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He holds a mirror up to a weary world

Manet commented on work and society in a masterpiece painting loaned to the Getty.

June 15, 2007|David Pagel | Special to The Times

If you've ever had a job that sucked the life right out of you, you know what it's like to be the young woman in Edouard Manet's 1882 painting "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere." Boredom would be a relief from the despondency her expression makes palpable.

Manet's barmaid, whose pasty face is currently on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, is sufficiently numb to be blase about the indulgences around her: succulent oranges, fresh-cut flowers, expensive drinks and crystal chandeliers. But she is not numb enough to be unaware of her wretched unhappiness.

It's a peculiar bind. This dispirited server is unable to put her mind on autopilot and go through the motions of being a good employee -- biding her time until her shift ends and she can get on with the rest of her life, which at least holds out the possibility of being interrupted by a satisfaction or two. Her face makes it clear that there is no escape, that this is it. Her dead-end job sums up what it is like to live without hope, when there is nothing to look forward to except more of the same -- or worse.

Manet (1832-83) managed, in the last masterpiece he painted, to make an anguished moment during an ordinary day into a stunning monument to modern alienation.

His painting has been lent to the Getty, where it is making its West Coast debut, by the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London. It was last exhibited in the United States in 1988. But now it is an exhibition unto itself, with more curators, Scott Allan and Scott Schaefer, than paintings. Measuring slightly larger than 3 feet by 4 feet, "A Bar at the Folies-Bergere" resonates today in large part because of the emotional connection it establishes between its disenchanted barmaid and viewers who have experienced similar misery.

Everything else in the oil on canvas is about disconnection. Manet painted it in his studio, where he was confined by a malady of the nervous system commonly caused by syphilis. Before that, he had loved to stroll the boulevards of Paris, visiting cafes, bars and -- the 19th century equivalent of contemporary clubs -- variety show venues such as the Folies-Bergere.

His painting depicts one of the many small counters set up on the balcony and orchestra levels. Think Dodger Stadium concession meets auxiliary bar in a huge reception hall, with the added attraction that the counter girls at the Folies-Bergere were rumored to be prostitutes. Ogling became an art form.

Manet hired a Folies-Bergere employee as a model and got a friend to stand in as the top-hatted customer whose reflection occupies the picture's upper right corner. He had a mock bar built in his studio.

The painting's foreground is straightforward: an elongated still life, with bottles, a bowl and a vase set on a marble counter.

Its middle ground follows the format of portraiture, with a vividly rendered figure front and center. But Manet breaks conventions. He portrays not an individual but a type, an unexceptional working woman. And he does so without turning her into a caricature -- or a cliche. This gives his picture its social power, shifting its subject away from personal feelings and toward experiences shared by everyone who has had to work for a living.

The painting's background -- the majority of its surface -- is the reflection in a mirror on the wall behind the barmaid. Its frame runs just above and parallel to the bar, sandwiching the barmaid in a narrow space.

Initially, reconciling what appears in the mirror with where you stand in front of the painting is difficult. It seems as if the mirror should angle away from the bar or the barmaid's reflection is too far to the right.

Both options presume that Manet painted his picture as if he was painting a portrait -- standing in front of the barmaid. But he wasn't. A brochure available at the Getty summarizes a study by art historian Malcolm Park, who argued that everything in the painting makes visual sense when you realize that Manet painted it from an angle far to the barmaid's left -- as if staring at her out of the corner of his eye.

In the painting, it looks as if customer and barmaid are engaged in a face-to-face conversation. Park's diagram reveals that to be an illusion: In Manet's setup, and in the world it mimicked, no one was eye to eye with anyone else. Each was isolated, lost in his or her thoughts.

At the Getty, a large mirror has been hung on the wall opposite the painting, presumably to help viewers understand its optical mechanics. The gesture is gratuitous. Manet's point-blank picture of urban alienation does not need such trappings. The profound disconnect he painted 125 years ago is still part of modern life, despite its increasingly spectacular distractions.


Edouard Manet

What: "Bar at the Folies-Bergere"

Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Ends: Sept. 9

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 440-7300 or

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