Greetings everyone! This is “Music Monday” for May 10th
No sane person would ever describe Edouard Manet as a “bohemian”. He was far from it. Unlike his penniless, struggling, rebellious and free-thinking peers, Manet was bourgeois through and through. Refined, educated, well-mannered, walking, breathing proof of his upper middle class Parisian pedigree. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. The guy just didn’t have any “street cred” as they say.
Let me just state that I have always been lukewarm about Manet. Not on issues regarding his skill and technique as an artist, mind you. I am no one to criticize such things! The man was a great painter. We know this. But I feel that his bourgeois mentality infused his art in such a way that much of it often appears exceedingly staged, overly orchestrated to a point where the fakery is almost comical.
Let’s take a look at one of Manet’s most famous paintings, one I see at the Met all the time. It’s The Spanish Singer from 1860, created when Manet was in his “Spanish themes” phase. Again, we’re not talking about color or brushstrokes or anything like that. Instead, we’ll examine the flagrant bullshittery of this work. First of all, it is a studio piece, meaning that it’s posed and laden with props. Secondly, the model was likely not Spanish, not a singer, and not a guitar player. It’s just some French guy play-acting as a Spanish musician:
That is a right-handed guitar turned around to be left-handed, a detail Manet apparently didn’t think worthy of his attention. Those clothes are not authentic to any particular Spanish region or style. They are just pieces put together to resemble “Spanishness” or something close to it, just enough to fool his clueless Paris Salon audience. And what’s up with those shoes?? They look like Nikes The model’s facial expression suggests nothing musical at all. He simply has his mouth open, and we’re supposed to interpret that as singing, when really it just looks like he’s burping. And lastly, those stupid fucking onions in the bottom right corner. Ugh! Again, that has “studio props” written all over it. What was Manet thinking? “Those Spanish people eat a lot of spicy food so let me throw a couple of onions in there to make it more ‘real’.” Maybe he should have thrown in a tamale for good measure.
So while the painting may be technically outstanding, it’s bogus in every other way. Now for any other artist that would be fine. But this is the exalted Manet. We expect great things from him, and with this painting he offers merely an art studio version of a “Spanish singer” – a generic imitation, completely devoid of authenticity, character, passion, or really any warmth on Manet’s part.
For a taste of real Spanish musicality and spirit, here is the great flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya performing Tanguillo; Zambrilla. I wonder if he had any onions lying around when he recorded this track