This article is part of the monthly ArtSmart Roundtable, a group of art-history-loving travel bloggers who post a related article the first Monday of each month. June’s topic is painting – where to start with this one?! For more related posts, check out the links at the end, or find us on Facebook here!
“For me, La Belle Époque Paris would have been perfect.”
So says the fetching Adriana in Woody Allen’s latest flick, Midnight in Paris. How often do we find ourselves yearning for another era…for one particular reason or another? How often do we get lost in a painting, curious about the life within, peeking so hard into the background we secretly hope we’ll eventually slip inside the picture like Bert and the Banks children in Mary Poppins’ chalk paintings?
Such has always been my fascination with Edouard Manet’s 1882 painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. What appears to be a portrait of sorts is in fact a mysterious snapshot of Paris nightlife as it must have been at the time, La Belle Époque, when Paris was burgeoning with bohemia, the bars rampant with writers and artists collected over their absinthe. Or so I imagine.
Nevermind that Manet’s last major work came at a time when Impressionism was leaking into modernism, or that it fell in line with Impressionism’s obsession with depicting a fleeting moment in modern life…the work is both a complete puzzle and a visual feast. The main subject, a barmaid, stares unnervingly at me, but what am I doing? Ordering? Having a conversation with her? Am I even looking at her or am I checking out the scene effectively happening behind me, which since it’s a painting, I can only know by looking past her into the mirror behind the bar.
Now things get weirder…if I’m directly in front of her, why is the scene behind the bar skewed to the right? Am I to believe myself to be the gentleman her back is facing in that mirror? The subject don’t appear so close except in that reflection. Suddenly I’m as confused and thrown as the madness at the Folies-Bergère around me…or him…or whoever I am.
The simultaneous tension and curiosity and bewilderment tossed upon the viewer by looking at this painting is what I imagine midnight in Paris back then must exactly have been like. And it makes me wish for a moment I could be there seeing it with my own eyes instead of gazing into Manet’s world, a stranger like the woman behind the bar. And for all those feelings it seems Manet has achieved his purpose – to give me only a glimpse into that one moment, now belonging forever to Adriana’s La Belle Époque.
What paintings make you want to jump inside and be a part of that world, even for only a short time?
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