: "I also noted that you have a statement that you refuse to service anyone 'who appears to be intoxicated by free-market ideologie.'. That statement tells me a lot about you.[...] If you aren't market-'intoxicated' why don't you carry your 'Orange Art' to some better place like Venezuela?"

Paul Werner says: "Sorry, buddy, I think you've had enough for tonight... ."

Like an RSS feed or Twitter, only easier: you drop me a note and every week or so I send you a short message with a link to my latest posting; other stuff, maybe every other month.

Because paying no dues to Caesar is the one luxury that's not encouraged in a consumer society. Easy: you paypal me a buck or two.