Thursday, 28 February 2013

Art and Friendship

"It is humanity that interests me" (Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet, 1867) 
Thirty years before he risked his own safety and reputation in the Dreyfus case, Zola had taken up his pen in another passionate public defence, in this case of the painter Manet, whose early works were misunderstood and condemned by the art establishment for their alla prima technique and stark realism of their subject-matter, flouting the academic rules and allegorical ideals that had determined post-Revolutionary French art.

Manet's paintings were geuninely shocking to a respectable bourgeoisie unused to seeing a nude looking like a real woman just before or after having sex rather than a neo-classical goddess representing an unattainable virtue or abstract idea. For Zola, they represented a new analytical truth in art, the visual counterpart of the literary realism first introduced to the reading public in the 1830s by Balzac.

Manet's 'Olympia', 1863:When our artists give us a Venus, they 'correct' Nature, but Edouard Manet has asked himself, 'Why lie, why not tell the truth?' He has made us acquainted with Olympia, a contemporary girl, the sort of girl we meet every day on the pavements... 
(Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet, 1867). Image source: Wikipedia

As a Realist novelist and art critic, Zola dismissed preconceived and philosophically pompous ideas about absolute beauty in his sweeping rhetoric - "It is humanity that interests me" - and argued that all kinds of artistic interpretation of reality were valid, contributing to a vast and varied "epic of human creation"....

The Salon frequently rejected Manet's paintings for exhibition throughout the 1860s. In 1867, Manet mounted his own exhibition opposite the Exposition Universelle from which his work was excluded.

To support him, Zola republished his prescient essay 'A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet', originally written for the journal La Revue du XIXe siècle the previous year, in response to the Salon's rejection of the Spanish-influenced 'Le Fifre', in which he declared that Manet's new manner of painting was the art of the future. "He speaks in a language which is composed of simplicity and truth....The whole of the artist's personality consists in the way his eye functions: he sees things in terms of light, colour and masses...Don't expect anything of him except a truthful and literal interpretation." (Zola, A New Manner in Painting: Edouard Manet,1867).

"An analytical painter": detail of Manet's portrait of Zola (1868) in the Musée d'Orsay, Paris. 
Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Symbols of an intellectual and artistic friendship are in the still-life details of the background to Manet’s portrait of Émile Zola, painted in gratitude to the writer for his support. The blue-covered brochure itself is visible behind the inkpot and quill, the instruments of the writer's profession; of the pictures on the wall, 'Olympia' was Zola’s favourite of Manet’s works, and the one which, along with 'Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe' (later fictionalized as 'Plein Air' in the 1886 novel L'œuvre), had aroused most bourgeois and critical outrage; the Velasquez engraving emphasizes their shared admiration for the great Spanish painter; and the Japanese print acknowledges the crucial influence of Far Eastern art on 19th century European aesthetics and painting techniques. In his essay, Zola had identifed the similarity in Manet's style and Japanese "in their strange elegance and magnificent bold patches of colour".

As a novelist, Zola tended to subjugate his characters to his theories of social science, but as an art critic, respectful of the painter's craft as of his own, but freed of self-conscious dogma, he put sympathetic comprehension of human individuality first.

Paul Alexis reading a manuscript to Zola, oil painting (1869 -70) by Cézanne.
Image source: Wikipedia

Alexis, who wrote his own biography of Zola (Notes d'un ami, 1882) was such a deeply committed follower of the elder writer, that he was called Zola's shadow; Cézanne catches the disciple-guru relationship in their poses. All three men came from Aix-en-Provence; Cézanne and Zola, only a year apart in age, had been friends since boyhood.  

The close friendship and shared ideals of painter and writer was not proof against the demands of their separate vocations, and was broken off when they were in their late forties by Cézanne, betrayed, he felt, by Zola's depiction of artistic and inherited madness in the character of Lantier in L'œuvre (1886), whose professional frustrations and destruction of personal relationships looked like a portrait of himself.

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