The painting titled A Bar at the Folies-Bergèrewas created by Édouard Manet in 1882. The painting represents Manet’s last major work that summarizes his artistic discoveries and achievements to a certain extent. In fact, this painting is known for quite mysterious distortions of the reality in the mirror reflection and the woman’s gaze that is extremely difficult to interpret. Art historians and critics have offered a great variety of theories that are supposed to explain these aspects of the painting. In my opinion, the most realistic and strong interpretation is the one that interweaves gender roles in the changing society with the impact of growing consumerism. This paper will be devoted to the analysis of different interpretations and explanation of the reasons why the above-mentioned theory is the most appropriate one for this painting.
The painting presents one of the bars at the Parisian nightclub called Folies Bergère. Actually, this club was very popular among the French at the second half of the nineteenth century. The bar had large halls, where people were sitting at the tables and watching the performances or listening to the music. The bars located along the walls offered a variety of alcoholic beverages and other goods. Folies Bergère symbolized a new free life, where search for pleasures was one of the top priorities. Manet depicts one of the bars that is located in front of the large mirror. At the center of the painting, the painter portrays a young saleswoman, who is often referred to as the demimondaines, a girl of the so-called half world. Such a fact means that girl’s behavior may often contradict to the established norms and values of the bourgeois society. Demimondaines sometimes denoted a prostitute as well, but she was rather a woman, who is “sexually available”.
At first glance, the composition is quite stable and symmetrical, as the girl is right in the middle of the painting. However, the gaze of the viewer is bound to turn to the right in order to explore the reflection of the girl in the mirror; thus, the viewer notices a reflection of the man, who is talking to the bar girl at the very moment. However, the man is absent in front of the mirror and the audience only sees his reflection. The rest of the mirror reflection is full of small blurred figures of Folies Bergère visitors. In addition, a plenty of men and women are engaged in the conversation behind the tables. At the upper left corner, it is also possible to see the legs of a circus performer, who is “flying” under the ceiling of the nightclub. The foreground of the painting is occupied with a variety of bottles that are sold to the customers. Moreover, there is a crystal vase with tangerines and two beautiful roses in a small glass. Actually, the colors are quite soft and calm, but little brushstrokes of lighter shades are functioning as tiny reflections and are seen everywhere – on the fruits, bottles, mirror frame, etc.
However, all the people and objects depicted (or not) in the reality are not reflected in the mirror in the perfectly correct manner. For instance, the girl seems to be tilted towards the customer in the reflection. Moreover, the location of the man in front of the mirror is very difficult to define. In addition, the bottles are not properly reflected – two bottles that stand at the left corner of the table seem to be reflected on different levels in the mirror. Furthermore, the left and right parts of the table are presented in the mirror as if they are seen from different perspectives.
Critics and art historians have offered a plenty of different interpretations of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Many specialists argue that the “errors” at the painting represent special clues used by the artist to show that the reality may be different from what it seems to be. The art specialists say that Manet used distortions in the reflections in order to ask the audience an important question “what is more “real” – the people and things located in front of the mirror or the ones inside it?” Howard argues that these “errors” are “fundamental to experimental art of the past century” and should be interpreted as a distinctive feature of modern art that begin to challenge a variety of issues connected to human subconsiousness. Thierry de Duve offers an intuitive and a counter-intuitive hypothesis that explains the way the audience should treat the painting to identify right and wrong perspectives. Some other scholars focus on two perspectives that are observed in the painting – the so-called “reality” and reflection. “Manet’s refusal to accept an arbitrarily fixed point of view… effectively expanded the painting phenomenologically by allowing the portrayal of two different perspectives on the scene.” Such an interpretation is in line with the theories that see Manet’s painting as a landmark of modern art; however, the painting also allows to discuss effectively the multidimensional nature of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
However, it is impossible to claim that some interpretations of Manet’s painting are right and some are wrong. In fact, any interpretation depends on the perspective of the viewer and his experience and knowledge. In my opinion, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is an impressive and thought-provoking illustration of the corrosive impact of mass consumption on the female identity in Paris of the nineteenth century.
One of the most debatable elements of this painting is the expression of the woman’s face. The majority of critics and art historians say that it is almost impossible to read the woman’s expression; in fact, the most appropriate interpretation of the woman’s gaze is the absence of any expression. The “mystery” of the gaze is immediately solved, if it is assumed that the woman is not supposed to have any expression or emotions, as she is not treated as a complex human being, but as a commodity for sale.
In fact, this idea is proved by the logical arrangement of the composition. The long table with a variety of goods for sale occupies the foreground. The sequence begins with the bottles of liquor, beer, champagne, then the girl is presented and later the fruits and spirits appear again. Such a logical order does not evoke any abruption or misunderstanding. Despite the absence of any emotions on a girl’s face, the girl looks very organic at her place. In addition, she holds her hands on the edge of the table and slightly leans towards as if she puts herself into the row of all the goods. Iskin writes, “composition equates encountering the painting with seeing an actual display of goods alongside its attractive saleswoman behind the bar” . Such an interpretation is supported by the analysis of social changes in France. Moreover, Iskin provides a detailed account of the consumerism tendencies that governed the French society at the end of the nineteenth century, especially, due to the World Trade Fair that took place in Paris. The notion of commercial display of goods, which should be performed in a seductive manner in order to make the customer buy things, became quite a common feature of French life.
All the ideas about the commercial nature of the display at the bar are closely connected to a new understanding of the gender roles in the French society. In fact, the saleswoman belongs to a growing middle class and her “sexual availability” tends to become one of the main distinctive features of the females from this social group. The society changes its attitude towards sexual freedom and intensifies the objectification and “commercialization” of the female body at the same time. “Drawn in with a hint of pleasure, the consuming male spectator at the bar, like the potential shopper at the department store… is enticed by artful means of display” that contains both branded bottles of alcoholic beverages and the woman decorated with a beautiful dress and elegant accessorizes. In general, such an interpretation of Manet’s painting also seems to be the strongest one, as it perfectly entails other theories, for example, the ideas about two simultaneous perspectives provided by the reality and the reflection. Actually, two perspectives present the role of the girl in the reality and the way she is seen by the male customer. Such a theory explains the difference between her “absent” look in the reality and her incline towards the man in the mirror. In fact, she is not interested in the man, but he wishes her to express some interest in him and he mistakes his wishes for reality.
To conclude, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is a complex and thought-provoking painting that is bound to have a variety of different interpretations. All the theories mentioned in this paper are quite viable and realistic, but the strongest one is the interpretation of Manet’s painting, as a reaction towards profound changes in the French society. In fact, the changes involved the growing tendency towards perceiving women as sexual objects and consumerism that also had a huge impact on the treatment of women in the form of goods that can be bought or sold. Thus, this theory manages to explain both thematic “mysteries” and almost all the inconsistencies that can be seen at the painting.