A-Level: Édouard Manet, Corner of a Café-Concert

Édouard Manet, Corner of a Café-Concert, 1878-80, 97.1 x 77.5 cm (National Gallery, London)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re looking at Manet’s “Corner of the Café-Concert” at the National Gallery in London. I’m just looking at all of those brushstrokes on her apron, on the glass, on the counter where the man has his elbow.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:20] The instruments of the musicians.

Dr. Harris: [0:22] Manet is really calling our attention to the brushstrokes. Look at the wavy white lines that serve as her collar.

Dr. Zucker: [0:28] It’s not just the chaos of the brushwork, the energy, the velocity of that brushwork. It’s also the wild composition and the space that’s being depicted. It’s such a complicated image.

[0:40] Generally, you would think when a single person is taking up two-thirds of the canvas — I’m looking at the pipe smoker with a blue smock and then the large woman just back of [him], the waitress with the two beers — generally, that would settle a painting down compositionally, but not at all.

Dr. Harris: [0:53] No. [laughs]

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] Here, she’s leaning over. He’s looking towards the dancers just rather nonchalantly. His elbow [is] really quite relaxed. She’s in a very awkward position, which really suggests that there’s a real movement taking place, and then her eye goes back. It’s completely confused for a moment.

Dr. Harris: [1:11] Right, she’s doing two things at once. It reminded me of our word of multitasking.

[1:16] [laughs]

Dr. Zucker: [1:16] That’s true.

Dr. Harris: [1:18] There’s something so modern about this, of doing multiple things simultaneously, although I guess maybe there’s nothing specifically modern about that idea.

Dr. Zucker: [1:26] Although catching it visually I think is incredibly modern. That idea of the momentary as opposed to the staged.

Dr. Harris: [1:33] Of course, this is a painting that’s composed to look uncomposed.

Dr. Zucker: [1:37] Yes.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] This is really carefully thought out. What I was just noticing, too, as we’re talking about the sort of discontinuity of things, you know, he looks in one way, she looks in the other, her body moves one way, his body moves the other, it’s the way that all those forms in the background kind of allied with the foreground.

[1:53] I was looking specifically at those white brushstrokes that are right by his left wrist.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] Yes.

Dr. Harris: [1:59] That are actually part of her cuff of her dress.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] As she reaches around to pick up more beer.

Dr. Harris: [2:05] Because we don’t see whole bodies. He’s in a way violating the basic academic idea of leaving the body whole and readable here.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] I think he’s actually having fun with it, but he’s catching little windows of forms. For instance, look at the little U shape that the bowl of the man’s pipe, the stem of the pipe and then his forefinger create, and caught in that bowl is the ear of the man beside him.

Dr. Harris: [2:30] Right. [laughs] It’s true.

Dr. Zucker: [2:32] He seems to be delighting in the absurdity of those kinds of junctures, these little junctures.

Dr. Harris: [2:38] Yeah, or the way that the grey smoke that rises up as a little plume from the pipe collides with the grey of the bowler hat.

Dr. Zucker: [2:45] That’s right, or the way in which the instruments frame that bowler hat in the most absurdist way and clearly intentionally.

Dr. Harris: [2:51] I think that, by doing these things, Manet is doing something really wonderful that I think is one of the most important things that art can do, which is to make us more visually aware of the world that we live in and how unexpected things happen and how interesting they can be.

Dr. Zucker: [3:07] Had art ever done that before? When we think about carefully composed paintings of the old masters, that painting is not drawing your attention to the veracity of life or the…

Dr. Harris: [3:17] The serendipity of life.

Dr. Zucker: [3:18] Of life, that’s what I mean. This is really anticipating our modern visual culture.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] It makes for an image that really still very much speaks to us. This is still our world.

Dr. Zucker: [3:26] Yeah, walking into a bar, this would not be unexpected at all. This kind of bustling chaos.

Dr. Harris: [3:31] It’s no surprise that these galleries are among the most popular at The National Gallery. This is our life, still.

[3:36] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "A-Level: Édouard Manet, Corner of a Café-Concert," in Smarthistory, July 20, 2017, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/edouard-manet-corner-of-a-cafe-concert-2/.