Reading Pictures

Reading through the James Wong Howe book I picked up the other day got me thinking about how much of film analysis rests upon interpreting the meaning of images along with story & character, and how interpreting those images relies upon understanding the ways in which the people who created those images saw the world. How do we understand the ways they perceived their world and how it influenced their creative processes?

Trying to analyze and understand Hollywood film, where a creative process resulting in visuals springs from an uncomfortable relationship between art and commerce, is really not all that different from studying other periods of art history, where paintings, sculpture and music sprung from a creative process often under the pressure of commerce in the form of commissions and patrons.

What better place to see the glorious results of the clash between these forces than in the biographies of the creators themselves? Certainly their day to day lives, their upbringing and the reactions to their works from the public would continually influence what went into their work. This past summer, PBS ran the 8 part Simon Schama’s Power Of Art television series, where he examines the lives of 8 different artists, focusing on a key work but dealing with the entirety of their life story and its influence on their work in general. Schama, a professor at Columbia, likes to include detailed and often gossipy biographies into his historical analyses, as in his other (excellent) series A History of Britain, or in his book on the French Revolution, Citizens.

In Power of Art, Schama’s keen insights into how people’s actions are influenced by personality meeting daily life are strong indeed, since he is able to mix the historic evidence of letters, biography and diary with sharp interpretations of the paintings and sculptures resulting. The series thus becomes a great introduction to the study of art and art history, more so than the Sister Wendy explorations of great paintings of the world. Sister Wendy tends to view each work in a near-vacuum, and while her insights and analyses are interesting and worthwhile, I prefer the depth of Schama’s whole-life-of-the-artist approach since it provides so much more context and places each work within a clearly developing creative sequence, similar to the way in which we track the subtle (and often not so subtle) changes of musicians from album to album and so forth.


Bearing all that in mind, I’m reminded of viewing Edward Manet’s “Bar At The Foles Bergere” at the Getty Museum this past summer, and reading about all the controversy surrounding its supposed meaning. Feel free to click on the thumnail above to open a monster window of the work to follow along with me…

We have a rather jaded looking barmaid facing us but looking away, slightly. We can see the reflection of a dark gentleman in the mirror behind her who she seems to be facing in the reflection – so are we seeing this through his eyes? Are we asking for a drink or a date? Much of the perspective in the reflection is askew – you can tell by the placement of the bottles & oranges when you examine it closely. Are we actually standing to the side of the man in the mirror, or were the critics at the time correct in calling Manet lazy for messing up the proper placement of things?

The group I was with at the Getty had an interesting discussion about it all, led by one of the curators. Different theories abounded – was her expression a manifestation of someone just tired from a long day’s work? Did she enjoy working at the hottest club in town for 1882 Paris? Was she annoyed that her prospective customer for prostitution wasn’t all that hot? What was Manet supposedly saying?

Being the improvisational blowhard, I chimed in. I knew that Manet had spent much of his life painting rather disparaging visual slaps-in-the-face to the established French art salon, such as his portraits of plain looking nude prostitutes or picnics that may really be orgies (call Yogi Bear imediately!) as a reply of sorts to the accepted style of the day of idealized mythological nudes and so forth. Manet and the impressionists who followed were artistic rebels of sorts, fighting form and all that, but by 1882 (this was Manet’s last painting) they WERE the art establishment, the modern Foles Bergere-life of the city WAS the main thrust of Parisian society, so what was there for Manet to criticize and rebel against besides this very world he had caught the wave of while it developed?

Let’s assume that Bar At The Foles Bergere holds a similar attitude about the world that Manet’s earlier works have. Let’s pick up the Simon Schama biography-as-key theory and run with it.

Manet was a huge admirer of Velazquez, and Las Meninas, with its mirror effects and tricks on the viewer, was one of his favorites (mine too, but I can’t even draw!).

Manet was a critic of commercialization, and we can see how he views himself & his art as merely another commodity by the way he signs this painting by placing his name on the label of one of the liquor bottles. So if Manet’s thrust is that all those things we hold to be special are nothing but mere commodity, it would explain why this painting is titled BAR at the Foles Bergere, not BARMAID. Though she takes up much of the canvas with her central position, Manet is saying that’s she really no different from anything else offered at that bar for sale – the entertainment we can see reflected in the mirror, the liquor, the fruit… would you like a prostitute with that, sir? Try not to max out that Amex card….

No wonder she looks jaded. Why should sex be any different from selling a brandy at this point? Forget any romantic notions of running off to the city of lights to find true love – it’s just another product to be packaged and sold, as cold as any other packaging. That’s what modern life has done to her, and Manet as well. His final comment is to be found in the incorrect perspective reflected back at us – if the mirror image isn’t accurate, could we be looking at a different view of the world in that mirror? She seems to be leaning forward to the gentleman in the mirror – friendlier, more accomodating… while we see her reality as detached and aloof. Which is real? And which version of life for this young woman is more distorted?

It’s a wonderful, thought inducing painting. Manet certainly went out on a high note!

To bring things full circle… back to the study of film. Studying film isn’t quite like multiplying the above by 24 frames per second, but parusing the book about Howe’s photography and how it served the films he shot got me thinking about all of this. Of course, in a collaborative effort like a Hollywood film, the influences of a particular biography aren’t usually as strong (this is my issue with auteur theory), but all the same forces are present to weigh in whenever we try to pick apart light, shadow, perspective and composition.

Puts Michael Bay and “Cathy” into a whole new perspective, doesn’t it?

Okay, so it doesn’t. Be that way, it’s Sunday evening and I’m off to bowl.

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